Out of town, out of favour and out of funds…

Half term. Two visits to local Country Parks inspired me to find out more about the concept and future of this valuable recreational provision (and I’ve unashamedly borrowed information from others..).

There are now more than 400 Country Parks (CPs) in England and they have over 70 million visitors a year but I’m not sure the future is rosy.

Our first visit was to Staunton Country Park, on the northern edge of Havant, where we fed animals and wandered through the glasshouse on the ornamental farm, venturing further afield after lunch into the wider Staunton Estate to try the permanent orienteering trail. 2 1/2 hours later and happy, but with rather soggy and tired feet, we returned to claim our certificate! £1.50 well spent.

The following day we visited Queen Elizabeth Country Park just south of Petersfield where we walked up hill and down ‘Down’, climbing both Butser Hill to the west of the park and the A3 and up to the top of the eastern half of the park to the adventure playground. £2.00 parking and a lung full of fresh air. Well worth it.

 

CPs were established through the 1968 Countryside Act to make it easier for those seeking recreation to enjoy their leisure in the open without travelling too far and adding to congestion on the roads, to ease the pressure on more remote and solitary places and to reduce the risk of damage to the countryside.

The remit was also focused on visitors to the countryside rather than the rural community itself. CPs were to be readily accessible with an adequate range of facilities and a focus on informal recreation.

Nan Fairbrother,one of the highly respected ranks of our profession, wrote enthusiastically in her book New Lives New Landscapes ‘In the countryside, urban recreation and farming now need this clear cut division…’.

In 1971 the Countryside Commission was critical; they felt the emphasis was on traffic management and that the CPs were being used as a defensive strategy to protect the deeper countryside. This hinted at governmental support of rural NIMBY-ISM: the looming threat of the ‘Increasingly Mobile Urban Dweller’ (a highly dangerous species) and the notion of sacrificing land for his use so he wouldn’t spoil other areas.

By the mid 70’s it was becoming recognised that the CP movement was failing to reach the community most in need of it – the ‘Working Class City Dweller’ (a less damaging non-car owning species). Initiatives for subsidised public transport and active promotion (beyond the current users) were attempted but abandoned. Instead the emphasis moved to provision of CPS in the urban fringes and not in the more rural locations only readily accessed by car. Queen Elizabeth Country Park is still out of reach for many without transport or living on the right bus route.

In 1987 their role as protecting existing parkland, as can be seen at Staunton, was officially recognised but by this time many of the existing CPs established in historical contexts were already part of a fragmented landscapes. Recognition came too late.

In the early days the Countryside Commission provided a 75% funding towards the CPs, with the remaining 25% provided by the Local Authority. The Commission gave around £14.5 million pounds, but grant aid finished in 1992 and it seems to me that funding is now a critical worry.

A 2000 report shows a change in attitude. Support for new CPs would be given where there was evidence of demand not possible to manage through  open spaces in the local area, where public transport is readily available, where the CP could be used for a range of activities encompassing the young, disabled and elderly in particular and where the CP could be used as a means of securing access to a historic parkland and in the long term landscape management of such.

Funding though was still lacking and, more disheartening, was the spreading perception that the Countryside Commission didn’t regard CPs as important components of recreation provision, turning instead to funding of Community Forests, Green Corridors, Millennium Greens and the Countryside Character Programmes. All worthy in their own way, but left the CPs high and dry.

The 2002 Government report,’ Living Places: Cleaner, Safer, Greener’ identified a number of initiatives designed to assist Local Authorities to provide better park services and to develop ongoing funding and management strategies. It was stated as imperative that CPs were included.

In 2004, the Countryside Agency set up a Country Parks Network (CPN) to assist managers with events, newsletter and advice; pilot projects were set in motion to tap into Lottery Funding and accreditation for good CPs is now given by Natural England. Commendable but not enough.

Natural England states that ‘Country parks are clearly important to significant numbers of people. Around 2,500 people are employed in managing and maintaining country parks and 98.5% of all country parks have on average three or more voluntary groups associated with them. An impressive 73 million visits are made to country parks each year.’ Wow.

But it’s 2013. With concerns about tired CP infrastructure raised a decade ago and the ability of the Local Authority to provide funding, no doubt exacerbated by current government cuts, what happens now? Endless grant applications? Sell bits off to fund the rest? Heaven forbid – golf courses?

Where will I, as an archetypal ‘Increasingly Mobile Urban Dweller’, spend my half terms?

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