Following the 2020 Budget statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Fields in Trust Chief Executive, Helen Griffiths, reflects on its impact and the importance of revaluing parks and green spaces as important community assets as well as for the health and wellbeing benefits they provide.
As a former Parks Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, understands the value of the UK's green spaces. In a blog post for Fields in Trust last summer, he wrote: "Parks do people a world of good. There is growing evidence that natural spaces benefit our health and wellbeing, educate our children and create opportunities for small businesses to thrive - through cultural events, festivals and markets. From playing on the seesaw, to wild swimming or walking the dog, green spaces are where people go to feel good."
So we're reassured by the fact that the new Chancellor is knowledgeable and understands the benefits that local parks have on communities. For example, we welcome the commitment to incentivise new home building on brownfield sites and an £8 million commitment to support football pitches. However, we also note the Chancellor's commitment to "spend £27 billion on tarmac" in creating over 4,000 miles of new roads. We hope that these new routes will not result in any loss of parks or green spaces. We also await details of the Budget promise of comprehensive reforms to "bring the planning system into the 21st century". Any review of the planning system must ensure communities have a say in opposing unwanted development in their local parks and green spaces.
In recent days the global financial market uncertainty, following widespread fear of a coronavirus pandemic, has resulted in a budget focussed on international concerns – not only the response to the UK domestic picture which we have been expecting since the General Election, having been extensively trailed by government ministers including the Chancellor's predecessor, Sajid Javid.
The Budget launches the Comprehensive Spending Review 2020, which will set out the overall level of public spending over the next five years. Between now and the conclusion of the CSR in July we will be presenting the case for appropriate investment in parks and green spaces as a key feature of local public services which contribute to Government priorities on health, mental wellbeing and community cohesion. A Budget focussed on "levelling-up the regions" had been widely anticipated. By definition, this recognises that the start point is one of difference: not all communities have the same access to public services including parks and green spaces. So these spaces must be valued for the health and wellbeing benefits they contribute to the communities that cherish them, not simply what they cost to maintain.
"Fields in Trust's research highlights not only the vital role that outdoor spaces play in improving our health, but also their economic value."
Rt Hon. Rishi Sunak MP discussing Fields in Trust's Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces research
The report last week by Sir Michael Marmot, Health Equity In England, underlines this. Sir Michael found that health inequalities - which he initially identified in his 2010 report - are widening, in part as a result of Government austerity policies impacting on the most vulnerable communities. The report shows that life expectancy has, for some groups, reduced for the first time in a century; specifically, for women in the most deprived areas. This comes at a time when the NHS is already stretched and gearing-up for the anticipated impact of Covid-19. We need to revalue parks and green spaces across the social gradient to help create healthy, thriving communities.
A focus on preventative health, as previously set out by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, becomes even more important as people are encouraged to remain healthier and avoid the need for professional intervention. The Department for Health's preventative health agenda, however, is only possible with quality, protected parks and green spaces to enable people to take personal responsibility for their physical health and mental wellbeing.
Robert Jenrick understands this too. As Secretary of State at the Chancellor's former department - the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government - he is delivering a manifesto pledge to support parks and green spaces. The Minister recently wrote in the Mail on Sunday: "We are determined to protect our nation's parks for future generations to enjoy". He went on to set out the Government's ambition to ensure communities have the opportunity to enjoy green spaces in their local area.
Last year, whilst Parks and Green Spaces Minister, Rishi Sunak joined our Summer of Parks with a guest blog in which he discussed the value of parks and green spaces and the importance of securing their future.
All government ministers stood for election on the Conservative manifesto which promised that "in order to safeguard our green spaces, we will continue to prioritise brownfield development, particularly for the regeneration of our cities and towns".
The regeneration of towns and cities is led by local government; some additional emergency support aside, civic leaders remain under great pressure to deliver local priorities with budgets which are largely set centrally.
Ultimately decisions about locally-owned resources are taken by the elected councillors and mayors: local representatives of their communities. In seeking locally based solutions some civic leaders have demonstrated that they are committed to protecting parks and green spaces, ensuring that future generations will always have somewhere for play, sport and to connect with nature.
Helen Griffiths is Fields in Trust's Chief Executive. She can be contacted by any of the below means.
t: 0207 427 2110
Helen Griffiths is Fields in Trust's Chief Executive and is an experienced and knowledgeable commentator on issues related to parks, playing fields and recreational spaces. Follow Helen on Twitter @hegriffiths.