"We're here to talk prevention. And if there's one thing that everybody knows it's: 'prevention is better than cure'" - so said Health Minister Matt Hancock this week as he set out the UK government's focus on a preventative health agenda in his speech to the International Association of National Public Health Institutes. The government's approach is to tackle health and wellbeing issues with early action and prevent them growing into a crisis. Whilst there is a desire to ensure the significant investment in healthcare is spent efficiently, the minister also said, "it's not just about the finances. I want to talk about how preventing ill health can transform lives and transform society for the better too".
This is an approach that we at Fields in Trust have been advocating for some time. Our submission to the 2016 Parliamentary Inquiry into parks and green spaces emphasised the importance of preventing problems from occurring rather than attempting to cope with the consequences, in particular changing perceptions about the value parks and green spaces provide rather than simply what they cost to maintain. We followed this up with detailed research, published earlier this year - Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces - which provides a robust measurement of the value that parks and green spaces contribute to people's individual health and wellbeing: over £34 billion each year to the UK's population. Our research also translated a secondary health benefit as a cost saving to the NHS of £111 million each year because regular park users, who are fitter and healthier, need fewer GP appointments. Our research proves that a preventative approach can save money and avoid significant health problems for communities and individuals simply by providing well-managed green space in accessible locations.
Mr Hancock's speech came just a few days after he had celebrated the centenary of the first children's playground with the unveiling of a blue plaque in memory of Charles Wicksteed, who established Wicksteed Park in Kettering, Northamptonshire 100 years ago. Also present was Fields in Trust Vice-Chair, Lord Howard of Rising. In the Mail on Sunday report of the event Mr Hancock is quoted as saying: "If we do not do what is needed to support the parks we have - and make sure there are new parks where there is new housing - then it will undermine the health of the nation and increase the burden on the NHS in the long term. I want to see a healthier nation - and we need to support our parks and playgrounds to achieve this. The health of the nation is about getting people active. We have massive pressures on the NHS and to make sure it's sustainable in the long term we need people to be healthier in the first place."
The Government's preventative health approach has been published online. There is much to applaud and we also concur with the Health Minister's vision of enabling people to choose active lifestyles. Learning from our research insights, Fields in Trust's Active Spaces programme is creating new opportunities to inspire the most inactive of communities to get physically active and use their local parks. Funded by The London Marathon Charitable Trust this £350,000 programme is supporting community participation in sports and physical activities on fifty parks and green spaces. Projects include "boxercise" classes in Edinburgh; a walking route and trim trail in Rhondda Cynon Taf; a women's beginners running club in Kings Lynn; cricket in Croydon and sporting events in Belfast, on the green where George Best played football as a youngster.
Each of these sites will be protected with Fields in Trust ensuring they are always available for future generations to use and enjoy and four will benefit from a capital award to upgrade the facilities and assist local communities to become part of a "More Active Nation", as envisaged in the Department of Culture Media and Sport strategy.
The departmental vision set out by Mr Hancock says, "Everyone has a part to play, and we must work together across society". Our Active Spaces programme demonstrates, on a modest scale, what can be done by charities working together to address the public health issues identified by the government. But it is not possible for charity funding to deliver this programme to every community – not even to target those locations where poor health disproportionately affects those in lower socio-economic communities. We know from our research that people in these neighbourhoods put a higher value on local parks and green spaces. As we said in our assessment of the budget last week, we believe that parks and green spaces are arguably the most universal public service - they are good, do good, and should be protected for good, with adequate funding that is commensurate with the community benefits they deliver.
"If people are to take personal responsibility for their own health, it is vital that government commit to ensuring the necessary community infrastructure is in place to enable positive personal choices to be made – we can't be physically active if there isn't a local park or green space left in which to exercise."
We are pleased to hear the government make a clear and bold statement about a preventative health approach. We know that parks and green spaces have an important role in society and can help to transform lives where communities can come together, tackling social isolation and loneliness, as well as contribute to improved mental and physical health and help to tackle the childhood obesity crisis.
All these preventative health functions can be supported through public access to parks and green spaces, but this is an extensive list to deliver at a time when the challenges facing the owners and managers of our parks and green spaces are greater than they have ever been. It has been repeatedly reported in the national press in recent weeks what we at Fields in Trust have known for a long time: public parks and green spaces are at serious risk from land being sold off for building developments as well as reductions in spending on maintenance.
As Mr Hancock said in his speech, "it isn't just about the quantum of money. It's also about reform". Perhaps it is time for government departments including the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government; the Department for Culture Media and Sport, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Health to jointly identify the outcomes they each desire and join up local Health and Wellbeing Boards with other public services to prevent the decimation of our parks and green spaces. If people are to take personal responsibility for their own health, it is vital that government commit to ensuring the necessary social infrastructure is in place to enable positive personal choices to be made – we can't be physically active if there isn't a local park or green space left in which to exercise.
Let's work on preventing the loss of parks and green spaces now, rather than attempt a future cure because once a green space is gone, it is gone forever.
Alison McCann is Fields in Trust Policy Manager. She can be contacted by any of the below means.
t: 020 7427 2128
Alison McCann is Fields in Trust's Policy Manager. Having worked for the organisation for the last six years, Alison's current role focuses on research about the value of green space to better inform policymaking, as well as overseeing the legal support function for sites protected with Fields in Trust. Alison led the commissioning, data analysis and report production for Fields in Trust's Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces research published in May 2018. Alison previously worked in Sports Development for two London Boroughs, managing projects with a range of stakeholders and community groups.