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Huge nature access gap must be bridged to meet Government's 15-minute nature promise

2 May 2023

  • New report reveals that in more than 1 in 10 neighbourhoods 90%-100% of the population have no access to nature within 15 minutes’ walk.

  • Even within the most nature access-rich areas, only 11 out of more than 300 local authorities have 90% or more of households within 15 minutes-walk of nature.

  • Both rural and urban communities fall in the bottom-ten for nature access, with transport barriers a particular issue for nature access in deprived rural communities
  • The most deprived communities are more than twice as likely to live in areas with a low amount of natural space per person.

    A new report, ‘Mapping access to nature in England’ released today (27 April) outlines the huge scale of the challenge for the Westminster Government in meeting its recent promise for every household to be within 15 minutes’ walk of nature. [1]Environment experts are setting four key challenges to the Government to help ensure its landmark commitment to equal nature access is delivered.

    Campaigners are in particular urging a vital change to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. [2] They are asking Government to agree to an amendment to the upcoming law that will require local planning authorities to prioritise addressing health inequalities, with improving access to nature as an essential part of local plans. Ninety different environment, health, and equality organisations back the ‘Nature For Everyone’ campaign and are encouraging members of the public to join over 36,000 other people in petitioning the Government to amend the Bill:

    Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “Access to nature isn’t just an environmental issue, it’s a social justice issue. These results show that the most disadvantaged and marginalised communities are most likely to be left cut off from nature.

    “The Government has made a major commitment to deliver local nature access for everyone. But with a third of the population currently missing out, environmental equity will not be easy to achieve. Everyone should have the right to a healthy environment, backed up by legal rights of access and requirements on public bodies to deliver it. Dedicated funding will be needed, from improving the quality of urban parks, to opening up new access routes in the countryside.”

    Craig Bennett, Chief Executive of The Wildlife Trusts, said: “Having easy access to healthy natural places is proven to increase exercise and improve social connections and mental health. The truth is that too many people live in polluted, nature-deprived neighbourhoods at great cost to their health and wellbeing.

    “It is unacceptable that a third of us do not have green spaces near home – that must change. The Government has promised that everyone will be able to access nature-rich areas within 15 minutes’ walk – but there is an alarming lack of information about how this will be achieved. This report clearly shows how new legal requirements and ring-fenced local funding, targeted to help those living in nature-poor areas, is critical to bridge the nature access gap."

    Mark Rowland, CEO of Mental Health Foundation said: “A lack of nature in people’s lives is a catalyst for poor mental and physical health. The fact that already deprived neighbourhoods are suffering from poor quantity and quality of nature widens the mental and physical health disadvantage gaps for these communities.

    “We need more than sticking plaster solutions to tackle the symptoms of nature decline in our most marginalised communities. Major change on the ground is needed to give a natural boost to people’s health through greater access to parks, woodlands, rivers and other spaces. The Government must steer this change with a decisive mission, mandatory standards and centralised funding.”

    Abi Bunker, Director of Conservation and External Affairs at the Woodland Trust said: “These findings shed light on the sad reality that many people, particularly in deprived communities, can’t easily access nature. We need change, now.

    “The benefits for people having access to green space are well documented. A recent survey commissioned by the Woodland Trust showed that, for 86% of people, spending time in nature had a positive effect on their mental health. It is vital that Government acts so that everyone can get out and enjoy nature whatever their background and wherever they live.”

    The report findings demonstrate:

    A problem at scale: Around 1 in 3 (7.8 million) English households don’t have nature near home. And in large areas of the country the majority of the population don’t have nature nearby. These new findings show that in a third of local authorities more than 70% of households don’t have access to nature within 15 minutes’ walk. With 1 in 10 local neighbourhoods (Lower Super Output Areas LSOAs) having more than 90% of the population without local nature access and 3% of neighbourhoods (909 LSOAs) having no accessible local nature at all. This leaves an enormous access to nature gap to bridge, that will need significant legislative and policy shifts and associated funding to remedy.

    Access to nature is a rural and urban problem: Both rural and urban communities are among those with the least access to nature, with rural and semi-rural areas featuring prominently in the rankings for the 10 most nature access-poor local authorities. While urban nature spaces are often smaller and in poorer condition, rural communities face significant challenges in accessibility, particularly for those reliant on travelling by foot or public transport.

Some rural communities may be surrounded by beautiful countryside, but this is often privately owned with no public right to access, and sites open to the public may be hard to reach unless by car. This particularly disadvantages lower-income households, with two-thirds unlikely to own a car. To reach natural spaces which are hard to walk to, lower income households have a greater reliance on often infrequent or unreliable public transport, which potentially may not even directly connect to these natural spaces. In contrast the most nature access-rich communities are all rural and communities are frequently either within or in reach of important nature sites which have greater public footpath access.

Deprived communities are doubly disadvantaged:
Whether in rural or urban areas the most deprived communities are most likely to miss out on access to nature and to have poor quality and poor quantity of natural space. These communities are more than twice as likely to have a low amount of natural space per person, with 46% of the most deprived local authorities amongst those with the least amount of natural space per person, compared to 21% of the least deprived local authorities. The constituencies with the least natural space per person have under 3m2 per person which is 99% less than the national average of 3llm2 per person and less than 0.03% of the more than 10,000m2 per person in the most nature-access rich areas.

All of the ten local authorities with the least natural space per person are in London and eight are within the bottom 10% of areas for condition of the local environment, including outdoor spaces and forests, as ranked by the Legatum index.[3] The remaining two fall within the bottom 25%. Other urban areas with a high proportion of deprived communities, such as Wolverhampton, Salford, Kingston-Upon-Hull, Coventry, Portsmouth, and Leicester also fall in the worst quarter of local authorities for both amount of natural space per person and quality of natural space and environment.

In its recent Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP) announcement, the Government gave a landmark commitment that all members of the public would be able to access green space or water within a 15-minute walk from their home. This promise was a warmly welcomed key feature of this five-year delivery plan to restore nature and the environment, but there was little detail on how this monumental task would be achieved and funded.

The Government has already committed £39m to Levelling Up Parks Funding to be spent on improving “the equality of access and quality of natural space”, alongside the use of some Levelling Up Funds for projects with green infrastructure elements. However there has been a severe and long-term decline in funding for parks and other natural spaces from over-stretched local authorities in recent years, which would need significant investment to reverse. The State of UK Public Parks 2021 report estimated £690m in parks funding had been lost in the decade up to 2021. The Guardian last year put the figure even higher, estimating that English local authorities are spending almost £330m less a year in real terms on parks and open spaces than they were a decade ago, with the worst cuts in the most deprived authorities.

Nature and health groups are calling for the following 4 key actions to help meet the Government’s 15-minute nature promise:

- Introduce legal duties to increase access to nature, including:- Amending the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill to require local planning authorities to provide policies on health inequalities, including tackling inequalities in access to nature, in local development plans - Establishing a legal human right to a healthy natural environment through primary legislation, which could take the form of a new Environmental Rights Bill.

- Provide increased, ring-fenced, funding for green and blue infrastructure, enabling local authorities to restore, maintain and improve existing natural spaces and create new natural spaces in collaboration with the local community

- Target funding and resources towards deprived and minority communities that are most likely to experience lack of access to local nature. With measures within local strategies to improve access for ethnic minority and disabled communities – addressing specific socio-cultural and physical needs

- Embed public access within the Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMs) supported by an overall uplift in ELM funding to enable farmers and land managers to increase public access


Notes to editors:

1. The data-mapping and analysis behind the report ‘Mapping access to nature in England’ was conducted by Wildland Research Limited. The analysis utilises official green infrastructure and population datasets used by Natural England and mapping tools to calculate the amount of natural space within 15 minutes-walk of households via a publicly accessible route. The research examines the amount of accessible natural space such as parks, woodlands and rivers (excluding sites such as golf courses that are not accessible to all members of the public), the amount of natural space per person, and the percentage of the population within 15 minutes-walk of nature.

This data is fed into a weighting system referred to as the Area Access Index (AAI).This AAI metric factors in the amount of natural space per person and buffers used in the ANGST+ model of “at least 0.5 hectare within 200m”, “at least 2 hectare within 300m”, and “at least 10 ha within 1km”. This buffering creates a weighting system that reduces skewing of the results by access of dense populations to very small areas of natural space within 15 minutes’ walk. A high AAI value indicates good access to natural space in a community. For more detail on the research methodology see pages 10 and 41-43 in the report. (LINK)

2. The Nature For Everyone campaign, coordinated by England’s biggest nature coalition - Wildlife and Countryside Link, is backed by more than 90 organisations, with cross-party parliamentary support and celebrity supporters including Steve Backshall and Deborah Meaden.

Details of the amendment the coalition wish to see in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, can be found here.

3. Additional Quotes:

James MacColl, Head of Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns at The Ramblers, said:
“Being able to walk in nature-filled green spaces, whether in towns, cities or the countryside, makes people happier and healthier. However, as the stark results of this research show, access to nature isn’t equal.

Whilst the Government’s commitment for everyone to live within a 15-minute walk of a green or blue space is a welcome one, it’s unclear how this will be achieved without a legally-binding target or clear plan for delivery. Access to nature must be brought closer to people’s homes, with a network of green routes in all towns and cities, so that everyone is able to access and enjoy green spaces and the outdoors”

Carrie Hume, Head of Health Equals, said:
“Not enough attention is paid to how our health is shaped by our interactions with the world around us. People with greater access to nature and green spaces are more likely to report better health but not everyone has equal access to them. Politicians must take action to improve our opportunities for good health.”

4. (p62 for environment ranking)

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