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Helen Griffiths: Parks' boost to our wellbeing must be counted

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“The message from local communities has been loud and clear on this issue – they value our parks too much to lose them.”

So said councillor Graham Morgan (Lab), leader of Knowsley MBC, earlier in June, as he reversed the decision to sell 17 local parks and green spaces for development.

I completely agree with Cllr Morgan’s sentiment. At Fields in Trust, a charity promoting green spaces, we know how much communities value their parks and green spaces too. Our new research Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces identifies that UK parks contribute £34bn each year in improved physical health and mental wellbeing.

Established in 1925, Fields in Trust now legally protects over 2,700 parks and green spaces across the UK, ensuring they will always be available for community use. Few public services have such a wide-ranging impact as parks and green spaces. Yet as the Association for Public Services Excellence, the Local Government Information Unit and others have pointed out, funding cuts place their future at a tipping point.

The situation in Knowsley is indicative of pressure on council expenditure, but any decision by a public body to remove a park or green space is usually shortsighted. Our research demonstrates NHS savings of £111m per year, just on prevented GP visits from regular park users. This doesn’t include treatment costs or prescriptions so the actual savings to the taxpayer will be higher.

While this is a small percentage of the overall NHS budget, it could pay 3,500 additional nurses. The health benefits far outweigh the short-term cost of park maintenance or the one-time capital receipt from the sale of public assets.

Our research used the Treasury’s approved Green Book methodology to value non-market goods. Visitors don’t pay to visit their local park, and we want it to stay that way. Yet just because something doesn’t have a price doesn’t mean it has no value.

When applying welfare weighting for income we see less privileged communities value their local parks more. This insight helps identify where investment will have the greatest impact on individuals, enabling local authorities to maximise the contribution that parks and green spaces make to improved physical health, mental wellbeing, community cohesion and health inequalities.

If creating more joined-up service provision using fewer resources is key to the work of local government then investing resources in one area of public service which delivers across multiple agendas is surely an efficient approach. We believe that changing the conversation to recognise the significant role that parks can play in aiding prevention, rather than cure, is crucial to sustaining their future.

Our research shows what we all intuitively know: green spaces are good. They do good and they should be protected for good.

Helen Griffiths is chief executive of Fields in Trust. Download the full research report or a summary of findings at www.fieldsintrust/research

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