Why the Devolution Revolution might just secure the future funding of our green spaces…

By Sarah Whitney

On Saturday morning, I put on my walking boots, and headed to our local country park for a couple of hours.  Harry, my Airedale terrier, greeted everyone we met as long-lost friends, chased umpteen squirrels (and caught none), and braved the freezing cold river for a swim.  The park was full of people: golfers-a-plenty, children having a first go at orienteering, horses nervously picking their way through the mud, and many people like me, just out enjoying the leg stretch and winding down from the demands of the previous week.

This week, the Land Trust, published a fascinating report on the economic and societal benefits of these sorts of green spaces. The Land Trust, if you haven’t come across it before, is a charity that owns and manages public open spaces for the benefit of the community.  I should declare an interest here - I am very proud to be a trustee of this remarkable organisation. 

The first thing that comes out of this report is how highly the Land Trust’s work is valued by the people who use the 2,000 hectares of land under its management.  This land includes country parks, nature reserves, and woodland.  9 out of 10 people interviewed by the Trust for the report considered that the Land Trust’s green spaces play a positive part in their happiness and wellbeing.  9 out of 10 people felt that these green spaces encouraged them to keep fit and healthy.  9 out of 10 people felt that the green spaces helped make their local area more desirable. 

The Land Trust does a good job – but so what?  Well here are the hard economic facts that the report unravelled.   For every £1 spent by the Land Trust on the upkeep of their green spaces, it estimates that society benefits from more than £30 in health care provision because people using its sites feel fitter, healthier, and see the doctor less often.  Furthermore, every £1 spent benefits society by more than £20 through a consequential reduction in crime and anti-social behaviour as much of the land managed by the Land Trust has replaced what would otherwise have been derelict sites - magnets for anti-social behaviour.

We could argue about the precise economic benefits and the methodology behind these assumptions, but what is clear is that the Land Trust’s report is part of a growing body of evidence confirming the economic benefits of green spaces in our communities (for example, the Forestry Commission’s 2012 report, and the Heritage Lottery Fund’s more recent State of UK Public Parks).

I spend much of my day job advising local authorities facing the twin problem of declining budgets (in the last five years, local authorities have seen a 40% reduction in Government funding), whilst having to deal with an ever-increasing demand for the public services they provide.  Local government has done a first rate job in managing this very difficult situation, as the Prime Minister himself has recognised.  However, one of the consequences has been the cuts that many local authorities have had to make to expenditure on green spaces – on maintaining parks, woodlands, and playgrounds.

But things may be looking up.  A number of those same local authorities, principally in and around our major cities, are being granted devolved budgets and powers as part of a “Devolution Revolution” from Whitehall.  Cynics argue that this process is merely central government passing on the pain of austerity cuts to local government.  A more constructive interpretation is that the devolution process is empowering local authorities to consider new and hitherto untried models of delivering public services, including health and social care, which are prioritised to local needs and circumstances. 

Our green spaces are important social and economic assets, whose value needs to be unlocked as part of the Devolution Revolution.  As part of that Revolution, I would encourage councils to take a fresh look at the role green infrastructure can play in improving our fitness and mental health, in reducing crime and anti-social behaviour, and in getting people back into jobs (have a look at the Green Angels programme at Liverpool Festival Gardens.  By way of example, if parks and playgrounds keep people fitter and away from their doctors, why isn’t part of the health budget used to maintain those sites?

Our parks have a lot more to offer than just being a nice place for townies like me to walk the dog on a Saturday morning.  With a bit of flexible thinking, backed by a very modest amount of devolved funding, we could unlock the real economic and social benefit of our green spaces.  On the basis of the Land Trust’s report, the time and money invested would repay itself several times over.  What about it?

For further information on the Land Trust, please see www.thelandtrust.org.uk