PEOPLE have a newfound appreciation for their parks and green spaces since the country was laid low by the coronavirus.

Months before news of a possible vaccine, these places were administering a vitalising shot in the arm for millions, and providing a rare chance to safely socialise, exercise and unwind.

Yet squeezed council budgets across the UK have left many communities more reliant on other ways of raising cash to care for these refuges. A significant source is lottery funding.

The National Lottery Heritage Fund is a major distributor of lottery money – it handed out £406 million for parks and similar green spaces across the UK in the decade to 2019-20, according to figures obtained by RADAR under the Freedom of Information Act.

But analysis shows these grants, for which councils and other organisations can apply, are unevenly spread across the country.

Parks and similar green spaces in Cheshire East and West boroughs – or projects directly linked to them – received no funding from the NLHF over the period.

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The data includes funding for public parks and squares, cemeteries and pay-to-enter gardens.

Cheshire West and Chester Council and Cheshire East Council were among 12 local authorities across the north west to receive no funding, although the NLHF says it is possible parts of some projects were in those places, but the spend logged elsewhere.

Wyre received the most of any area regionally, at a healthy £37.61 per head.

“The evidence clearly reveals the extent to which the NLHF has not succeeded in addressing need,” said Robert Lee, chairman of the North West Parks Friends Forum, a network of voluntary groups looking after green spaces across the region.

But he added that the data was limited as it didn’t show the number of applications submitted by area, and how able councils and other bodies are to submit them.

Grants given to projects in the north west totalled £35 million over the last decade. At £4.76 per head, this puts it eighth of the 12 UK regions – nine in England and the three other UK nations.

London took the lion’s share, at £11.94 per head, followed by Scotland (£6.81), while the east midlands saw the least (£4.12).

Separate NLHF funding figures, covering nature and landscape projects and large-scale conservation programmes, show London gets less per head than other regions.

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Rachael Maskell, Labour’s shadow minister for the voluntary sector and charities, said the differences were stark, and steps must be taken to 'redress this imbalance'.

“Action must be taken to ensure that everyone has access to safe, green spaces and parks,” she said.

“Unless there is a clear framework as to the distribution of funding then it will not be shared evenly.”

Helen Griffiths, chief executive of Fields in Trust, said the virus has put a spotlight on inequality of access to the outdoors across the country.

The charity’s Green Space Index, released earlier this year, estimates around 30,000 people in Cheshire East and 19,200 people in Cheshire West live more than a 10-minute walk from a green space, among 199,000 across the north west in the same position.

The group says it is working in areas with the poorest access to try to address these 'significant' imbalances.

“A similar approach, directing lottery funding to those with limited access to green space, could help to level up distribution,” said Ms Griffiths.

But the longer-term solution is for parks to be funded through councils, she added.

“They are arguably the most universal of all our public services, used by the entire community, from pre-school children through to retired adults. Yet unlike education or libraries, parks are a discretionary service which councils have no statutory duty to provide.”

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For Ben Cooper, a researcher at think tank the Fabian Society, both sources of funding need addressing.

“We’ve seen how important parks and green spaces are for all communities during the pandemic,” said Mr Cooper, who has researched the distribution of lottery money.

“They are respite from work and home, they provide children with vital space to play and learn, and community groups somewhere to meet. They are imperative for the physical and mental health of society, which is why these funding disparities need to be urgently addressed.

“We need both equitable National Lottery funding and proper funding for local government to improve green spaces for all communities. If the Government’s levelling up agenda is serious, they will make it a priority.”

This seems all the more urgent as the NLHF figures show a drop in funding for parks in recent years.

In 2019-20, £15.6 million worth of lottery grants were handed out across the UK, the second-lowest total for any year in the last decade – after 2018-19 (£12.8 million) – and down from a high of £65.6 million in 2011-12.

The newly formed All-Party Parliamentary Group on Parks and Green Spaces wants the Government to provide £1 billion a year for the next three years for green spaces to shore up council budgets.

It also wants to see cash targeted to ensure the most deprived communities have access to “Green Flag Award” parks – a prize which aims to set a benchmark of quality for outdoor space.

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In Cheshire East and West, 22 places hold the accolade, according to the latest figures from the charity Keep Britain Tidy, which manages the programme.

These were among 207 places across the north west to retain or gain the award this year. This made up about 12 per cent of the 1,730 awards across the UK, while the region accounts for roughly 11 per cent of the UK’s population.

London claimed 25 per cent of the awards, despite only 13 per cent of UK citizens living in the city.

The charity’s deputy chief executive Richard McIlwain said there was 'definitely a case for access to green space to be levelled up'.

He added: “Our view is that lottery funding can play a vital role in providing the capital investment required to improve some of our parks, but it should never be viewed as a direct replacement for the capital and revenue funding required by local authority park services.”

Drew Bennellick, head of land and nature policy at the NLHF, said the figures take a 'narrow view' of the work the group covers, while warning that long-term public funding was essential to maintain green spaces.

“Where we have not funded a park or designed landscape, it is very likely we will have funded other green projects, such as those on nature reserves, wildlife conservation, tree planting or nature study groups," he added.

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"If we include those, we have funded around 90 per cent of all UK local authorities for landscape and nature projects over the last 10 years.”

Mr Bennellick said the NLHF has helped with more than 900 park projects to date, adding: "But with an estimated 27,000 parks across the UK, we can never be a replacement for long-term public funding for green spaces."

A Government spokesman said all NLHF funding decisions are taken independent of government, and that it was committed to ensuring funding is shared with those who need it most.