In her latest blog, our Policy Manager, Alison McCann, reflects on recent news and the importance of prioritising green space provision for our communities.
What public services do we expect to be a given? The principal of Minimum Service Standards has had a bit of currency in political circles over recent weeks as the Government try to define which public services should be provided in all circumstances. Continuing the provision of agreed service levels including health, fire, education and transport. But what about green space as part of the public service offering we should all have a right to expect?
Alongside these discussions, it's been a busy legislative news cycle with the launch of the Government Environmental Improvement Plan; the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill entering Committee Stage in the Lords; The Scottish Parliament's approval of the National Planning Framework 4, an ongoing review of the National Planning Policy Framework; and the launch of the long-awaited Green Infrastructure Standards by Natural England which we at Fields in Trust contributed to.
Being part of the expert advisory group and collaborating with so many other like-minded organisations to help shape Natural England's Green Infrastructure Framework over the last few years has been rewarding. Good quality green infrastructure creates better neighbourhoods and delivers real benefits to people, places and the planet. We hope this framework will help achieve outcomes that can help meet some of the biggest challenges we face today, from health inequalities to climate change. However, we recognise the limitation of these voluntary standards, particularly when contrasted with the mandatory Biodiversity Net Gain ensuring the delivery of much-needed infrastructure and housing is not at the expense of vital biodiversity. Yet, whether used by people or wildlife, the Fields in Trust Green Space Index demonstrates inequitable distribution across Britain, with 2.8m people living more than a ten-minute walk from their nearest green space.
There is 30 sqm of provision per person in Britain, but it is not equitably distributed and nearly three million Brits don't have access to green space close to where they live.
Explore the full findings
Community access to green space is the golden thread which connects each of these separate policy initiatives - with different aims and from different starting points sponsored by different government departments, each of them could have a significant impact on the nation's parks and green spaces. There appears to be a shared ambition of increasing and improving local green spaces to make our towns and cities more attractive and healthier places.
Ensuring the effectiveness of these complex and overlapping policy areas demands detailed scrutiny - arguably the scrutiny that was lacking in the recent Commons debate around the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill. Without a detailed review of each policy proposal - which includes a clear focus on publicly accessible green space - there is a real danger of unintended consequences negatively affecting competing priorities.
An example of potential conflict was raised by Sheffield South East MP, Clive Betts - Clive is Chair of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee in the House of Commons and is a Trustee of Fields in Trust. In a Parliamentary debate earlier this month, Clive questioned the housing minister Lucy Frazer MP about the methodology for calculating a housing needs assessment, specifically the "urban uplift" of 35% to the housing need for local authorities in the 20 largest towns and cities in England - ostensibly to increase housing stock in locations where there is community infrastructure in place. However, as Clive points out, in Sheffield, this urban uplift will force housing development on to greenfield sites and the green belt, resulting in real damage to local communities. This presents a conflict between Planning Policy and the ambition to ensure a maximum of a fifteen-minute walk to local green space included as a metric in both the Environmental Improvement Plan and the Green Infrastructure Framework. As it stands, if green space is the only land available to deliver the uplift then it would go ahead, significantly impacting on access to green space in urban areas and the subsequent loss of community facilities.
This is a clear dichotomy. Effective levelling-up surely needs to redress the balance and be clear about which standards are advisory, which are statutory and which take priority in areas where they are in conflict. The current approach appears to lack understanding of specific local needs and the uncertainty has resulted in some Local Authorities pausing their Local Plans until there is greater clarity. This will not only delay much-needed potential housebuilding but, in turn, set back any prioritisation of green infrastructure, leaving parks under threat.
The Green Space Index in 2022 identified that 40% of areas with the lowest GSI Score fall into Government's priority Levelling-Up locations. Local authorities in these areas already have, on average, 10% less green space provision when benchmarked against the amount communities need to thrive.
Explore the full findings
Securing community access to green spaces is a view shared by other legislators. The January meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Parks and Green Spaces discussed these issues, and Liz Twist MP who chairs the APPG said: "access to green space is a right and not a privilege," identifying this as a "focus of any levelling up agenda".
Additionally, we are working with other charities and voluntary sector organisations to promote shared ideas through two policy coalitions, Wildlife and Countryside Link and The Better Planning Coalition aiming to help the protection of nature and the establishment of a planning system fit for climate, nature and people.
As a green space charity, Fields in Trust is proud to champion our parks and green spaces by protecting them for people to enjoy in perpetuity. Our collective experience of Covid-19 generated a major shift in the way people talk about, and value local green infrastructure. Now, after the pandemic, community access to nature remains crucial for our recovery and resilience as well as the delivery of local climate action plans, but it must be future-proofed.
Fields in Trust have been pioneers in open space standards throughout our near 100-year history, having published the first quantum standards in the 1930s. The "Six Acre Standard" came to be widely accepted and a derivation of the standard is now adopted by around 75% of local authorities; we have recently begun to explore how we can help the built-environment industry to optimise the quality, functionality and long-term sustainability of green spaces. We have been keen to share our expertise to help develop the new Green Infrastructure Framework, however we believe that the voluntary nature of the standards falls short of what is required to drive long-standing change and there needs to be a stronger mandate to ensure equitable and universal access to green space - at least as strong a mandate as the Planning policy requirement to build housing which threatens their future.
These are complex and interconnected issues and rightly so - our parks are multifunctional spaces, used across the generations which deliver a range of benefits throughout the social profile - for individuals, for communities and the wider environment. Rather than navigating the interstices of several overlapping policy areas we believe a clear and unequivocal statement about universal access to local green space - along the lines of a Minimum Service Standard - could form a valuable levelling-up metric and embed a community right for future generations to access green space within the revised planning policy. If minimum standards can be considered for patients in A&E, waiting for an ambulance and running the trains on time, surely it is something that can be applied within the planning system to guarantee the provision and distribution of green space. If levelling-up aspires to a fundamental shift towards equity and access in left-behind neighbourhoods, long-term access to natural spaces should be guaranteed in perpetuity.
Fields in Trust is committed to protecting parks and green spaces so that future generations can enjoy them and our benchmark guidelines are a crucial tool for developers, planners, urban designers and landscape architects in the design of outdoor sport, play and open space. They do us all a world of good, so it's up to us all to protect our parks and green spaces for good.
Alison McCann is Fields in Trust Policy Manager. She can be contacted by any of the below means.
t: 0207 427 2128
Alison McCann is Fields in Trust's Policy Manager. Having worked for the organisation for the last ten years, Alison's current role focuses on research about the value of green space to better inform policymaking. Alison led the commissioning, data analysis and report production for Fields in Trust's Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces research published in May 2018. Alison represents Fields in Trust on the School Playing Fields Advisory Panel providing the Secretary of State with independent objective advice. She previously worked in Sports Development for two London Boroughs, managing projects with a range of stakeholders and community groups.