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Mental Health: Access to Nature

Volume 693: debated on Tuesday 27 April 2021

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. I remind the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) that she is visible at all times to us in the Boothroyd Room. If she has any technical problems, she should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered enabling access to nature to support mental health.

As always, it is a pleasure to see you, albeit virtually, and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I felt it was important to have this debate today, as both nature and mental wellbeing are not only issues that I care passionately about, as do many of my constituents, but ones that perhaps hold more significance to people’s everyday lives after the immense challenges of the past year.

By complete coincidence, a new all-party parliamentary group on health and the natural environment is being launched this afternoon, with green social prescribing high on the agenda. That is another perfect reason for this debate. I encourage hon. Members to contact my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) for further information.

When I heard that the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is “connect with nature”, I wanted to secure the debate so that I could highlight the power of nature in improving people’s wellbeing. I am grateful for the briefings that many organisations have sent. I can assure them all that even if I do not mention them, I have read each and every one. I commend Isabel Hardman’s book “The Natural Health Service,” which is brilliant and provides real life examples of how nature can improve and heal poor mental wellbeing.

I am pleased that both the Government and society as a whole have made great strides in the last few years in improving awareness of mental health and wellbeing. However, there is always more that we can and should be doing. Coming out of the pandemic, as we are now, provides an opportunity for a greater focus on both, with nature at its centre. Without doubt, the lockdowns over the past year have had an adverse impact on people’s mental health. However, access to nature, whether that be a local woodland, a waterway or a park, have been critical in providing a brief moment of normality for so many of us.

Around nine in 10 people surveyed by Natural England in May 2020 agreed that

“natural spaces are good for mental health and wellbeing.”

While it would be fair to make the assumption that we have spent more time outdoors over the last year, it is essential to remember that many people do not have the luxury of access to a private garden and rely on public spaces. Over 11 million people in England live in areas deprived of local green space and one in eight people across Great Britain have no access to a garden, private or shared. With more of us expected to live in towns and cities over the coming years, I believe that now is a crucial moment to ensure that nature is put at the forefront of our local communities, creating a new oasis for nature and protecting existing green spaces for people to relax and enjoy.

I consider myself lucky in that I have a garden and an allotment, and I live close to a river, which the Canal and River Trust delightfully refers to as “blue health.” Over the past year I have found great comfort in being able to access nature as I have navigated my way through personal health challenges. I was sure my consultant thought I had gone mad when I spent 10 minutes enthusing about forest bathing, only to hear in our next call how she had spent the weekend in the woods.

With the ramping up of social prescribing, we are seeing more prescribing of nature for patients. I have seen some incredible examples of eco-therapy locally and I know that the Wildlife Trust has called for nature to be included in the covid-19 mental health and wellbeing recovery action plan, which would help harness the power of the natural environment to drive health improvement and reduce pressure on the NHS.

From a local perspective, I look forward to working with Kent Wildlife Trust and the newly formed Kent and Medway alliance for green social prescribing, which links the NHS with environmental and mental health organisations, and will act as a catalyst for further projects between health and environmental partners in Kent. Although I recognise that that does not necessarily fall under the Minister’s brief, I know she is engaged with the Department of Health and Social Care on further exploration of the benefits of nature for those with a variety of ailments.

On the Minister’s brief specifically, I support the efforts that the Government have made in promoting access to nature, and I have welcomed measures in both the Environment Bill and the Agriculture Act 2020. I especially welcome the biodiversity net gain requirement for new homes in the Environment Bill. I have seen for myself the impact of inappropriate new housing developments in my own constituency, where developers have not considered local biodiversity at all. Sadly, we continue to see hawkish proposals that would further decimate our already declining wildlife.

We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reverse the attack on nature. I would welcome further commitments from the Department, as the wider planning reforms are discussed, to ensure that green spaces are preserved and enhanced for existing and new residents alike. I therefore ask that the Minister ensures that her officials work with those in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure that a new zonal planning system is aligned with the Government’s ambitious commitments to restore nature.

One way to achieve that, which has been supported by a number of charities and organisations, would be to give legal protection to areas set aside for nature’s recovery in what is called the wild belt—an idea that the Prime Minister referenced in his Conservative party conference speech last year. The wild belt should be run throughout local areas, giving the public access to wild spaces rich in biodiversity to improve health and wellbeing and provide green corridors to enable wildlife to move between biodiversity hotspots.

We need to do more to promote the growth of wild flowers along busy roads, often called roadside nature reserves. Unfortunately, in my constituency we saw the local council accidentally cut back on RNR, but I have since been pleased to see that several councils across the country that paused cutting back wildflowers during the pandemic have continued to do so, allowing wildlife to thrive. We have gone from people complaining about weeds and overgrown grasses to their calling for more wild flowers, because looking at a much better and more colourful roadside reserves makes people feel better.

As with any large pieces of legislation, there are always opportunities for further improvements. I would encourage the Government to take the opportunity while the Environment Bill is paused to put into law the PM’s important commitment in the UN leaders’ pledge for nature to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. That would provide the legal willpower to accelerate efforts to protect British wildlife and endangered species such as the hedgehog, and expand the offering of green spaces rich in biodiversity for public wellbeing.

A commitment in law to reverse biodiversity loss would hopefully go some way to address the postcode lottery for access to nature. Clearly, large-scale investment is required if we are to protect endangered wildlife and ensure that everyone, regardless of where they live or work, can access nature.

The National Trust is calling on the Government to use their levelling-up agenda to establish a new £5.5 billion green infrastructure fund to improve access to green spaces in our towns and cities. I recognise the very serious financial pressures that the country faces as a result of lockdowns, but the charity has estimated that such investment could unlock £200 billion in health benefits alone. Although such proposals would create a lasting legacy for future generations, there are of course small improvements to nature that could easily be achieved, such as the planting of trees or wild flowers along residential roads.

It is often the smallest changes in nature that can make a large impact on a person’s mood, such as how at this time of year many of us admire the beautiful simplicity of blossom. I have been pleased to support the National Trust’s blossom watch campaign for 2021 to encourage people to take a moment in nature, and the National Trust has had more than 5.5 million views of its blossom watch content so far this year. On Saturday morning, despite everything else that was going on, #BlossomWatch was trending at No. 1 on Twitter, a testament to the current public interest and engagement with nature.

I hope that the Government work with Members from across the House to achieve change for our local communities and leave a lasting legacy of improved nature and wildlife. Those of us who already believe in the power of nature and its healing content are completely sold on this, but we need to make sure that others can get out there and access nature in order to ensure that they too can have improved health and wellbeing. We must always be conscious that not everyone has that. I am afraid that, with housing developments and the planning system as they are at the moment, more and more of that is being lost.

Given the events of the past year, I am confident that there is willpower among Back Benchers to make real change in this area. As the recovery begins, people speak of their desire to return to normality, but when it comes to nature, I urge the Minister to use this opportunity to create a better normality and a green recovery from covid that improves both the natural environment and mental wellbeing of the country, for when one thrives, so can the other.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) on securing the debate and on her powerful speech. It is always good to discuss the mental health benefits of access to nature. I share her excitement at the starting of the APPG this afternoon, and I look forward to further developments and indeed further pressure on the Government from that APPG.

We all know that access to nature can be hugely beneficial not only for physical health but for mental health, with studies showing that people who visit nature regularly feel their lives to be more worthwhile. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of nature, as the Department for Health and Social Care recognised in its recent covid-19 mental health and wellbeing recovery action plan. I am pleased to say that, along with many other Government Departments, my Department was invited to take part in some of the preparations for that plan. This sort of cross-government working, as my hon. Friend alluded to, is essential as we look at this important area going forward.

My hon. Friend rightly said that access to green space is not equal. About 40% of people from ethnic minority backgrounds live in the areas most deprived of green space, compared with 14% of white people, while we know that in general those from poorer communities have less access to green space. Those who are more likely to experience poor mental health and wellbeing are often the least likely to engage with nature. To tackle this, we are developing a national framework of green infrastructure standards, which should be ready next year and which will map green space and improve green infrastructure, such as footpaths. The Environment Bill will also establish a new England-wide system called local nature recovery strategies, which at a very local level will agree local nature priorities, map existing habitats and map proposals for new or improved habitats, which should enhance nature. The aim is to promote landscapes for everyone and to support access to nature for those who think they need it most. MHCLG’s levelling up fund supports local infrastructure in this way, very much including green spaces. MHCLG and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs officials are working closely together, as my hon. Friend hopes, to ensure that this is really joined up and working well.

May I say what a joy it is to see the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) looking so well? We all look forward to seeing her back in the Chamber again; I just cannot wait. I will try to hug her if I am allowed; we will see how that goes. I am aware that I am very fortunate to live on a farm, and am able to go for walks, which really improves my mental health. Other people do not have that opportunity, and the Minister is outlining a very good programme for how to address that.

This morning on TV there was a show educating primary school age children on planting, encouraging engagement with nature. There are many groups, such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the National Trust, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the Countryside Alliance, that would be willing, I believe, to partner with the Government to ensure that those people who do not have ready access to nature can engage like that, and can use the green corridors that are there.

It is always a pleasure to speak with the hon. Gentleman, and he is right to highlight the work that various groups are doing to encourage all of us to engage with nature in a more educated way. Indeed, my own community was excited to find a great crested newt in my neighbour’s pond this morning, and we immediately got on to the RSPB who are full of information about great crested newts, and that is just one example of the work that can be done on a very local level to make sure that we all enjoy nature in an educated and appreciative way.

To go back to the Government schemes, we have an £80 million green recovery challenge fund, which has been set up to kickstart nature-based projects across England in order to help with the recovery from the pandemic. One example of what we have done through this fund is to create 12 tiny forests across urban areas in England. This fund is also being used to work specifically on projects in NHS facilities.

I would like to join the hon. Gentleman in saying how absolutely fantastically well my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford is looking today—I know that she spent far too much of the last year in NHS facilities, and she will appreciate how important it is for patients, who may not be very mobile or feeling very well, to be able to go and sit somewhere or just enjoy nature around them during their treatment. I, sadly, had to spend many hours in A&E on Saturday with a family member—all was well, I hasten to add—and when I came out I was privileged to walk along the canal. That blue space was critical in helping me calm down and really put the day’s events in context. It was very useful.

Another example of our work to support equitable access to nature is the cross-Department project led by DEFRA which aims to tackle mental health specifically through green social prescribing. I heard about a brilliant initiative from a GP’s surgery in Newcastle where they prescribe working in the GPs’ allotment to help patients feel better. These services link people directly to nature-based activities such as community allotments, green gyms and conservation volunteering, which specifically target communities which have been badly hit by the pandemic.

We are also committed to ensuring that the public have good access to footpaths. For example, we are developing the England coastal path, which will be the longest way-marked and maintained coastal walking route in the world. We are also planning a new northern coast-to-coast national trail. We intend to table legislation this year that will enable unrecorded historic rights of way to be registered more easily, which should protect them for future users. As the hon. Lady said, our future farming policies are very much targeted towards rewarding farmers who bring about environmental benefits, and access to farmland for the general public is very much a part of this.

An example of the type of action that we envisage paying for in the future would be well signposted footpaths in places that are easily accessible from towns as well as more rural communities. I am very keen on creating circular walks and bike rides wherever possible, and I know that my hon. Friend will be particularly keen on the bike access, as well as the allotment progress.

Specifically on the points that my hon. Friend makes about the Environment Bill, the Bill will, if passed, require the Government to set and meet ambitious targets on biodiversity, together with those on air, water and waste. The Government feel that what she is seeking to achieve is inbuilt in the very nature of the Environment Bill, and will in future be protected for the public by the new Office for Environmental Protection. Nevertheless, I am sure that we will continue to have many discussions during the passage of that Bill about the right way to achieve these really important goals. I encourage Members from across the House to continue to engage with DEFRA to help us identify new opportunities for increasing access to, and meaningful engagement with, the natural world.

Thank you, Mr Davies, and I thank my hon. Friend once again for this excellent debate.

Can I also say from the Chair what a delight it is to see the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) looking so well? If the promise or threat—I am not sure which it was—of a hug from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) at the appropriate time does not give us something to look forward to, I do not know what will.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.