The Labour Party’s consultation document, A Greener Britain, seeks proposals about different aspects of environmental policy. In this series of articles, Redgreenlabour supporters offer their thoughts. Please comment on these contributions which the authors may well revise and submit to the consultation in due course. We also urge you to submit your own responses to the Party – whether as individuals or through your branches, CLPs, unions, SERA or other environmental groups. The deadline is 24th June.
Q: How can access to green spaces be improved and how can the use and function of these spaces be maximised?
The national policy forum consultation document which asks this question also talks about: “green spaces such as national parks and areas of outstanding national beauty.” It’s certainly the case that access to these spaces, as well as to our beaches, seas, lakes and river is hugely important for the physical and mental well-being of millions of people writes Terry Conway.
The barriers to regular access are legion and include:
1. Patterns of land ownership which prevent people exercising ‘the right to roam”.
The fight to create national parks, first created through the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was a largely unsung achievement of the post-war Labour government. And a significant part of the impetus came from mass trespasses like that at Kinder Scout in 1936, and the extension of National Park status to the South Downs in 2009 was also fought for by ramblers.
Never the less many people feel that in a situation where patterns of land ownership in Scotland, England and Wales remain deeply problematic, it’s wealthy landowners that call the shots (sic). A report in 2010 however noted that there had been a significant shift in England and Wales from landed gentry to corporate ownership – not a move that sees any benefit for working class people.
2. Lack of cheap, reliable and accessible public transport to areas which people would like to visit. Part of the reason for the original designation of national parks was that they needed to be accessible from centres of population. But this should be by public transport for the vast majority of visitors.
3. Lack of accessible sites – people with impaired mobility have the same appreciation of the natural environment as everyone else, but may not be able to enjoy it because there is no accessible toilet on site or stairs which block access for many.
4. Time poverty as more and more people work longer hours in insecure jobs – and a large proportion of those claiming benefits are required to spend 35 hours a week looking for work.
5. Cuts in education budgets that mean children from urban schools are less likely to visit such sites as a regular part of their schooling – and thus gain an appreciation of their delights.
6. Changes in law and regulations introduced by the Tories which development or selling off of green spaces more possible and undercuts the ability of communities to object. There is still the possibility for successful campaigns, like the victory in 2011 of the Hands off our Forest campaign against the proposed sell-off of the Forest of Dean – but it’s harder than it was and more hidebound than it should be.
But now proposals for further changes would make the situation even worse. The Campaign against Climate Change explain it like this:
“The new National Planning Policy Framework would set in stone a double standard dangerous for our climate and our communities. However unpopular fracking applications might be, planning authorities would be required to ‘facilitate’ oil and gas extraction. Yet they would be forced to reject wind turbines in almost all cases, even if public opinion was in favour.”
“Minerals planning authorities should recognise the benefits of on-shore oil and gas development, including unconventional hydrocarbons, for the security of energy supplies and supporting the transition to a low-carbon economy; and put in place policies to facilitate their exploration and extraction.”
“A proposed wind energy development involving one or more wind turbines should not be considered acceptable unless it is in an area identified as suitable for wind energy development in the development plan; and, following consultation, it can be demonstrated that the planning impacts identified by the affected local community have been fully addressed and the proposal has their backing”
The deadline to have your say is 11.45 Thursday 10th May. To find out more about the consultation and how you can respond go to www.campaigncc.org/nppf
Labour should also open discussions as to whether we should argue for further National Parks and/or further areas of outstanding natural beauty and whether the current system of governance for each gives both adequate protection and sufficient community involvement.
In regard to the question of green spaces, as in many others dealt with in this consultation, defence of the environment cannot be dealt with as a standalone question but must be addressed as part of an overall social economic and political approach by the Labour Party.
But there is another aspect to the discussion on green spaces that is vital for Labour to address. The majority – indeed the increasing majority – of people in Britain live in cities. Some of us are lucky enough to have large green spaces or a coastline within an hour’s journey by bus or train. Visiting at a weekend or a long summer’s evening might be a realistic pleasure.
But for others this is much harder – for reasons of geography, poor and expensive transport links and time poverty. For these people – and indeed for everyone without daily access to something like a national park, access to green spaces within walking distance can be a life line.
Here too there are contradictions that need to be addressed. London has lots of beautiful parks. But it also has lots of locked gardens only accessible to people with keys – people who own or rent extremely expensive adjacent properties. And there are countless housing estates where there is little or no green space for people who are otherwise confined to very restrictive four walls.
In some communities, redevelopment has made this worse because green spaces are allocated to housing association tenants or those in shared ownership schemes at the expense of council tenants.
Then there are issues about how to balance out different demands on green space by different sections of the community – how much should be used for sports, for cultivating flowers or planting trees. That is more difficult to balance when space as well as money is restricted – in a large park it’s easy to have a rose garden where people can sit quietly alongside several sports pitches and play areas and an avenue of trees, whereas on a dense estate these needs are seen as antagonistic. And of course the selloff of school playing fields makes the situation worse.
Labour needs to encourage and develop community consultation to deal with these issues. In some cases space will have to be used differently at different times to balance competing interests. It may be that some communities can share facilities across nearby estates and areas. And sometimes small investments eg in soundproofing flats near sports pitches can help diffuse tension.