Improving people’s health and wellbeing through a 25 Year Environment Plan

Peter Cairns/2020VISION

Dom Higgins, Nature and Wellbeing Manager for The Wildlife Trusts, comments on the Government’s ambition to improve people’s health and wellbeing through a 25 Year Environment Plan

Recently, the Government’s 25 year plan for the environment was published. Some commentators were surprised that people’s health was mentioned, let alone an entire chapter dedicated to it. As the Prime Minister stated in her foreword: “Connecting more people with the environment will promote greater well-being.” The plan includes compelling evidence that our physical health and mental wellbeing improve when we live in and take action for wildlife. It also highlights the importance of access to nature in urban settings, as reinforced by the Prime Minister in her launch speech, the Government is at last seeing how much the environment means to people, not least young people.

The Wildlife Trusts welcome a plan that links people’s health and happiness with nature’s recovery. Wildlife Trusts deliver a wide range of activities that contribute to a healthier society. Every day, up and down the country you find a Wildlife Trust working alongside their local communities, to create accessible, natural places where people exercise, children play wild and those who are lonely meet up. This approach is evidence-based and is focussed on increasing time spent in the outdoors in natural places. As part of a balanced approach to helping people feel well, nature-based approaches like social prescribing have a huge amount to offer.

The Wildlife Trusts welcome a plan that links people’s health and happiness with nature’s recovery.

Rightly, the plan has a strong focus on the positive impact on our mental health. This chimes with research by The Wildlife Trusts and the University of Essex, which found that 95% of people with low levels of mental wellbeing made significant improvements by volunteering with their local Wildlife Trust in 6 weeks.

Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind, the mental health charity, said: "Research by Mind and others has consistently shown that ecotherapy, such as outdoor exercise and getting out into nature, is not only good for mental health but can also help address the social issues that come with having a mental health problem. It has been shown in some cases to be more effective – and cost less – than medication. Access to nature-based activities improves mental wellbeing, helps people to become more physically active, can give people the skills and confidence to get back into work or training and helps those who are lonely or socially isolated to connect with others. These are also important factors that can prevent people developing a mental health problem to start with. We welcome this plan and the Government’s commitment to seeing mental health as something wider than just the responsibility of the Department of Health”

The 25 Year Environment Plan says the Government want to see “the natural environment put at the heart of all local Health and Wellbeing Strategies”. We applaud this ambition and the plan’s specific mention of green prescribing. The Wildlife Trusts strongly support nature prescribing as a viable, every day treatment option across our health and social care services.

What would make the plan stronger? Integration with the Department of Health, the NHS and local health and social care services, which is largely missing. We’d like to see firmer targets and measures and a focus on workplace wellbeing which is overlooked. Underpinning all this needs to be a commitment to funding the large-scale greening of town and cities where access to nature is needed the most, and the proposed review of Green Infrastructure Standards in 2019 will be a step towards this. The need for additional funding commitments to make it all happen

Despite its flaws, The Wildlife Trusts stand ready to help the plan live and grow. We are encouraged by the intention to establish a cross-Government alliance on environment and health, and a ‘Natural Environment for Health and Wellbeing’ programme. Also welcome is the development of a Nature Friendly Schools programme, although £10m will not go far. You cannot really put a price on the wellbeing of future generations, so we would like to see a universal approach across the education system, to help make nature part of school life for all children in the future.

Implementing the recommendations and actions for health and people’s wellbeing in the Plan will require a number of different approaches, but cross-party support and legal underpinning will be essential. The Wildlife Trusts are calling for an Environment Act to provide a legislative basis for turning the plan into reality. Read more on our response to the 25 Year Environment Plan here.