Chesterfield parks and green spaces in luck for lottery cash
People have a newfound appreciation for their parks and green spaces since the country was laid low by the coronavirus.
Months before news of a possible vaccine, these places were administering a vitalising shot in the arm for millions, and providing a rare chance to safely socialise, exercise and unwind.
Yet squeezed council budgets across the UK have left many communities more reliant on other ways of raising cash to care for these refuges.
A significant source is lottery funding.
The National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF) is a major distributor of lottery money – it handed out £406 million for parks and similar green spaces across the UK in the decade to 2019-20.
But analysis shows these grants, for which councils and other organisations can apply, are unevenly spread across the country.
Parks and similar green spaces in Chesterfield – or projects directly linked to them – received £1.1 million from the NLHF over the period.
Chesterfield’s lottery cash for parks was equivalent to £10.77 per person in the area, based on Office for National Statistics population estimates – well above the UK average of £6.08.
The data includes funding for public parks and squares, cemeteries and pay-to-enter gardens.
Lincoln received the most of any area regionally, at a healthy £34.63 per head.
The Midlands Parks Forum, a charity which promotes green space in the region, said many parks in their area have benefited from lottery funding.
But Alison Bate, the group’s partnership manager, said that some might struggle to apply for it.
She added: “Some authorities are firefighting with only a handful of staff, so time and resources to chase funding is non-existent in some councils.”
Grants given to projects in the East Midlands totalled £19.9 million over the last decade.
At £4.12 per head, this is the lowest of the 12 UK regions.
Helen Griffiths, chief executive of Fields in Trust, said the virus has put a spotlight on inequality of access to the outdoors across the country.
The charity’s Green Space Index, released earlier this year, estimates around 100 people in Chesterfield live more than a 10-minute walk from a green space, among 234,000 across the East Midlands in the same position.
The group says it is working in areas with the poorest access to try to address these ‘significant’ imbalances.
Ms Griffiths said: “Directing lottery funding to those with limited access to green space, could help to level up distribution.
“But the longer-term solution is for parks to be funded through councils.
“They are arguably the most universal of all our public services, used by the entire community, from pre-school children through to retired adults.
"Yet unlike education or libraries, parks are a discretionary service which councils have no statutory duty to provide.”
For Ben Cooper, a researcher at think tank the Fabian Society, both sources of funding need addressing.
He said: “We’ve seen how important parks and green spaces are for all communities during the pandemic.
“They are respite from work and home, they provide children with vital space to play and learn, and community groups somewhere to meet.
"They are imperative for the physical and mental health of society, which is why these funding disparities need to be urgently addressed.
“We need both equitable lottery funding and proper funding for local government to improve green spaces for all communities.
"If the government’s levelling up agenda is serious, they will make it a priority.”
This seems all the more urgent as the NLHF figures show a drop in funding for parks in recent years.
In 2019-20, £15.6 million worth of lottery grants were handed out across the UK, the second-lowest total for any year in the last decade – after 2018-19 (£12.8 million) – and down from a high of £65.6 million in 2011-12.
The newly formed All-Party Parliamentary Group on Parks and Green Spaces wants the Government to provide £1 billion a year for the next three years for green spaces to shore up council budgets.
It also wants to see cash targeted to ensure the most deprived communities have access to Green Flag Award parks – a prize which aims to set a benchmark of quality for outdoor space.
In Chesterfield, five places hold the accolade, according to the latest figures from the charity Keep Britain Tidy, which manages the programme.
These were among 134 places across the East Midlands to retain or gain the award this year.
Drew Bennellick, head of land and nature policy at the NLHF, said the figures take a ‘narrow view’ of the work the group covers, while warning that long-term public funding was essential to maintain green spaces.
He added: “Where we have not funded a park or designed landscape, it is very likely we will have funded other green projects, such as those on nature reserves, wildlife conservation, tree planting or nature study groups.
"If we include those, we have funded around 90 per cent of all UK local authorities for landscape and nature projects over the last 10 years.”
Mr Bennellick said the NLHF has helped with more than 900 park projects to date but stressed that with an estimated 27,000 parks across the UK, the organisation could never be a replacement for long-term public funding for green spaces."
A government spokesman said all NLHF funding decisions are taken independent of government and that it was committed to ‘ensuring funding is shared with those who need it most’.