The impact of coronavirus on London’s green spaces
Local green spaces were used heavily during the coronavirus lockdown as many of us craved fresh air and exercise. Yet rather than heralding a new dawn for London’s parks, Dr Andrew Smith, Reader at the University of Westminster, explains how the COVID-19 crisis exposed the funding frailties which have long threatened their survival.
London’s parks are world renowned, but they have received unprecedented levels of attention and appreciation during the coronavirus crisis. Parks and green spaces supplied much needed fresh air and green space, particularly for the 21% of London households who do not have access to private gardens. Parks also provided places where people could socialise at a distance. When cafés, pubs and other social infrastructure were closed, the park became the place where public life was enacted and experienced.
Given this prominence in the public sphere, it is tempting to think that the coronavirus crisis might have had positive effects for parks. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Looming in the background is a familiar and established problem: funding. London Boroughs were already struggling to fund their parks and green spaces1, and they now face an unprecedented budget crisis. There is a triple threat:
- general local authority shortfalls caused by the crisis;
- the loss of commercial income which now offsets the costs of maintaining many parks;
- additional costs caused by the intense use of parks as lockdown measures began to be eased.
Local authorities have been promised additional monies2 to help offset the effects of the crisis, but this will not be enough to prevent further cuts to local authority budgets. One thing we have learned from a decade of austerity is that, as non-statutory services, parks are not given the same priority as other services when council budgets are squeezed.
Over the past ten years, parks have been forced to generate more of their own income – by increasing the amount of revenue earned from car parking, concessions and sports facilities, and by hiring out space to event organisers. Before the COVID-19 crisis, the proportion of UK park funding derived from commercial sources of income was believed to be around 29%3. In 2018-9 the charitable trust that runs The Royal Parks generated three quarters of its operating budget4 from commercial revenue. London Boroughs like Lambeth, Wandsworth and Haringey have also adopted entrepreneurial approaches, and several of London’s largest municipal parks now generate more money than is needed to pay for their upkeep.
Park authorities that have diversified their sources of income have been worst
hit by the coronavirus crisis. Revenue streams have collapsed, with losses up to
£1,000,000 affecting large, commercially oriented parks. Despite the reopening of
cafés and some sports facilities, it will be next year before authorities can generate
revenue from big ticket items like music festivals5.
Many London parks are now run by social enterprises or trusts, and these organisations may not survive the effects of COVID-19. The Community Interest Company (CIC) that runs Gunnersbury Park is reporting a 40% reduction in its annual income because it had to close facilities and cancel events.
Budget shortfalls have been exacerbated by the additional costs of maintaining parks during the crisis. When park use increases, as it has done since lockdown measures were eased6, so do the costs of maintaining parks. There have been big increases in littering and additional work for overstretched employees. Staff in Alexandra Park7
collected 25 tonnes of litter during the month of May, placing additional pressure on the trust that runs this park. Parties, raves and other unauthorised events8 have caused additional problems, with staff having to deal with associated urination, vandalism and complaints. Additional costs have been exacerbated by the loss of volunteer labour – when these in-kind contributions are taken into consideration, the losses caused by COVID-19 are even higher.
Faced with inadequate public funding, additional costs and the collapse of commercial income, park authorities are now seeking funds from other sources. Some, including Gunnersbury Park CIC and Lordship Rec, are asking for donations from users. This may help to offset short term deficits, and there may be potential to generate money from this source in the future9, but sustainable funding for London’s parks remains elusive. Commercial funding is precarious, and the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted that over-relying on income from events10 is not sensible. However with public funding likely to be even more scarce, park authorities may be forced to ramp up commercial activity as soon as it is safe to do so.
There are no easy solutions to the funding problems facing London’s parks, but the 2020 coronavirus pandemic suggests we should have more faith in our local authorities. Despite being undermined and underfunded by successive national governments, London’s borough councils have rightly earned praise for keeping parks open and safe during the COVID-19 crisis. Keeping them open and safe in the longer term might be achieved by backing local authority park management11, rather than constantly searching for new entrepreneurial governance and funding models. London’s parks seem more important than ever and, if they are to continue to deliver a range of public benefits and assist the green recovery, more public funding is urgently needed.