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If the government really wants to level-up places, here’s where they should start

One of the smartest investments is to restore civic infrastructure, especially public parks, writes Rob Pearce from The Parks Alliance

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Parks are a smart investment for public health (photo: Getty)
Parks are a smart investment for public health (photo: Getty)

The government has said it aims to level up the UK economy, boosting regional economic growth in the Midlands and the North. With plans to invest £100bn in infrastructure to improve the well-being of people living in poorer areas and narrow the productivity gap between England’s regions, £22bn has already been allocated to a pothole-filling programme and flood defences.


But infrastructure is not just about roads, rail and waterways – it is about the public realm that enables towns and cities to function, making them good places to live, work and do business. It is about essential civic infrastructure – the public spaces that make these places attractive to people and provide social spaces.


There are already place-based programmes aimed at driving local economic and productivity growth through investment in local assets including skills and cultural infrastructure, including the Towns Fund (£3.6bn), the Future High Streets Fund (£1bn) and the Cultural Investment Fund (£250m) which focus on places outside London.


They need focus on the programmes and projects that deliver the best return – and not only economic


Roads, bridges and potholes are not the only problems that need to be fixed in ‘left-behind places’. Ten years of austerity have left these communities with familiar social problems related to deprivation, including poor public health, degraded environments and civic infrastructure and disconnected communities.


When investment decisions are being made, whether they be about regional or local infrastructure, they need focus on the programmes and projects that deliver the best return – and not only economic.


Well-planned infrastructure spending can also deliver essential social and environmental returns helping tackle local priorities for health and well-being, the environment and local communities. Places should consider where they can achieve the most public value from the investment going in.


One of the smartest investments is to restore the civic infrastructure of these places and especially public parks. According to the 2016 State of UK Public Parks report by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, local parks are used more than just about any other facility for recreation, with 37 million regular users. 


Our parks are also good for our health and well-being, protect the environment and tackle climate change – largely without even trying. They do this because they are made up of natural and semi-natural spaces, making up a stock of natural capital that provides solutions for pressing public policy problems.


The value of developer contributions towards open space fell by £100m between 2006 and 2017


Public Health England’s 2014 report shows that if you regularly use your local park, your physical and mental health is better. Meanwhile the trees and vegetation in the park are busy capturing carbon, cooling the temperature and reducing air pollution, simultaneously tackling public health and climate change – two of the biggest challenges facing government.


But a decade of austerity has seen investment in our civic infrastructure such as libraries, parks and public spaces neglected with spending being slashed by over 40%, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. For many parks’ services, the cuts were even deeper.


With natural capital calculations, we can show our parks’ high return on investment (photo: Getty)
With natural capital calculations, we can show our parks’ high return on investment (photo: Getty)


The value of developer contributions towards open space fell by £100m between 2006 and 2017, according to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s report on the impact of the Community Infrastructure Levy, and the total proportion of urban green space in England has declined by eight percentage points since 2001, from 63% to 55% in 2018.


The result is a significant loss of benefits to the very communities the government’s infrastructure plans aim to help. So how can future infrastructure investment recognise the true value parks deliver?


The answer lies in how they are valued and how they are paid for. Firstly, the natural benefits that parks provide are often seen as ‘free gifts’ meaning they get taken for granted. Without a way of understanding their true value, investment in parks and their maintenance is not prioritised. Secondly, parks are largely paid for by local authorities and consequently have to compete for resources alongside other services that have direct and measurable beneficiaries (older people, children etc). Parks are often just seen as cost.


Each £1 spent on London’s public parks returns £27 in value, including savings of £370m per year on mental health costs 


Natural capital accounting is beginning to change this outlook in providing a consistent way of valuing the benefits of parks (and wider green infrastructure), exposing their true economic, social and environmental value for decision-makers and exposing the associated estimated returns for local communities.


For each £1 spent by local authorities and their partners on public parks, Londoners enjoy at least £27 in value, according to the Greater London Authority’s report on natural capital accounts for public green space, 2017. London’s parks also prevented health costs of £580m per year and mental health costs of £370m per year. The health benefits of London’s parks amount 20% of their total economic value; as such the total asset value of London’s parks is estimated to be £91bn.


According to the Birmingham Health Economic Assessment & Natural Capital Accounts report, each £1 Birmingham City Council invests in its parks and green spaces returns over £24. The annual net benefit of Birmingham’s parks and green spaces to society is nearly £600m. Parks and green spaces managed by Birmingham City Council store more than 573,000 tonnes of carbon, equivalent to 2.1m tonnes of CO₂ with a value of £221m. The total asset value of Birmingham’s parks is estimated to be £11.4bn.


With natural capital accounting, parks are essential civic infrastructure assets of considerable value that deliver exceptionally good returns in the form of natural benefits for local well-being and the environment. But as critical assets they need ongoing investment and good maintenance to continue to do so. That has been sadly lacking.


Natural capital accounting provides a consistent way of valuing the benefits of parks


The prime minister has already hinted at changing the Treasury rules on major infrastructure spending to ensure government has the ability to allocate funding on improving the well-being of people living in poorer areas, as well as driving economic growth. Those making policy decisions should do so with the full knowledge of the true value of parks to their local communities and the returns they deliver in terms of public value.


Natural capital accounting can help us make better decisions by illustrating how parks are a smart investment when compared to other public assets. Not only are investments into parks relatively inexpensive compared to grey infrastructure, they also deliver on key well-being priorities for local communities and help tackle climate change.


The new focus on regional and local infrastructure spending provides a great opportunity to reverse the trend in recent years of under-investment in these critical civic assets and reinforce the message that valuing and enhancing nature makes good economic sense. As everyone already has a favourite park, these are opportunities that shouldn’t be missed.





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