Levelling-up playing fields, parks and green spaces

Helen Griffiths, chief executive of Fields in Trust, explains how the legal protection of parks and green spaces can help to advance the government ‘levelling-up’ agenda

Prime Minister’s Boris Johnson’s first public speech after the general election, promised to ‘level up’ the nation’s ‘left-behind’ towns and cities which have experienced the negative effects of austerity, and faced an insecure labour market. Since the election, the coronavirus pandemic has had a greater impact in these communities than elsewhere in the UK, exacerbating already existing challenges.

A policy programme focused on levelling-up, recognises that the start point is one of difference; not all communities have the same access to public services and wider opportunities. Our research echoes these regional differences illustrating inequity of access to green space. Fields in Trust champions and supports the UK’s parks and green spaces by legally protecting them for people to enjoy in perpetuity. Because once lost, they are lost forever. Our study, Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces 2018, demonstrates clear physical health and mental wellbeing benefits from frequent park use, identifying a ‘Wellbeing Value’ of £34.2 billion per year for the entire UK adult population.

Yet this vital community infrastructure is not equally distributed. Our Green Space Index, published in May, reveals that across the UK, 2.7 million people live more than a ten-minute walk from their nearest park or green space. This year, parks have had a newfound importance, vital for exercise, relaxation, and reflection. They remain the only safe place to meet loved ones and connect with friends and neighbours. Parks will be a powerful part of our recovery from the crisis, helping to create stronger, more connected, healthier communities.

In addressing the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, the Prime Minister asked Danny Kruger MP to consider how the emergency response to the crisis might be harnessed in the recovery. His report, Levelling up our communities, recognises UK spatial inequalities and proposes a reset in the way communities, local and national governments, and civic society interact to reach ‘a new social covenant’. By working in partnership to encourage community engagement and improve local neighbourhoods, stakeholders should act together to tackle issues which are a challenge to each, argues Kruger.

This is familiar territory for Fields in Trust - we work in partnership with landowners including local authorities, voluntary organisations and private landowners to legally protect parks and green spaces in perpetuity so that current and future generations can take advantage of the health and well-being benefits they contribute to their local communities. Using a data driven approach we target our intervention in areas of the UK with the most strategic need. As well as drawing on our informative Green Space Index; factors include a range of socio-demographic data, mental and physical health data and urbanity  to identify where protection of green space will have the greatest impact for the local community, for play, for sport and the enjoyment of nature.  

The Kruger report into levelling-up proposes a multifaceted approach to working with disadvantaged communities – involving volunteer and charity engagement and decentralised government. Crucially ‘place based’ interventions including urban design and local planning to protect community infrastructure and social ‘gathering spaces’, must take account of local circumstance. The report recommends that social and environmental purpose should be embedded more firmly in public policy.

Social policy goals
Just as the challenges are multi-layered, solutions too can touch on several areas of policy. Parks and green spaces are linked to the wider determinants of health and inequality; protection of local green space contributes, in the long-term,  to preventative health, a better environment, a more active nation, more cohesive communities and combatting loneliness; all key public health and social policy goals.

As a core government ambition, the levelling-up agenda is of interest to a wider policy community. In their recent report, Levelling up: where and how?, the Institute of Fiscal Studies discuss the complexity of analysis. In addition to the traditionally ‘left-behind’ areas the short-term economic impact of Covid-19 introduces another dimension of geographic inequality. Hospitality and tourism-dependent coastal communities such as Blackpool or the centres of some Northern and Scottish cities (such as Liverpool, Glasgow and Dundee) face severe impact following the pandemic.

As Sir Michael Marmot, has shown in his Health Equity In England 2020 report, health inequalities - which he initially identified in his 2010 report - are widening, impacting most severely in these vulnerable communities. Life expectancy has, for some groups, reduced for the first time in a century; specifically, for women in deprived areas. This comes at a time when the NHS is already stretched responding to Covid-19. Yet we know that regular use of parks and green spaces can save the NHS £111 each year simply by reducing GP appointments alone. Green space is valued highest by both lower socio-economic groups and people from BAME communities when the value of £1 is equivalised – precisely those with the most restricted access. We need to revalue parks and green spaces across the social gradient to help create healthy, thriving communities.

Measuring health inequalities
Levelling-up will not be achieved by financial investment alone - nor is economic activity the only measure of progress; we need to look beyond traditional measures of growth such as GDP, and to incorporate measures of well-being and health inequalities. Welcoming Fields in Trust’s 2018 research report, Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces, former Cabinet Secretary, Lord Gus O'Donnell, said: "Effective public policy requires a strong evidence base to support it. Fields in Trust’s report places a financial value on the wellbeing generated by parks and green spaces to enable informed choices to be made about the importance of the continued provision of these non-statutory services."

But we cannot afford to wait until the pandemic is over to take the urgent action our communities need. Ensuring parks and green spaces are protected now is vital if they are to provide benefits to community health, well-being and neighbourhood cohesion as part of our recovery. ‘Build, Build, Build’ may be a rallying call for an economic recovery, but if we do not ‘build back better’ - cleaner, greener and with a more human face – the cycles of inequity will repeat.  

I have often suggested that parks and green spaces are the most universal of our public services used by all sectors of the community – cradle to grave, 24/7. A point well illustrated in a recent Guardian article I was interviewed for; journalist Sirin Kale spent 24 hours in a Leeds Park speaking to the local people who used it daily. People like, three-year-old Kilan, whose mother Rebecca Dawson relies on the park as the family’s only accessible outdoor space, allowing a break from confinement in their two-room flat. Or retired civil servant, Bill McKinnon who, when his father died in 1980, would go to his local park to be still and grieve (and subsequently led a community campaign to prevent this precious space being lost to development). And here is the point - these individuals are the faces and the stories behind the grand policy ambitions and statistical analyses. Genuine levelling-up is measured in the well-being impact on the lives of Kilan, of Bill and their countless neighbours across the UK. We know that green spaces are good, they do good - and for our community health and well-being - they need to be protected for good.

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