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Green Space Index finds more access to local parks required

Fields in Trust updated the Green Space Index yesterday. Maxwell Patterson, Policy and Communications Officer, writes about the GSI's findings and what the Government can do to ensure all people have access to parks and greenspaces within a 10 minute walk of home.

June 2023

This year the annual Green Space Index on Great Britain's parks and green spaces looks at the walkability of neighbourhoods and finds that 6.1 million people have no park or green space within a ten-minute walk from home.

It is no secret that some areas will inherently always have more green space than others, simply because they are less densely populated, more rural, or because they feature large open spaces such as Hyde Park in London or Heaton Park in Manchester. But decades of poor planning decisions and a lack of strong guidance on how parks and green spaces should be designed, has resulted in severe shortages of these immensely beneficial spaces for many parts of the country.

A new method which calculates the distance from every household to its nearest local park or green space has shown that nearly 10% of people in the UK don't have either within close walking distance. Furthermore, some local authorities have an abundance of parks and green spaces, whilst others have virtually none, resulting in widely different amounts of space per person. For instance, Birmingham and Haringey local authorities, both with approximately 350,000 residents, have huge differences in provision, with 41sqm of park and green space per person for the former and 7sqm per person for the latter. London boroughs with similar population sizes such as Islington and Harrow also have significant gaps, with Islington only having 7sqm per person, whilst Harrow has 36sqm respectively.

Parks and green spaces are a vital resource to the communities which they serve, offering a space for recreation, socialisation and for nature to thrive amongst the built environment. But this protection has never been entrenched in law, in particular planning law. Currently there is no minimum provision of parks and green spaces that local authorities are required to designate and protect in their area and whilst current planning practices do involve setting out which areas will be used for parks or green spaces the public can access, this does not legally protect them from being developed on.

Without urgent course correction the problem will worsen as the population grows. Local authorities are increasingly under pressure to develop more homes and infrastructure, but there is an insufficient requirement to include additional parks or green spaces on these new plots, meaning that ultimately it will reduce the average provision and people's access. Our estimates are that just to maintain the current average provision of parks and green space in Great Britain at roughly 30sqm per person, we will need a further 4,000 new spaces by 2033, targeted in the right areas to increase access for those with the least at present.

Fields in Trust has long argued that parks and green spaces are needed in every neighbourhood as they promote more active lifestyles, offer a space for community events and can bring nature closer to people's doorsteps, all of which help to deliver better health and wellbeing. Our previous research highlighted that local parks generate £34bn of wellbeing benefit to the UK each year as well as saving the NHS £111m from reduced GP visits alone. The Green Space Index 2022 also showed clearly that parks should be an important cornerstone of levelling-up missions.

There is positive encouragement, as the Government has identified the role green space can play in improving health and wellbeing too, establishing a target in the 25-year Environmental Improvement Plan for everyone to have access to nature within a 15-minute walk. In the 12 levelling-up missions set out in February 2022, improving healthy life expectancy, wellbeing and reducing regional gaps on health and wellbeing all featured as core objectives of the agenda.

Additionally, parks and green spaces have been recognised as a measure to deliver levelling-up, with the Government having set aside £9m in levelling-up funding to create 100 new parks and a further £39m to fund the effective maintenance of those in worse condition. But whilst these steps are in the right direction, they still fall short of the 4,000 new parks we will need by 2033 to maintain the average provision of green space.

These new findings show that there needs to be a system wide change, rather than short term investments. Levelling-up requires a focused, long-term plan of action if it is to reverse society wide trends. Ensuring every neighbourhood has an adequate and accessible provision of parks and green spaces can help address these targets and other levelling-up missions, by improving health and wellbeing, pride of place, developing climate resilience and improving local community infrastructure.

That's why we have been working to influence the flagship legislation of the levelling-up agenda, the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill, to deliver the widespread change needed. As a member of the Better Planning Coalition, we have been seeking an amendment to the bill that will:

  • Require local authorities to deliver on the health and wellbeing missions, by establishing clear policies in their local plans to improve health especially through better green space provision.
  • Direct them to plan their neighbourhoods in a way that ensures key amenities, including parks and green spaces, are in closer proximity to residents.
  • Require a greater provision of green infrastructure.

With these measures in such a prominent piece of legislation, local authorities no matter where they are situated, would be required to meet a minimum baseline for providing parks and green spaces, which in turn would close regional gaps and promote better health outcomes in the long term. There will always be differences in green space provision owing to the general characteristics of an area, but by aiming for a higher baseline, we can ensure that everyone will at least have a minimum provision recommended by Fields in Trust.

Chair of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee and Trustee of Fields in Trust, Clive Betts MP, said: "With the King's Fund research finding that real terms public health funding has fallen by 25% over just five years, access to free green space with all the benefits it provides, has never been more important. It's vital that providing these spaces for everyone is a key element of the Government's Levelling-Up policy, and deeply disappointing that over six million people still don't have access to green spaces. We must now take the opportunity through the through Levelling-Up measures to bring in policy change that puts health and well-being at the heart of our communities, and the planning decisions that affect them".

The Green Space Index is Fields in Trust's annual barometer of publicly accessible park and green space provision in Great Britain. The report was first produced in 2019, and this year is the Index's fifth edition. You can explore the Index's findings in your area by using our interactive maps.

Maxwell Patterson is Policy and Communications Officer at Fields in Trust.

Follow @FieldsinTrust on Twitter.

This blog was first published on Fields in Trust's website here.

The opinions expressed in this blog are the authors' and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.