Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda


Memorandum by The Countryside Agency (TCP 15)

SUMMARY

  1. Country Parks and Historic Parks and Gardens are important cultural and landscape features. They provide many thousands of visitors each year with opportunities to enjoy the countryside. They are however under funded and in some cases are becoming run down. They are in need of fresh leadership and financial support.

  2. This evidence sets out social and environmental benefits provided by Historic Parks and Gardens and by Country Parks. It recognises the continuum between parks in the town and parks in the countryside and acknowledges the need to provide "greenspaces" which connect town and country. We recommend to the Sub-committee that:

    (a)  the Government be asked to allocate National Lottery money for the refurbishment of Country Parks and Historic Parks and Gardens;

    (b)  having people on site, as employees or volunteers, to care for Country Parks and to provide information to visitors is fundamental to their success;

    (c)  more innovative partnerships are needed, between the public, private and voluntary sectors, for running both Country Parks and Historic Parks and Gardens.

BACKGROUND

  3. The Countryside Agency was formed on 1 April 1999 from the Countryside Commission and the national advisory and countrywide action functions of the Rural Development Commission.

  4. Part of the Countryside Agency's remit is to improve opportunities for outdoor and informal recreation. Specifically the Countryside Agency is required by the Countryside Act, 1968, to keep under review all matters relating to:

    —  the provision and improvement of facilities for the enjoyment of the countryside;

    —  the conservation and enhancement of the natural beauty and amenity of the countryside; and

    —  the need to secure public access to the countryside for the purposes of open-air recreation.


SCOPE OF THE EVIDENCE

  5. Parkland provides a characteristic feature of the English landscape. Sites are recognised for their historic, cultural and aesthetic interest, for the role they play in providing recreational opportunities and for nature conservation. The distinction between Historic Parks and Gardens and Country Parks is often blurred. Many Country Parks have been established on sites which are also historic parkland. The main distinction is that Country Parks are established with a countryside recreation purpose in mind. They have been created on a wide range of different landscape types from disused railway lines and old quarries to woodland, meadows and historic parkland. Historic Parks and Gardens are recognised firstly for their landscape qualities, but many also offer informal recreational activities. Both Country Parks and Historic Parks and Gardens can either be privately owned and managed, run by the voluntary sector, or run by public bodies. In each case public funding is important.

COUNTRY PARKS

  6. Country Parks have made an important contribution to improving opportunities for enjoying the countryside and for enhancing the environment. They have also provided a mechanism for improving derelict landscapes and for maintaining existing parkland. Through sensitive management many have become both cultural and wildlife havens. There are now more than 250 Country Parks attracting between them some 57 million visitors per year, according to a 1994 Association of District Councils review. Well over half of the sites receive at least 100,000 visits a year.

COUNTRY PARK—CONCEPT TO LEGISLATION

  7. The concept of Country Parks first arose in the White Paper "Leisure in the Countryside" in 1966. Sections 6 and 7 of the Countryside Act 1968 allowed local authorities to provide Country Parks in sites in the countryside for purposes of providing or improving opportunities for the enjoyment of the countryside by the public. The legislation required local authorities to have regard:

    (a)  to the location of the area in the countryside in relation to an urban or built up area; and

    (b)  to the availability and adequacy of existing facilities for the enjoyment of the countryside by the public.

POLICY GUIDELINES

  8. The Commission issued a set of criteria for Country Parks in 1972. Parks had to be:

    (a)  greater than 11 hectares (25 acres): many are much larger extending to 1,875 hectares in the Rother Valley in South Yorkshire;

    (b)  readily accessible for motor vehicles and pedestrians;

    (c)  provided with adequate facilities including, parking, lavatories and a supervisory service;

    (d)  operated and managed by statutory or private agencies or a combination of both.

  9. The guidelines also set out the priorities to be given to determining grant aid and the approach to promoting Country Parks.

COUNTRY PARK DESIGNATION

  10. The 1968 Act gave powers to the Countryside Commission to provide financial assistance to local authorities and private bodies to establish recognised Country Parks and to provide ranger services to manage the sites. As a consequence, many Country Parks developed high standards of visitor facilities, including information centres, extensive footpaths, picnic areas and refreshment facilities.

  11. In the ten years following legislation, 150 parks were established. There were 220 parks by 1988 and over 250 parks today. The more popular Country Parks are intensively used, and offer a wide range of recreation and sporting activity.

  12. The main reason for encouraging the establishment of Country Parks was the desire to ease the pressure of public use of National Parks and other sensitive areas. There is no evidence that this has happened; nevertheless Country Parks have provided a useful recreation resource close to where people live. There has been a concentration of Country Parks in the vicinity of major urban areas.

DEVELOPING THE CRITERIA

  13. In 1987 the Countryside Commission published Enjoying the countryside—priorities for action (CCP235). The document set out the Commission's commitment to the "gateway concept" and proposed that country park rangers should have wider responsibility for countryside management and the rights of way around the sites.

  14. The Commission also reaffirmed its commitment to support new Country Parks when:

    (a)  there was evidence of demand which could not be managed on other open spaces in the area;

    (b)  access by public transport was available;

    (c)  the park could be used for a wide range of countryside activities, with particular attention to the needs of the disabled, the elderly, children and newcomers to the countryside;

    (d)  the park was a means to securing access to an attractive or historic parkland and to the restoration and maintenance of the landscape.

PARKS AS "GATEWAYS"

  15. Country Parks have provided gateways from which the public can explore wider countryside. There is a continuum between:

    —  parks in towns (safe and familiar territory);

    —  Country Parks (on the edge of town offering more open space, and access to wider countryside;

    —  more remote open space in deeper countryside.

  16. These different types of open space are used interchangeably according to desire and often in relation to increasing confidence in exploring the "great outdoors".

  17. In developing the gateways concept many Country Parks have developed links to the countryside beyond the park, principally through the rights of way network. Rangers have been encouraged to extend programmes of activity and information available into the wider area. However, a report undertaken for the Countryside Commission in 1996-97,1 revealed that there was considerable room for improving information about access opportunities within the countryside around the parks. The approach is dependent on having trained staff (rangers) with time to develop the opportunities, for example, through liaison with land owners and by producing promotional material. An investment of time and effort is likely to assist with making more of the rights of way network accessible to more people.

RECENT TRENDS

  18. The Countryside Commission publication Countryside Recreation—enjoying the living countryside (March 1999) recognised that some Country Parks are showing their age and are in need of attention and investment to rejuvenate them. This was reported in the condition survey undertaken by David Haffey.1 The survey suggested that there is a significant proportion of sites that would benefit from improved standards of maintenance. The Commission recognised that the pressure on local authorities had reduced the level of funding, particularly the staff needed to manage the sites. It recommended action to the Countryside Agency and to local authorities in order to deliver a renaissance of Country Parks to provide people with high quality sites to visit near to home.

PARKS AS LANDSCAPE

  19. English Heritage plays an important role in funding and protecting Historic Parks and Gardens. However, unlike historic buildings and ancient monuments, Historic Parks and Gardens have tended to lose out in the competition for scarce resources.

  20. The Countryside Commission and English Heritage worked together to secure special funds from the Government to repair 1987 and 1990 storm damaged historic parks and gardens. This work established a restoration philosophy for these sites and brought to light some of the problems in managing and conserving historic parks and gardens. In particular, a number of weaknesses in the arrangements for identifying and recognising the importance of sites were recognised. Lack of co-ordination between government departments and bodies, local authorities and voluntary groups was also seen as an obstacle to better management of the sites.

  21. In 1995 English Heritage invited consultants to look at the potential for setting up a new organisation to provide a more co-ordinated approach to the management of historic parks and gardens. Work is being developed in a feasibility study, funded jointly by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Countryside Commission and English Heritage, to explore how a Landscape Heritage Trust might be constituted, what it would do and how it would be funded. The consultants have produced an interim report which concludes that the objectives for a Landscape Heritage Trust are well supported. Options for meeting these objectives will now be considered in a final consultants' report expected by the autumn 1999.

CONCLUSION

  22. Parks provide an important element of the fabric of the English countryside. They provide a reassuringly safe and welcoming countryside experience for millions of visitors each year. They provide opportunities for play, relaxation, sports, walking and learning about the countryside and our cultural heritage. Many Country Parks and Historic Parks are within easy reach of where people live. The more popular parks are often intensively used, and offer a wide range of recreation and sporting activities. Through sensitive management many Country Parks have also become wildlife havens.

  23. A large number of Country Parks have been in existence for at least 30 years, and some are now showing their age. A proportion are at the start of a trend, that has led in the case of urban parks, to a state of abandonment and neglect. The Government has invested significantly in urban parks through the National Lottery. Country Parks are now in need of the same attention and investment.

  24. We would like to see a renaissance of Country Parks to provide people with high quality experiences in high quality surroundings, on a par with the best equivalents in mainland Europe and North America. A new breed of Country Parks should emerge, providing for recreation, sport and health promotion. We would like to see development plans which identify opportunities to enhance facilities and visitor services, including new ways of raising income through visitors, sponsorship, dual use and other means. We would also like to see new sites to fill gaps in provision, especially near to towns, cities and new residential development, to provide opportunities for all to enjoy the countryside near to where they live. Local Transport Plans should recognise the contribution Country Parks can make to sustainable transport. Greenways and Quiet Roads should continue to be developed to provide better links between the green spaces in towns and those in the countryside.

  25. In its first year the Countryside Agency plans to identify best practice in attracting new sources of capital and revenue funds for Country Parks, and to publish advice to local authorities. We will be looking for innovative ways of developing partnerships which offer better opportunities for the long-term vitality of Country Parks.

REFERENCE

  [1] Countryside Recreation Sites: Condition Survey, David Haffey, February 1997


 
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Prepared 8 June 1999