The government has said it aims to level up the UK economy, boosting regional economic growth in the midlands and north, by investing £100 billion in infrastructure to improve the well-being of people living in poorer areas and narrow the productivity gap between England’s regions. £22 billion has been allocated to the biggest ever pothole-filling programme and flood defences with the rest to be determined by the forthcoming budget and spending review.
But infrastructure is not just about the roads, rails and waterways that connect our towns and cities. It’s also about the public realm in towns and cities that enables them to function, that makes them good places to live, work and do business. And importantly it’s about the essential civic infrastructure in these places – the public spaces that make these places attractive to people and provide the social spaces that enable communities to function.
There are already place based programmes running aimed at driving local economic and productivity growth through investment in local assets and infrastructure including skills and cultural infrastructure. The Towns Fund (£3.6 billion), the Future High Streets Fund (£1 billion) and the Cultural Investment Fund (£250 million) have recently been launched, focusing on towns and cities outside London, with many already assembling partnerships and investment plans for their places.
More than just filling potholes
But building roads, repairing bridges and filling potholes are not the only problems that need to be fixed in the ‘left behind places’. Ten years of austerity has 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 to be focused on the programmes and projects that deliver the best return. That return must not only be economic. Well planned infrastructure spending can also deliver essential social and environmental returns helping tackle local priorities for health and wellbeing, the environment and local communities. Places should consider where they can achieve the most public value from the investment going in.
Why parks are smart
One of the smartest investments has to be in restoring the civic infrastructure of these places and especially public parks. Everyone loves their local park. They are the most visited green space in the country and are used more than just about any other facility for recreation generating over £1.5 billion last year. They are the country’s most favoured community space. But what a lot of people don’t realise is that it is well proven that our parks are also good for our health and well-being, protecting the environment and tackling 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 natural solutions for some of the most pressing public policy problems of today. It’s been proven that if you regularly use your local park your physical and mental health is better and while you are there 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 policy issues facing government today.
Natural Capital – proving why parks are smart is important
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 per cent. For many parks services the cuts were even deeper. The value of developer contributions towards open space also fell by £100 million between 2006 and 2017. The total proportion of urban green space in England has declined by eight percentage points since 2001, from 63 per cent to 55 per cent in 2018. This has to mean a there has been a significant loss of benefits to the very communities the government’s infrastructure plans are designed to help. So how can future infrastructure investment planning turn around this situation and recognise the true value parks deliver?
The answer lies in how they are valued and how they are paid for. Firstly, the natural benefits and the parks that provide are public goods and without a way of valuing them they are often seen as ‘free gifts’ meaning they get taken for granted. Without a way of understanding their true value investing 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 costs.
Natural capital accounting is beginning to change this outlook 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. London’s parks help people improve their physical and mental health resulting in avoided health costs £580 million per year by being in better physical health and £370 million per year by being in better mental health. The health benefits of London’s parks amount 20 per cent of their total economic value. The total asset value of London’s parks is estimated to be £91 billion.
Furthermore, each £1 that Birmingham City Council invests in its parks and greenspaces returns over £24 to society. The annual net-benefit of Birmingham’s parks and greenspaces to society is nearly £600 million. Parks and greenspaces managed by Birmingham City Council store more than 573,000 tonnes of carbon, equivalent to 2.1 million tonnes of CO2 with a value of £221 million. The total asset value of Birmingham’s parks is estimated to be £11.4 billion. 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 on-going investment and good maintenance to continue to do so. That has been sadly lacking.
Valuing nature means better decision making and greater public value
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 wellbeing of people living in poorer areas as well as driving economic growth . Those now planning investment in Towns and Cities through the Towns Fund are already considering their plans for improving local prosperity. Those making these decisions should do so with the full knowledge of the true value of parks to their local communities and returns they deliver in terms of public value.
Natural capital accounting can help make better decisions by illustrating how parks are a smart investment when compared to investments in other public assets. Not only are investments into parks relatively inexpensive compared to grey infrastructure they also deliver on key wellbeing 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 of recent years of under investment in these critical civic assets and reinforce the message that valuing and enhancing nature makes for good economic decision making and better public value. As everyone has a favourite park these are opportunities that shouldn’t be missed.