Looking after the UK’s green spaces better is worth at least £30bn a year in health and welfare benefits, according to the first ever full assessment of the UK’s natural environment.
Around one-third of the UK’s natural assets – including green spaces, rivers, wetlands and important wildlife habitats – are in danger of being lost to development or degraded through neglect. The report by the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) found “a marked decline” in urban green space, with 10,000 playing fields sold off between 1979 and 1997, while only 10% of the UK’s allotments remain.
The health benefits of living with a view of a green space are worth up to £300 per person per year, in part by providing areas for people to exercise but also because simply looking at nature lifts people’s spirits, according to scientific research. Living close to rivers, coasts and wetlands is also a boon – the benefits to residents are about £1.3bn a year.
But these benefits are rarely taken into account when decisions are made about granting permission for building and other development, and in selling off green spaces such as playing fields.
This is the first time the benefits that the UK gains from its natural ecosystems have been quantified and a monetary value put on them. The National Ecosystem Assessment shows that the value of the UK’s natural landscape extends far beyond farming.
Bob Watson, chief scientific adviser to Defra and co-author of the report, said the assessment should be used to shape government policy at the national and local level. “Putting a value on these natural services enables them to be incorporated into policy in the same way that other factors are. We can’t persist in thinking of these things as free.”
“We have to become much better at managing our ecosystems,” he said.
If the UK’s ecosystems are properly cared for, they could add an extra £30bn a year to the UK’s economy; if they are neglected, the economic cost would be more than £20bn a year, the report found. Inland wetlands, for instance, are worth £1.5bn a year in improving water quality alone, and pollinators such as bees are worth at least £430m a year to agriculture.
Although the report’s authors were reluctant to put a single figure on the value of the natural environment, the report shows it runs into hundreds of billions of pounds.
“Green spaces and blue spaces [such as rivers] have an incredible value. Urban planners need to recognise that value,” said Prof Ian Bateman, co-author of the report.
Caroline Spelman, secretary of state for the environment, said: “The assessment is a vital step forward in our ability to understand the true value of nature and how to sustain the benefits it gives us. I want our children to be the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than it was left to them.”
However, the government has been accused of failing to look after the UK’s natural environment, by classifying dozens of environmental and countryside regulations as “red tape” that may be axed as part of its promised “bonfire of regulations”.
Within the next few weeks, the government is expected to issue its promised natural environment white paper, which will draw on the ecosystem assessment. The white paper is expected to include measures to protect areas of beauty and scientific interest, as well as proposals on green spaces.