The race for North East Mayor is on at a time when public trust in politicians is low. Therefore people across the region will need to decide if they trust a candidate standing on a platform of eradicating child poverty, who says they are from the North East, they love the North East and yet they have a history of giving its treasures away.
Labour’s candidate, in her incumbent role as Northumbria’s Police and Crime Commissioner, has repeatedly stated that crime is linked to public health and wider health inequalities. She is not wrong.
It is a painful irony then that she oversaw the semi-privatisation of much of Newcastle’s parks estate, which is now tied into a Blair-topian ‘third way’ trust, and that she is now responsible for resolving the increase in vandalism, drug-dealing, and anti-social behaviour that has increased in congruence to the decline of Newcastle’s parks and green spaces.
In 2017 the future for Newcastle’s parks was looking bleak following what was then, seven years of austerity. All the city’s park keeper posts had been deleted in 2010 due to Tory cuts. Despite being topped up by Newcastle City Council’s health department, the parks budget for the city was paltry and barely covered the wages of the remaining parks’ staff.
Slashed funding and the absence of a permanent and skilled workforce resulted in a lack of maintenance, overgrowth, increased litter, and broken and unreplaced furniture and play equipment.
Transfer of assets to Urban Green trust
With central funding to local governments ending in 2020, Newcastle City Council looked for an alternative way to meet the cost of its parks estate. Northumbria’s PCC in a former role as the Cabinet Member responsible for parks, oversaw the control of Newcastle’s parks and green spaces along with a multimillion-pound endowment transfer to Urban Green, a purpose-built charitable trust, against the wants and wishes of local community groups.
Newcastle Parks Forum, an umbrella group representing friends and community groups from across the Newcastle area, challenged the move of the parks estate on grounds of transparency, of full financial information not being shared in the public consultation which also failed to tell people that the parks were about to be all but privatised, locked in a trust for decades with no guarantee that the new trust would generate the income needed to maintain and improve the parks estate.
Despite not being under the Labour whip, in my role as Chair of Newcastle Parks Forum I was twice called to meetings with the cabinet member, a solicitor representing the council and former Deputy Leader of Newcastle Council, to be reprimanded for raising concerns and for stating that the underpinning financial information had not been available for the public consultation.
The transfer to a trust, charitable or not, overturned a political commitment to a provision of parks and green spaces and Newcastle’s honourable history of a leadership vision providing a lung for the city against pollution and an asset owned by the people for the people and their wellbeing.
When former local Labour councillor Nigel Todd, the driving force behind the Greening Wingrove project, had questioned the former cabinet member regarding the detail of the transfer in a local Labour Party constituency meeting, he was told they had different ideas of socialism.
Newcastle’s beautiful parks and green spaces, several of which had been gifted by Victorian benefactors for the benefit of the people; to take the air, to enjoy nature, to improve wellbeing were locked into a trust for decades. Imagine.
Imagine not. Despite some parks winning Green Flag status this year, the Guardian article on the state of Newcastle’s parks published earlier this month suggests they are pretty poor.
Chronic underfunding and understaffing of parks and green spaces has led to declining care and maintenance, broken equipment, graffiti, and increases in anti-social behaviour. Families are less likely to use broken play areas, and walkers will find other routes. The decline spirals out of the parks themselves, impacting on neighbourhoods.
Unfortunately, the community does not have representation on Urban Green’s board, despite Newcastle Parks Forum’s demand at the point of transfer. There are two councillor posts on the board, however the role that those councillors can fulfil in terms of accountability and scrutiny is limited when the board reports to Newcastle Council. There is no independent accountability and scrutiny.
Further, Urban Green has been unable to secure some levelling up money, exactly because it is a trust and so Newcastle, a city says Children North East where 42.4% of children are living in poverty, has had to go without vital funding. The Urban Green trust is not generating the income that it was purported to be able to do.
Parks and wellbeing are inextricably linked. The benefits of time spent in nature and the importance of public parks are widely recorded and include boosts to physical, emotional, and psychological healing and wellbeing.
For families, parks are free to access for exercise and play. With the state of Newcastle’s parks and play areas as they are, Newcastle’s children are bearing the brunt of poor decision-making.
With Keir Starmer’s recent announcement that he will not reverse the two-child limit, thereby not only upholding a diktat on how many children women should have, but entrapping yet another generation of children in poverty, with no decent parks or play areas in Newcastle safe and free to access, running out of places to go … and so deprivation and anti-social behaviour spirals lower.
No matter the difficult times of austerity, removing the parks estate from Newcastle City Council’s direct control was a panicked and a rushed response to funding cuts and was ill-thought through.
How to reverse the spiral of deprivation
The best way to reverse the spiral of deprivation and to lift children out of poverty is to create jobs for their parents, build warm, affordable homes, create safe neighbourhoods with accessible transport links, and provide well-maintained green spaces and play areas.
The North East Mayor must hold on to the region’s assets, be accountable to the region they serve, and work to a transparent, strategic plan that cannot be rushed nor panicked, with flex to change course if need be.