Fields in Trust

A missed opportunity to make planning work for health and wellbeing

Posted in Comment & Policy on 8th September 2023
In his latest blog, our Policy and Communications Officer, Maxwell Patterson, reflects on the recent amendments made to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill in the House of Lords.

The planning system should work to improve the health of people and their communities. Right?

For months, Fields in Trust and partners in the Better Planning Coalition have been seeking to strengthen a critical piece of planning legislation, the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, to include new measures that would go further in addressing health inequality and making areas greener. Sadly, this week the amendment has been voted down and as a result they have missed a chance to set into law changes that would improve the overall health of people and communities in the UK.

Right now, planning in the UK is failing on many fronts. We are not delivering enough homes, infrastructure or community sites, and everyday people bear the brunt of it. But one thing that is almost always overlooked when it comes to planning is how it impacts health outcomes and can entrench health inequalities. Planning, when done well, improves the design of areas to suit healthier lifestyles in communities, but, when done badly, can equally fuel less healthy lives that worsen peoples mental and physical well-being.

Good planning for health means designing areas to support more active lifestyles. Infrastructure that allows people to walk, wheel and cycle more, local green spaces where people can enjoy nature and socialisation, and public transport to cut down cost of living and air pollution.

Research by Fields in Trust and other members of the coalition has shown that sadly for many parts of the UK, the latter is more often the case, and that because of the unevenness of planning being done well, it drives regional inequalities in health.

For instance, healthy life expectancy at birth among men living in the most deprived areas was 52.3 years in 2017 to 2019 whilst for those in the least deprived areas, it was 70.7 years. Deprived areas that lacked many of the important features above. Additionally, our Green Space Index this year showed 6.1m people have no public green space within a 10-minute walk, whilst the government’s own health departments claimed in 2018 that unequal distribution of high-quality built environments and green space directly contributes to health inequalities.

So how can we fix this problem?

Fields in Trust and our colleagues in the Better Planning Coalition have already been working to address this problem in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. This law is supposed to help make different areas of our country more equal in all sorts of ways – and so provides an opportune moment to redress many of the issues outlined above.

Together along with major health experts like Professor Sir Michael Marmot, we have been calling for an amendment that would create a legal duty for local authorities to address health inequalities through the planning system.

Councils make decisions all the time which affect this. Their role in the planning system is particularly crucial. They draw up plans for what facilities should be in our area and what requirements they need to meet, and they make decisions on whether to grant planning permission. That’s why by enshrining this requirement that they improve health through planning design, we believe it can begin to reverse the worst effects of the problem we have outlined.

This new law if passed would specifically encourage them to provide more accessible green space, active travel infrastructure for walking or cycling, and to set out policies in their local plans that are designed for improving health and wellbeing.

But sadly, this week on the 6th September in the House of Lords, the government voted down this amendment by a narrow margin of 178 against – 176 for.

So where do we go from here?

This week was certainly a setback, and a disappointing missed opportunity to reframe planning so that it actively works to improve people’s health. But Fields in Trust and our allies in the coalition will not abandon the fight.

There is one last chance to include this amendment in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill when it returns to the House of Commons later this year for final change, and further planning laws like the review of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) also serve as another opportunity to embed the principles of our amendment into law.

The NPPF acts like a rulebook for what local authorities must consider when setting out local plans, and for deciding on planning permission. But like the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill it currently has minimal detail on how planning can improve health and wellbeing in communities and so is in desperate need of improvement.

We will be working with policymakers, local and national government officials, and our partners in the coalition to try and seek these fundamental improvements in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill and the NPPF.

But we can’t do it without your help. If you want to see these changes made and policy work more efficiently to boost green space provision and improve health and wellbeing across the UK, join us today and get involved.

Maxwell Patterson is Fields in Trusts Policy and Communications Officer. He can be contacted by any of the below means.

t: 0207 427 2130