‘Investing in nature is an investment in the NHS’, says Environment Agency Chief Executive

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Universal access to a healthy natural environment could save the NHS billions of pounds a year in treatment costs if everyone in England had access to good quality green space, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency has declared.

In his speech with UCL’s Institute for Sustainable Resources today, Sir James Bevan highlighted evidence showing the physical and mental health benefits of good environment, and made the case for ‘levelling up’ access to the environment as part of the green recovery from coronavirus.

Sir Bevan explained: “Investing in a healthy environment is about the smartest thing we can do.

“It makes medical sense, because it will mean better health for all and less strain on the NHS.

“It makes economic sense, because it will save the NHS billions of pounds: the NHS could save an estimated £2.1bn every year in treatment costs if everyone in England had access to good quality green space.

“It also makes social sense, because those who live in poor environments are also those who have the worst health and the lowest incomes: levelling up the environment will also help level up everything else.”

The speech coincided with the publication of the Environment Agency’s ‘The State of the Environment: health, people and the environment’, which discusses green inequality in the society.

The report finds that people living in deprived areas are not only more likely to have poorer health outcomes, they also have poorer quality environments and access to less green space.

One study found that city communities with 40% or more black, Asian or ethnic minority residents have access to 11 times fewer green spaces locally than those comprising mainly white residents.

The‘State of the Environment’ report highlights that while significant improvements have been made in the quality of England’s air, land and water there is still a long way to go, with:

  • Air pollution still being the single biggest environmental threat to health in the UK, shortening tens of thousands of lives each year.
  • Antimicrobial resistant microbes becoming more common in the environment due to contamination, meaning infectious illnesses may become harder to treat.
  • Mental health conditions increasing – and can be caused or affected by pollution, flooding and climate change.
  • Substantial and growing evidence for the physical and mental health benefits of spending time in the natural environment, but that children are engaging less with nature.

The World Health Organisation estimates that environmental factors like these contribute about 14% of the total burden of disease in the UK.

A recent study of over 19,000 people in England also found that those who spent two hours or more a week in or around open green spaces were significantly more likely to report good health or high well-being.

The ‘State of the Environment’ report also highlights the benefits to health of nature based-solutions to climate change, such as the new Warrington flood defence scheme which protects over 2,000 homes and businesses and will create reed bed habitats, plant trees, open up riverside paths, and improve the views across the river and town.

The benefits from the air quality improvement, recreation and physical activity add up to over £70 million over the lifetime of the scheme.

Emma Howard Boyd, Chair of the Environment Agency, added: “The coronavirus pandemic has exposed and amplified green inequality in society.

“Too many towns and cities in England, especially those with a strong industrial heritage, have too little green space, too few trees, culverted rivers, poor air quality and are at risk of flooding.

“This holds back economic growth and the building of new homes. It’s also a fundamental moral issue.

“Areas of higher deprivation and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic populations have less access to high quality green and blue space and this contributes to differing disease burdens and life expectancy.

“Creating, and connecting people with, green or blue spaces will support new local jobs and benefit health and well-being.

“This is why it is important that the recovery from coronavirus is a green recovery.”