Fields in Trust

It's time to take play seriously

Posted in Comment & Policy on 15th February 2024

As last week marked Children's Mental Health Week, Chief Executive, Helen Griffiths, reflects on her recent contributions to cross-party inquiries at Westminster, addressing whether the built environment meets children's needs.

In the space of a single week, there were not one, but two separate Select Committee Inquiries focused on the role of parks and green spaces in the built environment. The evidence put forward about the positive impact that parks and green spaces have on society was overwhelming – especially for children’s future health. So, why are these spaces not being adequately valued or resourced?

Over the past few months, Fields in Trust joined forces with Playing Out, researcher Tim Gill, and the Director of ZCD Architects, Dinah Bornat, to raise the profile of how better planning, building and urban design can enhance the health and wellbeing of children and young people – resulting in the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (LUHC) Select Committee calling an inquiry. When the Inquiry was launched, there was a familiar refrain in many of the 100 or so written submissions: children have less recognition in the planning process than bats and newts. The bats and newts have better PR people - obviously.  Sitting on the panel giving evidence alongside like-minded colleagues, it was apparent the Committee was completely unaware of the extent of the problem. So, we ask, what key actions could Government take to redress the imbalance?

The link between children's health and green space access 

The fascinating scientific evidence presented by Dr William Bird was clear: green space does an amazing buffering job against chronic stress, children’s ADHD and other mental health conditions. The environment we live in, and particularly access to green space, has a major effect on us. This is even more prevalent for a child when it comes to their brain development, dictating their health later in life. Dr Bird shares that this is incredibly difficult to reverse after childhood. With such incontrovertible evidence in place, surely setting the conditions for children to have a healthier future should be championed across Government?

The failure of the built environment to meet children’s needs is integral to the Fields in Trust story. We were founded because there was a recognition that there weren’t enough places for children to play. One of our early priorities was to provide guidance for improving the amount of space created in communities for sport and play. This guidance, commonly referred to as the six-acre standard, sets out the amount of accessible green space per head of population that Local Authorities should be aiming to provide for communities. Depressingly, today, eight of nine regions in England fail to meet this threshold. Almost 100 years later, it is clear that action is still very much needed at both central and local government levels to reverse this position.

Making sure that children have accessible places to play is crucial to improve on the mere 21% who meet the daily physical activity target, especially for the 1 in 8 households in the UK in areas that don’t have access to a private garden.

Children and young people must have their voices heard

The theme of this year's Children's Mental Health Week was 'My Voice Matters', and it couldn't be more relevant. Despite making up around 20% of the population, young people are routinely left out of discussions about the future of their neighbourhoods.  Few practitioners are leading the way to do things differently. Aberfeldy Village in East London led by LDA Design and ZCD Architects, have organised a young person engagement programme to influence the design of a child-friendly neighbourhood. Also, Aberdeen City Council are working to establish a UNICEF Child Friendly City, involving primary school children’s input into plans to improve the playful experience of the area.

Access to quality green space in an area will reduce the health inequalities of children who live there, but parks and green spaces are not a statutory function. This means the issue doesn’t have the profile and leadership it needs. And it’s not just about the children and young people who are using these spaces today - it's how we are setting that up for future generations too.

The disparity in green space provision

The recent Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select (EFRA) Select Committee evidence session on Urban Green Spaces was another important opportunity to flag to Government the disparity in green space provision - particularly in areas of deprivation - and the failures in the current system to protect the future of these valuable spaces for everyone. Unfortunately, I wasn’t well enough to take my seat on the panel alongside the National Trust and Natural England to reinforce the point that current guidance and frameworks don’t go far enough to shift the dial and meet the targets that the Government has set out.

The access to nature within 15-minutes’ walk is a powerful campaign that is rightly getting a lot of airtime but we are yet to see enough of how the Government plans to deliver on this commitment. As highlighted by local government panellists, without proper resourcing and upskilling, the expectation for Local Authorities to deliver, maintain and steward these spaces for the common good is unrealistic.

A progress report just published by The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) makes it clear that the Government is largely off track to meet its environmental ambitions and legal obligations. The new Green Infrastructure Framework led by Natural England has a comprehensive set of standards and principles to guide the delivery of good quality accessible green space. It has been broadly welcomed by the sector as a step in the right direction, but it comes without that crucial mandatory badge. This is something we have regularly been calling for.  We wait to see how much cut-through can be achieved within challenged and resource-deficient local government departments and indeed whether built environment practitioners take a proactive approach.

The job of Select Committee inquiries is to find out more about the situation on the ground and to come up with recommendations to put to Ministers and hold them to account. The scientific evidence is indisputable and yet just these recent discussions alone demonstrate how disjointed the Planning System is on these interrelated issues. There is little evidence so far of coherent leadership on parks and green spaces but if it continues to fall between government departments - it will continue to impact on any progress in this space. It’s time, now more than ever, to take parks and play seriously. 

Our Manifesto for the UK Government: A Better Future for Parks and Green Spaces sets out the three goals that we think the UK Government needs to implement. Read the full manifesto here.