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The decline in quality of urban green space in England – including urban squares, parks, green corridors and nature reserves – has been halted in most areas and there are signs of recovery in many places.

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According to today’s report to Parliament by head of the National Audit Office, Sir John Bourn, initiatives led by the ODPM have helped to reverse the decline in the quality of green space in many urban neighbourhoods. Greater priority for green space investment and new sources of funds from central government and the lottery have enabled local authorities, public bodies and over 4000 communities to bring about the refurbishment and renewal of many green spaces. Notable examples include project to refurbish Sheffield Botanical Gardens and King Edward Memorial Park in East London.

In 2000, fewer than 44 per cent of green space managers believed that quality in their local authority was improving or stable. By 2005, this had increased to 84 per cent. In 2000, more than 55 per cent of urban local authorities considered their historic green spaces were declining in quality. This had fallen to 16 per cent in 2005. 83% of green space managers consider that the work of ODPM and its sponsored body, CABE Space, has raised the status of green spaces issues, through policy, and strategic and practical guidance.

However in a minority (16%) of places, green space continues to decline. And surveys of residents show a wide variation in levels of satisfaction with local green space, from a low of 54 per cent satisfied to a high of 92 per cent. Today’s report points out that the worst-performing local authorities in respect of green spaces are not necessarily those in the most deprived areas.

The sustainability of improvement of many green spaces is not guaranteed. Although much progress has been made, one third of urban local authorities still do not have strategies for their green space and many existing strategies are weak, particularly in identifying costs and demonstrating efficiency. Without adopting the strategic approach recommended by Government, there is a danger that resources will be targeted badly – for example, by making a good park even better at the expense of a run-down green space in a deprived area that desperately needs improvement. Or letting a newly refurbished urban green space go back into decline through lack of maintenance and upkeep. The mistakes of the past such as the restoration and subsequent decline of Liverpool Garden Festival need to be avoided.

The voice of green space is often dissipated within local authorities and underrepresented in important local decision-making arenas. Central government expects and supports local green space managers to make the case for green space expenditure against other pressing priorities. But there needs to be continued investment in their capacity and training otherwise there is a risk that when budgets are tight, the case for green space will not be made effectively, will slip down the local priority list and decline set in again.

“Good quality green space is a vital element of a civilized urban environment. It is welcome, therefore, that initiatives by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister are in many parts of the country contributing to a reverse of the decline in the quality of urban green space. This improving trend must be sustained and extended to those urban communities who still have to put up with poor quality green space.

“The provision of urban green space is still at risk of being treated as a Cinderella service at the local level. The case for expenditure needs to be made more effectively and resources targeted where they will have most effect in improving the environment of green spaces.”

Sir John Bourn


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