Parks and Green Spaces: Manchester, Gorton

– in the House of Commons at 6:32 pm on 8th June 2022.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Scott Mann.)

Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Shadow Minister (Justice) 6:56 pm, 8th June 2022

I am pleased to have the opportunity to talk about the importance of parks and green spaces in my constituency, which I am immensely proud of, and to make a case for urban parks and green spaces to be a national priority. My constituency celebrates its diversity and our parks are often where different cultures meet—in exercise, play and enjoyment.

During the covid-19 pandemic, all of us gained a new appreciation for the outdoors. In Manchester, Gorton, terraces and flats are the most common form of housing. Research shows that many of my constituents have just 1 square metre of garden space. For many during the pandemic, our parks were the only options for outdoor space, and Manchester’s parks saw a 30% increase in visitor numbers during that period.

I believe that my constituency is served by some of the best urban parks in the north of England, and they are a part of our British history. For example, Alexandra Park was one of Britain’s first municipal parks. That beautiful space has been at the heart of Manchester’s history, with public meetings addressed by Keir Hardie and James Larkin, among others. Alex Park played a unique role in the fight for women’s suffrage; in 1908, Emmeline Pankhurst addressed a crowd of thousands there.

In 1978, the Rock Against Racism northern carnival attracted 40,000 people—people say that this was “the day it became cool to be anti-racist”. It is also home to the Manchester Caribbean carnival, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Over the past few years, the park has been restored, thanks to the support of Manchester City Council. Volunteers work not only through an active and passionate friends group, but through a heritage group dedicated to promoting Alex Park’s radical history.

In Fallowfield, we are lucky to have Platt Fields Park, another beautiful historic park that is home to the friends of Platt Fields, which was Britain’s first park friends group. Platt Fields is important for Manchester’s Asian community. It is home to the Mega Mela and hosts Holi celebrations, as well as Britain’s largest “Eid in the Park”, which was attended by more than 20,000 people this year. Manchester Urban Diggers has repurposed former bowling greens and turned them into a community market garden, helping local people to grow their own food in the heart of the city.

Similarly, in Levenshulme, the Friends of Chapel Street Park have created a community garden on their disused bowling green. In just 18 months, thanks to local community volunteers, an overgrown and inaccessible space has become a bustling resource for the Chapel Street area.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Scott Mann.)

Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Shadow Minister (Justice) 7:00 pm, 8th June 2022

In Gorton, the innovative Friends of Debdale Park have placed their green space at the centre of their community, running projects such as the Debdale Nature Centre, the Men’s Shed and the Debdale ramblers, to name just a few.

The users of Birchfields Park value biodiversity. Last year, I was lucky enough to be asked to plant a sapling in Birchfield. That tree is the first of 470 across the Rusholme area, helping to repair Manchester’s green lungs after centuries of industry. Highfield Country Park and Nutsford Vale are doing the same. These former industrial sites have been transformed over the past few decades into green open spaces. A special mention must go to the enthusiastic Friends of Crowcroft Park in Longsight, who have recently relaunched their group. We can already see the benefits they are bringing to the park.

There are so many other green spaces, large and small, across Manchester, Gorton, including George V Fields, Taylor Street, Godfrey Ermin, Gorton Park, Sunny Brow, Greenbank, Cringle, Manley and West Point Gardens, as well as sports fields and allotments, all serving the community in ways that are too many to mention. I put on the record my thanks to Manchester’s team of dedicated park rangers, who make everything that happens in Manchester’s parks possible. I also thank all the community groups and volunteers for giving up their time and for their hard work. I am told that there have been more than 11,240 volunteer hours across Manchester in the past year, but I suspect that that is an underestimate. I hope that the Minister will join me in thanking them for their hard work.

Friends of the Earth states that Manchester is seventh in the list of areas in England that are most in need of investment in green spaces. We cannot ignore how access to green space intersects with race, class and health inequality. Individuals who visit outdoor spaces regularly are more likely to live healthier, active lifestyles, which is something that any Government should encourage.

People residing in cities are disproportionately impacted by polluted environments and have restricted access to green spaces. In my constituency I see at first hand the impact of that inequality. We cannot talk about green spaces without considering climate change and the environment. Not only do urban parks and green spaces have a positive impact on the local environment; they also help in small ways to combat global climate change. Biodiversity in urban areas is vital, specifically in supporting the pollinators and bees that are crucial for 70% of the world’s crops.

We also know that in urban areas rain is not absorbed into the ground due to the materials used for roads and pavements. Without surfaces to absorb the water, the risk of floods increases. We have seen severe flooding across Manchester in recent years, and the result is devastating to families. That is why Manchester is developing sponge parks, which suck in water from surrounding hard land- scaping, using it onsite.

Poor air quality is a serious threat to human health. In Manchester, hospital admission rates for children with asthma are double the national average. Trees, shrubs and grasses can improve air quality and keep harmful, traffic-related pollution away from where children play and congregate.

There is an elephant in the room that we cannot ignore, and that is the impact of austerity on our parks. Since 2010, cuts to local government funding have meant that Manchester has been forced to make more than £420 million of savings and has had its spending power cut by 15%. Having been a councillor until 2015, I know that local authorities face heartbreaking decisions when managing budgets. Despite that, Manchester has set out an ambitious plan for our parks. Since 2019, the city council has invested more than £1 million in the parks in Manchester, Gorton. I am pleased that the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, announced just today his green spaces fund, which will allow communities across Greater Manchester to apply for grants to improve or create local green spaces.

That dedication locally needs to be matched by commitment nationally. Our parks and green spaces need additional funding from the Government for green infrastructure, for accessibility and, crucially, for maintenance. There is no doubt that capital investment is desperately needed, but that is no use when it comes to maintaining the basics. We know that £190 million has been lost from parks budgets nationally in five years, and that those cuts have not been equitable: the north-west is one of the areas most affected.

In 2017, the Communities and Local Government Committee wrote of parks that

“failure to match their value and the contribution they make with the resources they need to be sustained could have severe consequences.”

That was five years ago. Why has it taken until 2022 for the £9 million parks fund to be announced? That £9 million is a far cry from the £190 million lost from parks budgets. This is hardly levelling up.

I am sure the Minister agrees that parks and green spaces are incredibly important. Long-term investment allows parks to be maintained and to become hubs of community engagement, areas where nature and biodiversity are protected, and a place for working families to relax after a day at work. I am keen to hear from him the Government’s plans to support parks and green spaces.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 7:06 pm, 8th June 2022

I thank Afzal Khan for securing this Adjournment debate on a subject that matters a lot to all MPs in this House. He is a committed champion and advocate for green spaces in his constituency; we heard about the breadth of that advocacy in his very good speech. Who can blame him, when his constituency is among the greenest in the country? Not a lot of people would immediately guess that 89% of neighbourhoods in Manchester, Gorton have a high level of accessible green space within 15 minutes’ walk.

The hon. Member touched on some of the fantastic things that are happening in his constituency. He mentioned places such as Gore Brook valley, which offers locals access to a butterfly garden, historic pubs, a grade II listed church, a water sports centre, 200-year-old cottages and handsome Victorian terraces. There are also outstanding family parks such as Alexandra Park and Platts Field Park, which had the first ever “Friends of” group, as he mentioned.

Members of this House do not always share the same politics, but I think we all have the same enthusiasm for our parks. During the covid pandemic, as the hon. Member says, we appreciated them like never before; they were incredibly useful in keeping our sanity and our health during that difficult period. With the worst of covid now behind us, it is right that we reflect on what keeps parks going and on how we keep them looking brilliant and being useful.

The hon. Member rightly drew attention to the many roles that parks have, from sucking up water—that vivid image that he conjured up—to being a place where communities interact with one another. They also host important events for particular communities; it sounds as if similar things happen in his constituency as in mine on the edge of Leicester.

The hon. Member asked me to draw attention to and praise the work of the community groups that have put in 11,000-plus hours of community work in Greater Manchester. It is a pleasure to do so; some fantastic things are being done. I draw particular attention to the Litter Wombles—I do not know whether they operate in his constituency, but they are a wonderful social movement with huge numbers of people making our country tidier and nicer. I pay great tribute to all those groups.

The hon. Member touched on several subjects to which I will try to do justice, including planning. The Government are committed to retaining the beauty and the majesty of places, so our national planning policy requires that planning processes seek to deliver

“high quality, beautiful and sustainable buildings and places”.

That includes encouraging the creation of appropriate green and public space within new developments. The national planning policy framework makes explicit just how important beauty and design are to development across the country, and to

“creating better places in which to live and work”.

The hon. Member will have heard during the earlier debate on the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill about the BIDEN principles that the Secretary of State is championing, access to nature being a crucial element of that agenda.

The hon. Member mentioned funding. That did not, of course, start in 2019. Between 2017 and 2019 alone, we made £16.3 million available to support parks and green spaces, including those in urban environments. We provided the £9.7 million local authority parks improvement fund, the £5.1 million pocket parks and pocket parks plus programmes, and the £1.4 million investment to test new models and new ways of doing things through the future parks accelerator programme. As the hon. Member said, we are keeping that investment going well into the future with the £9 million fund for levelling up parks, which was announced in the spending review. The aim of the fund is to create 100 green spaces on unused, undeveloped or derelict land. Although we are still to announce further details, I can assure the hon. Member that it will be focused on increasing access to quality green space in deprived urban areas in the UK. Such access is important, for exactly the reasons that he gave.

The hon. Member touched on the role of the mayoral combined authority. I was pleased to be able to play a part in helping to set up the authority, which will enable communities to regenerate themselves and find more ambitious ways of creating green spaces in urban environments through, for instance, the multi-year investment funds that we have given it.

We will, of course, go further. The Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill contains a range of provisions for the creation of attractive green spaces, such as our planned reforms of compulsory purchase orders and our proposal to create liveable spaces by extending the temporary flexibilities on pavement dining. This is all about creating nicer places to be in, and about bigger area regeneration. The Bill also contains new legal powers, which we are backing up with funding streams such as the levelling-up fund, which can be used to create attractive new cultural and green spaces, and the highly flexible shared prosperity fund, which can be used to create new parks, among other civic amenities. There is also the programme that we have with Homes England to create 20 instances of transformative Kings Cross-style regeneration, using funding streams such as the £1.5 billion brownfield fund, and also the powers and expertise of Homes England to drive transformative urban regeneration. I am keen for that to include attractive new green spaces, because they are so important.

In the past, the link between public health and wellbeing and access to green spaces has not always been as well articulated as it could have been, but over time, evidence has built up. The hon. Member talked about some of it. Studies have found that contact with nature can reduce anxiety and stress, raise self-esteem, and improve psychological health. One 2009 study even concluded that people find it easier to resolve minor life problems when spending time in natural settings. It is difficult to think of any other resource that caters for so many different needs, from health to wellbeing to community integration.

I am delighted to have had the chance to talk about some of the things that the Government are doing, and about why and how we intend to continue to back our parks and make these wonderful and treasured community facilities even better in the future, and something of which we can all be proud.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.