The Registration Effect and Championing Undesignated Heritage Parks
By Jenifer White, National Landscape Adviser, Historic England
There are now over 300 public parks and urban green spaces on the Historic England Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest. They are very diverse in design and size. These parks and the thousands of other historic but undesignated parks, gardens, and playing fields are part of our social history. Every park has a story to tell of communities working together to create and develop much needed outdoor recreation, and shaping their towns and cities. These ‘parks for the people’ are a fabulous and precious legacy and as vital in the 21st century as in the past.
Across the country, the growth of parks friends groups proves that communities still value their parks. The quality of parks is pivotal to their use and enjoyment. The Green Flag Award is the Government’s national benchmark for public green space. Managed by Keep Britain Tidy on behalf of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the scheme has been running for over 20 years. 188 sites on the Register of Parks and Gardens nationally now have award status and fly the Green Flag. Amongst all the Green Flag sites there are also over 1,000 listed buildings and structures and also at least 80 scheduled monuments. It is impressive that two thirds of registered public parks and other sites now meet the national benchmark standard. These are, of course, usually the prestige parks but it also shows how designation can raise awareness of the significance of a site and the importance of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s (HLF) investment in these sites.
Historic England sponsors the special heritage accreditation scheme to celebrate the work of teams and communities protecting, conserving and sharing their heritage. Open to all sites, not just registered parks, the accreditation recognises the heritage importance of all our public spaces.
Although the number of Green Flag Awards and Green Heritage Sites has grown since 2015, some parks are struggling. Lots of local communities are now facing fights to protect and conserve their parks. The future for public parks had looked assured with a dedicated HLF programme and growing expertise amongst local authority teams and contractors in the restoration of historic public parks. It was described as a renaissance but now the future is not so rosy.
Through our Heritage at Risk programme we can track conservation issues in registered parks. Whilst there are few public parks on the Heritage at Risk register to date, the register is annually reviewed and updated. Scarborough’s Grade II Valley Gardens and South Cliff Gardens was added last year amidst concerns about its declining condition. Landscape improvements are now well underway for other Heritage at Risk sites like Gunnersbury Park in London. The Gothic Ruins have been restored, and works to other landscape structures continue with funding from Historic England. The local authority is developing plans for the next phases of the restoration, including the Small Mansion which is also at risk; and a Community Interest Company has been established to oversee the long-term development and management of the park.
As well as declining budgets to maintain parks, we are seeing new pressures such as commercial events discussed in Andrew Smith’s article and developments and changes related to running parks as regular events venues, new commercial visitor attractions, sustainable drainage installations for off-site development, and even proposals to sell park buildings or land for development. If changes do not require planning permission or sites are not designated, there is no trigger for Historic England to be involved.
Historic England is refreshing its own place-making strategy about how we can help communities unlock the social and economic value of their places. There is much to do in bridging the gaps between arts, culture, heritage and health and that includes public parks. Parks have so much to offer and particularly for well-being as recognised in the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan. They can offer vibrant and inclusive locations for communities to meet, relax, exercise, have fun, enjoy nature, socialise and get involved in their local place. Parks teams have been working with the health sector to forge and deliver physical and mental health outcomes for a long time but parks to date have rarely been integrated in our place-making strategies even though many are part of, or contribute to conservation areas. We are missing opportunities not working together, and in turn, parks need us to champion the historic and cultural importance of this very special and valuable inheritance. Local communities are looking for support especially for the undesignated but well-loved local parks.