Following the launch of the No Places Left Behind Commission report earlier this week, in her latest blog Fields in Trust Chief Executive, Helen Griffiths, reflects on the report's findings and the challenges awaiting The Rt Hon Michael Gove MP as he takes up his changed position around the Cabinet table.
As he arrives in his new office this week Michael Gove faces a sizeable and complex inbox. The Minister for the freshly renamed Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities will have an urgent task to clearly define and articulate what the key policy area of "levelling-up" means in reality.
As the UK emerges from the coronavirus pandemic with an intention to "build back better" the Government faces major challenges. Supporting good jobs in an unbalanced workforce; ensuring that the education system serves the children who have experienced severe disruption and providing a health service delivering acute care whilst tackling health inequalities and developing a preventative approach to avoidable conditions. All of these are crucial for the "Communities" included in the title of Mr Gove's new Department - but none of them are his formal responsibility. They each have a separate Whitehall department to do their part of the work. Yet regional inequalities across the UK show that public services are not provided equitably, our Green Space Index demonstrates uneven provision of parks and green spaces across Great Britain and vulnerable communities are impacted negatively.
The scale and the interdependencies across the levelling-up portfolio are intensely complex.
Mr Gove will be working closely with former Bank of England Chief Economist Andy Haldane, who has been appointed to lead the new Levelling Up Taskforce. In determining a 'To Do' list both new recruits would do well to read the No Place Left Behind Commission report. Fortuitously launched this week to coincide with the departmental renaming, the report explores ways to improve the physical, social and environmental fabric of places that may not be able to generate large amounts of financial value from development. In doing so the commission calls for an improvement in the prosperity and wellbeing of residents. The report sets out to inform and influence broader debates around urban regeneration by gathering evidence of workable ideas.
At Fields in Trust, we worked with the report's authors to share some of our Green Space Index data and insights on the link between publicly accessible parks and green spaces and areas of acute strategic need. We also shared details of our solutions - legally protecting parks and green spaces in locations where the provision of parks is most valued by the communities that use them. The No Place Left Behind report includes a summary of our partnership with Liverpool City Council to protect 100 parks and green spaces across the city (around 1,000 hectares) which will provide places for future generations to play, participate in sport and enjoy the natural world. These urban green spaces will also mitigate the worst effects of climate change, boost air quality and support biodiversity. Multifunctional green spaces delivering multiple advantages - forever.
Liverpool City Council have demonstrated civic leadership as the first UK city to protect its entire green space portfolio - it is vital that others follow this lead. Our additional analysis reveals that the majority of left behind neighbourhoods have low GSI Scores (i.e. they do not meet the minimum level of local green space provision).
Figure 1 - Distribution of average GSI Score in the most left behind neighbourhoods:
Figure 2 - Relationship between average GSI Score and Community Need Score Rank by Ward, where size of dot represents total number of people in that Ward not living within a ten-minute walk of a park or green space:
Regional disparity is also clear from our analysis which shows that, for example, in the North East region there is a cluster of left behind places with very low GSI Scores. The region overall has green space provision per capita of 28.54 sqm - which is below the Great Britain average - and there are 93,281 people in the region who live more than a ten-minute walk from their nearest park or green space and so miss out on the health, wellbeing and community benefits that access to green space delivers.
In preparation for his new tasks Michael Gove has cleared the decks of his predecessor Robert Jenrick's flagship redesign of the planning system which proved politically unpopular. However, the twin challenges of providing sufficient housing and ensuring resilient green infrastructure remain a current conundrum. And Mr Gove knows a little about the importance of green infrastructure: he was DEFRA minister when the ground-breaking 25-Year Plan for the Environment [opens PDF] was published. It is remarkable that any Government document makes a commitment for a quarter of a century - five electoral cycles. In his foreword to the document Gove set out a clear ambition for the UK to be recognised as the leading global champion of a greener, healthier, more sustainable future for the next generation. A Minister with these ambitions now leading DfLUHC and the levelling up agenda is to be welcomed - hopefully someone who understands the value that multifunctional green infrastructure delivers for our communities.
The 25-Year Plan is a complex mix of reducing plastic usage, improving agriculture, managing coastlines, creating new habitats for wildlife and planting more trees. And this is the point: these big cross-cutting problems need multiple solutions and joined-up, inter-departmental approaches from Government. If levelling-up is to be defined and addressed, it needs input from all departments in Government as well as business and civil society.
The DEFRA report acknowledged that urban green space is unequally distributed and that provision of more and better-quality green infrastructure will make towns and cities attractive places to live and work, bringing about key long-term improvements in people's health. Better green infrastructure can also promote local social interactions and help to develop strong community networks through shared events and activities - all of which contribute to regeneration in 'left behind places', helping to make the 'levelling up' agenda concrete.
As our own research has revealed, regular use of parks and green spaces can save the NHS £111 million each year - but the funding for parks does not come from the health budget. We know that all elite sportspeople take their first steps towards gold medals in their local park - but the DCMS doesn't fund parks. Children learn about the world around them, nature and the seasons through park visits - but the Department for Education does not contribute to the parks budget. The same is true across Government ministries. Parks and green spaces deliver impacts across the range of social policy agendas yet remain undervalued for the multiple benefits they contribute to our communities.
The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a greater awareness of the important part green space plays in our neighbourhoods, towns and cities. And the climate crisis adds a new impetus to protect urban green space. The Climate Change Committee's 2019 report to the UK Government recommends the introduction of an urban green space target to reverse the decline and ensure towns and cities are adapted to more frequent heatwaves in the future.
Forthcoming Government reports on the response to the pandemic as well as the cross-Government Commission being led by Lord Agnew on Access to the Outdoors will deliver evidence, and serve to demonstrate the Government's exploration of green space as a solution. But the interest needs to be backed-up by action and the forthcoming comprehensive spending review offers an opportunity for investment in green spaces to regenerate towns and cities as has been proposed in Stockton-on-Tees and other challenged areas. If the new Minster draws on his DEFRA background, prioritising parks and green spaces, he could help to mitigate the impact of climate change and provide a swift and simple visual representation of what levelling-up can achieve for communities in the UK's left behind neighbourhoods.
Helen Griffiths is Fields in Trust's Chief Executive. She can be contacted by any of the below means.
t: 0207 427 2110
Helen Griffiths is Fields in Trust's Chief Executive and is an experienced and knowledgeable commentator on issues related to parks, playing fields and recreational spaces. Follow Helen on Twitter @hegriffiths.