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Legal right to nature vital to public health - as cost of living could see 5 million+ exercise memberships cancelled

4 December 2022

- Around 10% of Brits (over 5 million people) have cancelled, or are likely to cancel, gym or exercise memberships in 2022, due to rising living costs

- 70% of Brits say free outdoor exercise is likely to be more important as the cost of living bites, yet park budgets have been slashed and 1 in 3 Brits have no local green space

- Disabled people, ethnically diverse communities and deprived households are most excluded from free outdoor exercise opportunities

- Coalition of 90 organisations is calling for legal right to nature to be prioritised in Government’s Levelling Up & cost of living agendas

Ahead of COP15 the Government is being urged to adopt a ‘legal right to nature’ to benefit wildlife and communities across the country. Sports, health, equality and nature experts are calling on the Government to make equal access to nature a core part of their Levelling Up plans to help boost the nation’s physical health and help in restoring nature.

The calls come ahead of a proposed amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, by Caroline Lucas MP, likely to be debated in December or early 2023, which, if accepted, would enshrine a right to nature in law (see p14). This would help towards securing the stronger requirements and funding needed to help Local Authorities bring green and blue spaces into our most nature-deprived communities and restore deteriorating parks and waterways across the country.

Levelling up access to nature and enabling free exercise in parks, woodland, and other natural spaces is even more important as paid-for exercise becomes unaffordable to many. As a possible 5 million+ people may be unable to continue paid-for exercise memberships due to the cost of living crisis. Experts are highlighting worrying new findings in YouGov research – carried out online on behalf of Wildlife and Countryside Link, the coordinators of the Nature For Everyone campaign.[1] The findings reveal that:

10% of Brits say they have already cancelled, or are likely to cancel by the end of the year, a gym or other sports/exercise membership due to cost of living pressures – this equates to 5.1 million people cancelling exercise memberships [2]

- 70% of Brits say free outdoor exercise will be more important to them or others as the cost of living continues to bite

- Almost 9 out of 10 people (87%) say access to parks and other natural spaces is important for encouraging children & young people into sport and exercise

Caroline Lucas MP, said:
“Lack of access to nature is entrenching inequality across the UK. People on lower incomes and people of colour are more likely to live in the most nature-poor communities. Parks, woodlands, canals and rivers all across the country are in decline as local authority budgets are stretched and new neighbourhoods aren’t being designed in partnership with communities to deliver the access to nature people need.

“We saw clearly in the pandemic just how important local nature was to people’s mental and physical health, and these figures show the increasing need for free outdoor exercise as the cost of living bites. Having access to nature near home, and the health benefits it brings, should be a right, not a privilege. It’s time to end the nature postcode lottery with a legal right to nature.”

Dr Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said:
“The Government’s Levelling Up agenda is focused on opportunity and quality of life, but somehow the Levelling Up legislation forgets one of our most basic needs - access to nature. Today, many people’s lives are held back by the environment they live in. A good environment is vital for people’s mental wellbeing and physical health.

“The Government should recognise a right to nature as one of the core aims of Levelling Up, supporting greener and healthier communities around the country. This is a real opportunity for the UK to show global leadership, following the UN call for all countries to acknowledge a right to a healthy environment in law.”

James MacColl, Head of Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns at the Ramblers, said:
“The pandemic lockdowns revealed just how much people value the ability to get out into local parks, green and natural spaces, and how essential access to these spaces is. Now, with the cost of living crisis, free exercise like walking is more important than ever. However, access is unequal and many people are prevented from getting into the outdoors close to home. The Government must use its Levelling Up agenda to ensure everyone, everywhere has a legal right to access green spaces and nature.”

Mark Lawrie, CEO of StreetGames said:
“Access to nature is crucial for sporting opportunities for young people, with many of our leading sports people taking their first run, leap or paddle, in their local park or river. Everyone should have the chance to explore, enjoy, and get active in natural surroundings. Unfortunately, too many of our parks and other greenspaces are suffering from decline and access to nature remains far too unequal.

“This inequality of access was all the more evident during lockdown, when countless young people in urban areas were denied basic access to open spaces to play or exercise. The cost of that inequality, in terms of young peoples’ mental and physical wellbeing, is clear. We know that parks and greenspaces are vital for sport and physical activity in our underserved communities, that’s why we need a legal right to nature and to protect natural spaces to keep all our communities fit and healthy.”

Please see additional quotes from The Wildlife Trusts, British Canoeing and Activity Alliance in the notes to editors [3].

42% of Brits already regularly exercise outdoors, according to the new survey findings, and evidence suggests this would rise if greenspaces were improved. Research from a survey earlier in the year revealed 7 in 10 people living in nature-deprived areas would exercise more with better access to natural spaces, with young people & families most likely to increase their exercise.

Natural England estimates that one in three people do not have a natural space, like a park, woodland or river, within a 15 minute walk of their home. Ethnic minority communities and disabled households are particularly excluded from free exercise opportunities as these groups are at least twice as likely to live in a nature-deprived area with little or no greenspace.

Disabled people are also excluded from many natural spaces, which often do not cater to individual needs. Only around half of the people in the new survey believed that the greenspaces near them had accessible features (such as paths suitable for wheelchair users or those with other mobility issues, accessible parking, frequent benches for resting, and braille signs). At best this means that half of public parks and open greenspaces are inaccessible for disabled people. But this may in fact underestimate the issue, given that non-disabled people are less aware of, and less-likely to recognise, the features that disabled people rely on to make a space accessible.

Access to nature is proven to boost physical and mental health – improving the likelihood of a longer and healthier life. Yet the condition of many local parks and other green spaces is deteriorating as a result of Local Authority funding cuts, with an estimated £190 million lost from Local Authority parks budgets alone since 2016. Crucial natural spaces in and around towns and cities are also disappearing rapidly. Development pressures continue to result in the loss of natural community spaces - around 11% of urban greenspace has been replaced by buildings over the last 15 years. [4]

The Government has delivered a £39m Parks Fund. But this is just a drop in the ocean of the billions intended to be spent on Levelling Up and pales in comparison to the £5.5bn estimated to be needed to truly Level Up access to nature in urban areas alone.

The 90 organisations backing the Nature For Everyone campaign are all calling on the Government to support the amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, tabled by Caroline Lucas MP, for a legal right to nature. This would support the landmark declaration by the UN General Assembly this summer that everyone should have a human right to a clean and healthy environment, which the UN hopes will trickle-down into law across the world. Campaigners are also urging the Government to include further amendments which would:

Add equal access to nature to the Government’s missions in the Bill – making it a key measure of success for Levelling Up

set legal duties for public bodies to to reduce health inequalities and improve well-being by increasing access to nature-rich green and blue spaces (such as parks, woods, canalsides and rivers) for everyone in new and existing communities

The Nature For Everyone coalition is asking members of the public to show their support for these changes by signing a petition to the Government at:


Notes to Editors:


- Frequent personal use of parks and green spaces is worth over £30 billion a year to the UK population. That value translates into estimated savings for the NHS of at least £100 million a year from fewer GP visits.

- 17% of disabled people play sport once a week, compared to around 40% of non-disabled people. (Active People Survey June 2016) and 7 in 10 disabled people want to be more active. (EFDS Lifestyle Report 2013)

- People from ethnically diverse communities are twice as likely to live in areas in England that are most deprived of greenspace and are also less likely to have a garden.

- Children in deprived areas are nine times less likely to have access to green space to play and exercise.

Half of respondents to Fields in Trusts’ park users survey admitted that they would be less active if their local green space was lost and 69% said they thought losing green spaces would be detrimental to children’s development.

The Nature For Everyone campaign launched in February 2022 and is backed by a coalition of 90 organisations who aim to secure a legal right to nature in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill.

1. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2117 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 21 - 22 July 2022. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

2. In the above YouGov polling 10% of GB adults said they had already cancelled or would be likely to cancel a paid-for gym/sports or exercise membership. ONS population estimates detail the GB population at 64,903,140, of which 51,220,471 people are aged 18+. The 10% of the population who reported they had cancelled, or were likely to cancel, an exercise membership is therefore equivalent to 10% of 51,220,471 which equals 5.1 million people.

3. Ben Seal, Head of Access & Environment, at British Canoeing said: “Whether it’s paddling down the river, a walk in the park, or a swim in the sea, access to the outdoors is absolutely vital for our health and wellbeing . Sport and good health shouldn’t depend on your postcode or the size of your bank balance. Yet the rising cost of living, and the crumbling condition and loss of many natural spaces, is making it harder than ever for people to exercise. The Government needs to take action to Level Up access to nature to help enable more people to go outdoors and get active – we should all have a right to nature.”

Ray Ashley, Director of Partnerships at Activity Alliance, said:
“We are all aware of the benefits sport and activity brings to people’s lives, physically, socially, and psychologically. Natural spaces around us are important for everyone and are often more cost effective being on our doorsteps or free to visit. But often, they are not as accessible as they need to be. This is not right or fair. The stark reality is that disabled people are twice as likely to be inactive as non-disabled people. The lack of genuinely accessible natural spaces means there are less places for disabled people to enjoy being active in. We saw this in our insight during the pandemic, meaning increased signs of isolation and loneliness. We must double our efforts to make our parks and other public spaces more accessible for disabled people. Nobody should miss out on or feel forgotten in the joys of our natural spaces.”

Dom Higgins, Head of health and education at The Wildlife Trusts, says:
“Exercising in nature each week works wonders for our health, helping us to keep well, wind down, reduce stress, and lift our mood. Whether it’s walking in a local park filled with birdsong, exploring forest trails on two wheels, or going for a dip in the sea, there are many things we can enjoy doing while reaping the benefits of spending time outdoors. It is a tragedy that so many people still do not have access to green, wildlife-rich spaces near where they live, this has to change. A legal right to nature for everyone, that also helps create and improve natural places, would provide a huge boost for people and wildlife and deserves the backing of MPs and Government.”

4. Urban green space in England declined from 63% of urban land area to 56% (see table 5, p3) between 2001 and 2016. This represents an 11% decrease in urban greenspace land area in 15 years.

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