Planners at Darlington Borough Council have produced an Open Spaces strategy. It prioritises improving the quality of open spaces close to areas of multiple deprivation to help reduce health inequalities.
Key learnings for other councils
Darlington has integrated planning policy aspirations for reducing health inequalities with practical delivery methods. These include the development management part of the planning system.
Developing this integrated approach took time to make sure that the relevant sections understood their role. For example, once the strategy was adopted in 2007, it was important to write an interim planning policy. This led to developers are being asked to fund open space improvements as part of receiving planning approval.
However, developers are likely to want to know where such money is to be spent. This wasn't something that planners at Darlington did routinely, but they have refined the application process so that they can now provide this information.
There is debate about the balance to be struck between investing in open spaces and facilities, and attracting people to use these spaces. Darlington takes the view that the former is more important, as Robert George, Head of Parks and Countryside, argues:
“Giving people more information [about parks and other open spaces], holding events, working with schools and so on… they're important, but they're a very, very poor cousin to creating proper infrastructure change. Getting people into open spaces is about word-of-mouth and locals telling each other that there is something worth going to.”
Darlington has significant health inequalities, particularly within the urban area. The director of public health's annual report for 2008/09 highlighted the difference in health between groups of children and young people within County Durham and Darlington - the primary care trust (PCT) area.
The problems and how they were tackled
The council's scrutiny committees prioritised further investigation of the health inequalities between groups of children and young people. Planners at the borough have also examined how they could help to reduce existing health inequalities. They decided they would make use of planning policies and the development management system to improve the quality of green infrastructure. This included parks, playgrounds, playing pitches, nature reserves - as well as access to these spaces.
Development management is the part of the planning system that promotes development and assesses the quality of proposals that developers put forward. In the past this was called development control.
While Darlington already had a reasonable amount of green space overall, the individual spaces were of variable quality. As background to preparing the open space strategy, planners carried out an audit of the quality and value of open spaces. They used a star-rating system (ranked one to five).
This allocated stars based on the number of facilities and their condition, evidence of use and or abuse, and whether the site had valued elements such as protected trees. People living in deprived parts of the town were less likely to be close to high-quality spaces (that is, four and five stars).
This patchy provision had also been recognised by the Parks and Countryside section of the council. George says:
Before the open space strategy was developed his team had “already identified the lack of quality spaces close to deprived areas… it was foremost in our minds”.
In 2007 the council thus adopted a 10-year open space strategy. The strategy set out the potential for reducing health inequalities through better access to quality open spaces:
“The people of Northgate, Cockerton West, Bank Top, Eastbourne, Haughton East and Lascelles wards have the poorest health, so providing good quality open spaces in these wards could achieve most,” added George.
Since then planners have also produced a play pitch strategy and a sport and recreation facilities strategy. Karen Johnson, Planning Officer at Darlington, says:
“Put together, the three strategies focus on making open spaces and facilities more accessible to the wider community so that everybody has an equal chance of getting physical activity or helping to improve their mental wellbeing.”
The open spaces strategy and action plan prioritised 11 wards based on their levels of deprivation. These areas were the first to receive funding to improve the quality of open spaces, with the emphasis on facilities and improvements that would appeal to young people. These included, for example, playgrounds, fishing stands and youth shelters.
Planners worked very closely with the Parks and Countryside team within these 11 wards. They identified what contributions they should be seeking from developers to provide or improve open space.
Darlington is also a demonstration town for two Department of Transport initiatives - sustainable travel since 2004 and cycling since 2005. These have helped to provide funding to put walking and cycling paths through some of the open spaces in the borough.
NHS County Durham and Darlington - the local primary care trust (PCT) - had some informal involvement in the preparation of the Open Spaces strategy. It had much more direct involvement in the preparation of the Play Pitch strategy and the Sport and Recreation Facilities strategy. The PCT part-funded both, and had representatives on the working groups for each strategy.
Costs and resources
Having the three strategies in place has set a framework for investment that is based on tackling health inequalities and unfair access to high-quality open spaces in the borough.
For example, Brinkburn Denes is a park that can trace its origins back to the 1920s. But an audit of the quality of spaces for the Open Spaces strategy revealed that its facilities were poor (two stars out of a possible five). In addition, people living in this area had little easy access to other green spaces.
The strategy therefore prioritised a redevelopment of this park. In March 2010 the council, in association with the residents' group ‘Friends of the Denes', made a successful bid to the Parks for People Lottery fund for £850,000. The total project will cost £1.2 million.
Outcomes and impact
Councillor Stephen Harker, Cabinet Member for Health and Leisure, is Chair of Friends of the Denes. He explains that:
“We have been holding events to encourage people into the Denes in conjunction with the equipment that the council has already put in there. I think that it is beginning to change people's perceptions about what that space is… more and more people are actually using it.”
The strategy has also helped to provide an evidence base to inform decisions that could easily be deferred due to political sensitivities. For example, George says that providing play spaces was ‘incredibly controversial… because they are places where teenagers gather'.
But having a strategy that highlights the acute shortages in some parts of the borough - and the lack of other suitable sites - means that the planning committee has good evidence to back up what can sometimes be unpopular decisions.
Councillor Harker adds that this needs to be combined with involving people in decision-making processes:
“…long before you do anything on the ground. So that when the change comes they've got some understanding of what you are trying to do, even if they don't agree with it.”
Darlington has focused on improving facilities and providing things that draw people into using its open spaces. One of the most popular initiatives has been building bike paths through some of the open spaces.
Owen Wilson is Principal Transport Officer at Darlington Sustainable Travel Town. He is reluctant to be drawn on whether this approach has definitely reduced health inequalities. But he does say:
“Being able to cycle through pleasant green space away from traffic has had a big impact on encouraging people to cycle who wouldn't otherwise.”
Effective monitoring is very expensive and time consuming. Assembling good user-based evidence costs a lot, and it is therefore difficult to accurately assess the benefits of this overall approach to reducing health inequalities.
However, the council is monitoring the use of open spaces, and draws on a strong network of friends' groups as well as Rangers' views for anecdotal evidence on site use.
Contacts and links
Karen Johnson Planning Officer Darlington Borough Council Telephone: 01325 388047 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Robert George Head of Parks and Countryside Darlington Borough Council Telephone: 01325 388 637 Email: email@example.com
Councillor Stephen Harker Cabinet Member for Health and Leisure Darlington Borough Council Telephone: 01325 380039 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org