Afzal Khan MP planting snowdrops in Alexandra Park
Afzal Khan MP planting snowdrops in Alexandra Park

In the House of Commons Adjournment Debate on Wednesday, 6th June 2022, I acknowledged the dedication of Manchester Gorton constituents in protecting Manchester Gorton’s urban parks.  As a Vice Chair of the APPG of Parks and Green Spaces, I understand the significance of green spaces for people’s general health and wellbeing in the UK.  In the debate, I expressed the necessity for the government to recognise parks and green spaces as a national priority.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is running a consultation on environmental targets as required by the Environment Act 2021.  The consultation is open to the public until 27 June 2022 and available here.

Read my full Adjournment speech to the House of Commons below:

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.

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. 

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