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Outdoors For All Manifesto sets out a vision for a natural health service that is free and available for all

The Outdoors For All manifesto will be officially presented to Parliamentarians on Wednesday 6 March, setting out a vision for a natural health service that is free and available for all. Ben Seal, Head of Access & Environment at British Canoeing, explains why this is needed now more than ever.

March 2024

The Outdoors For All manifesto will be officially presented to Parliamentarians on Wednesday 6 March, setting out a vision for a natural health service that is free and available for all. Forty two national governing bodies and environmental organisations are calling on the Government to bring new legislation to extend responsible access to more blue and green landscapes.

The Outdoors For All manifesto, which has the support of the National Trust, The Canal & Rivers Trust, The Wildlife Trust and Campaign For National Parks, argues that to meet government targets, rights to responsibly access the outdoors must be expanded. While we are proud of our rich and varied landscapes - from rivers, canals and lakes, to mountains, crags, coastlines, there are millions of people, many of whom from the most deprived communities, who have no access to green and blue space on their doorstep.

  • A tiny percentage of rivers in England have an uncontested public right of access.
  • The path network is frequently inaccessible and 19.6m people do not live within a 15-minute walk of green and blue spaces.
  • Access land which gives us our current and limited right to roam covers just 8% of England and only to those on foot, excluding others such as equestrians, paddlers and cyclists.

The body of evidence in support of greater, responsible access to nature as a remedy for tackling obesity, improving mental health and reducing mortality from curable diseases is growing all the time. Studies show that living closer to nature is associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity in adults.

Other studies highlight the impact that the quality of the environment can have on positive health outcomes. Some of the most powerful evidence relates to the mental health benefits of outdoor recreation. Interaction with blue and green spaces can reduce levels of psychological distress and promote cognitive restoration and stress reduction, relaxation and mindfulness.

This positive boost to our health and wellbeing is needed now more than ever. The cost to the UK economy of poor mental health has now been estimated to be in the range of £53-56bn pa, which equates to more than 2.6% of annual GDP. Physical inactivity costs the UK economy an estimated £7.4bn pa. and is linked to 1 in 6 deaths in the UK. The UK ranks 11th of 15 European nations on levels of physical activity [i]and is forecast to be 30% less active by 2030 than we were in the 1960s

Added to this, studies show that the UK ranks lowest out of 15 European nations on nature connectedness. It also ranks 11th out of 15 on levels of physical activity. It is no coincidence that those nations that rank above the UK on both, have a more expansive freedom to access nature than in England. We urgently need a step change in our approach toward public health.

In their latest strategy, Department for Culture, Media and Sport has targeted getting 3.5m more people active by 2030. While this is laudable, the scope to set our ambitions higher is far greater. Outdoors For All sets out a vision for a naturally healthy Britain, making more use of our natural health service and at the same time reconnecting people to nature.

The UK is currently facing a perfect storm of global and domestic threats to our society; threats to our health, to our economy, our security and to societal cohesion. It was in the years following the great wars when our nation needed heeling, where our National Parks were born. More recently, our ability to exercise outdoors once a day was the one thing that helped many people through the darkest days of the pandemic.

While expanding our access to blue and green spaces isn’t the silver bullet to solve international wars, nor tackle inflation, it can and must play a part in helping our population lead happier, healthier, more fulfilling lives - a core aim of any government of the day.

Ben Seal is Head of Access & Environment at British Canoeing. Follow @BritishCanoeing

The opinions expressed in this blog are the authors' and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.