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

In a major speech, the Chief Executive of the Environment Agency will today (Tuesday 8 September) say that 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.

Sir James Bevan will highlight evidence which shows the physical and mental health benefits of good environment, and make the case for “levelling up” access to the environment as part of the green recovery from coronavirus. He will also lay out the steps the Environment Agency is taking to protect and enhance our precious green and blue spaces, while adapting to the threat of a changing climate.

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

The report – which brings together a wide range of evidence – 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.

Sir James is expected to say:

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 £2.1 billion every year in treatment costs if everyone in England had access to good quality green space.

And it makes socio-political 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 Environment Agency’s latest ‘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 wellbeing.

The Environment Agency plays a key role in protecting the environment for people’s lives and livelihoods – responding to pollution incidents, creating better places for people and wildlife, and supporting sustainable development.

The ‘State of the Environment’ report sets out the ways in which the Environment Agency is helping make the country healthier, for example by supporting angling in England including through improving fish habitats and re-stocking. Angling has been shown to have a multitude of health and social benefits, particularly for those with limited opportunities for other forms of physical exercise. Angling has double the number of participants with long-term illnesses compared to other sports.

The report also highlights the benefits to health of nature based-solutions to climate change, such as the Environment Agency’s 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 & wellbeing. This is why it is important that the recovery from coronavirus is a green recovery.

In its new five year plan, EA2025, the Environment Agency has already laid out plans for a new approach which promotes health, equity and environmental enhancement, with the Coronavirus pandemic presenting an opportunity to reshape a better future. It can help society better understand the largest public health threat of the century: climate change.

The plan also highlights a renewed focus on improving the health of air, land and water for people and nature – and ensuring green growth for a sustainable future.

Professor Paul Ekins OBE, UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources, said:

The United Nations’ sixth Global Environment Outlook, published in 2019, was entitled ‘Healthy Planet’ Healthy People’, and this important report from the Environment Agency shows that this is as true for the UK as it is more widely.

I am delighted that Sir James Bevan has chosen to launch this new publication – which gives lots of evidence of the positive effects of a healthy environment on human health – at UCL.

The government’s 25 year environment plan sets out an ambition to help more people, from all backgrounds, to engage with and spend time in green and blue spaces in their everyday lives, and the government’s forthcoming Environment Bill will put the environment at the centre of policy making to ensure that we have a cleaner, greener and more resilient country for the next generation. Building on this, the Government has also recently announced a further £4 million in a two-year pilot to bring green prescribing to four urban and rural areas that have been hit the hardest by coronavirus.

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