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Green Spaces

Volume 835: debated on Thursday 1 February 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they have plans to increase the number of locally available and easily accessible green spaces.

Our environmental improvement plan includes a commitment that everyone should live within a 15-minute walk of a green or blue space and includes measures to reduce barriers which prevent people accessing them. Progress on this commitment is well under way through the levelling up parks fund, the green infrastructure framework, the urban trees challenge fund, the Access for All programme and the woodland access implementation plan.

I thank the Minister for the response. I warmly welcome this commitment; it is extremely important. However, 38% of people do not have access to green or blue space. Those who are economically marginalised have the least access of all. Access to green space is vital for our physical, mental and general well-being. Can the Minister confirm what proposals the Government have to deliver the target and when they expect to make progress?

My Lords, one of the programmes I mentioned in my initial Answer, the levelling up parks fund, is focused specifically on grants given to and administered by local authorities to deliver new or improved green spaces in more than 100 of the neighbourhoods most deprived of green spaces across the UK. Some 92% of recipients of that funding have reported increases in access to green spaces in deprived urban areas. That is one example of how we are delivering on that commitment. I also reassure the noble Earl that we are working across government to ensure that there is a robust baseline for measuring that commitment, so that we can report on progress in future.

My Lords, I give my sincere apologies to the House for jumping in prematurely; as a Deputy Speaker, I ought to know better. Is my noble friend aware of the value of private gardens as green spaces, particularly in urban areas? Will she try to discourage householders from concreting over their front gardens?

My Lords, the Government absolutely acknowledge the role that private gardens have to play as part of our overall green space and open space. The importance of our green spaces is of course reflected in the NPPF and other government guidance for planning.

My Lords, when I was chair of the London Food Board, we created 2,012 new growing spaces in London in the years leading up to the Olympics. There are still 2,500 of them—200 acres of London—producing an extraordinary amount of food, mostly in areas of most deprivation. The key to getting these places going was a thing called a “meanwhile lease”, which is different from an allotment because no council or building company will give anyone space in perpetuity. I have been trying to get the Government to adopt an amendment saying that meanwhile leases should be encouraged and made mandatory for all councils. Will the Government agree to look at that now? It is a very easy and effective way to give people of all denominations access to green space and their own healthy food.

My Lords, I am happy to look in more detail at the proposal put forward by the noble Baroness and to write to her on what the Government can do in this area.

My Lords, the Minister talks about open green space, but many urban areas do not have any, as we have heard. Is there a case for allowing some development in the green belt if the developer agrees to have green space in urban areas for people to access?

My Lords, I do not believe it should be an either/or. The green belt is rightly protected, and the Government’s approach to that is set out clearly. For urban green space, that is also reflected in the National Planning Policy Framework. It is clear that access to high-quality open spaces and opportunities for sport and physical activity are important to the health and well-being of communities. Planning policies and decisions should enable the retention and development of accessible open spaces. That is what local plans should seek to do.

My Lords, the environmental improvement plan is an example of this rubbish Government actually coming up with some good ideas. But, despite the fact that this plan is good particularly for deprived communities, children and biodiversity, there is a problem. Is it perhaps the fact that this Government have slashed funding to councils that has made progress so slow?

My Lords, I have set out a number of different ways that we are supporting this commitment. On local government funding, the provisional local government finance settlement for next year announced a substantial funding package for councils, worth more than £64.1 billion—£4 billion more than last year. But, having listened to councils, a further £600 million was announced at the end of January. So we are providing the funding to councils to help support their important role in delivering this.

My Lords, many homes have only small gardens, or none at all. Grass playgrounds with trees give children open and safe places to play and run around. Will the Minister tell the House whether local authorities are responsible for maintaining the environment and safety of these local playgrounds? Can she confirm which government department is responsible for their safety?

It will depend on the particular arrangements for each park or playground, but local authorities are responsible for around 85% of urban parks in England. On which department is responsible, it is my department, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

My Lords, why are the Government intent on wrecking the only available green space near Parliament, Victoria Tower Gardens, which serves an underprivileged population? They are doing it contrary to the 1900 Act, which preserved it as an open space, in order to build an ugly memorial and an inadequate learning centre that is too small and not wanted by Holocaust survivors.

My Lords, on the legal point, I believe the department is bringing forward legislation to address that. I am sure there will be further discussion of the points the noble Baroness makes when we discuss that Bill.

My Lords, it was welcome to see the introduction of funding for opening new permissive access in the latest update to the agricultural transition plan, released in January. According to the Ramblers, access to public rights of way and the time in nature that they provide is deeply unequal. Can the Minister explain how this funding will be steered towards routes that are most needed, and how she will ensure that these new routes are of sufficiently high quality to be accessible to as many people as possible?

My Lords, I will need to write to the right reverend Prelate on the specific details that she asked for. But I reassure her that making our green spaces more accessible is a key focus of government funding and programmes. For example, the Access for All programme and the woodland access implementation plan look at how we can make our green spaces, urban and rural, more accessible to all sorts of people. The Access for All programme, for example, is £14.5 million worth of accessibility improvements in our protected landscapes, national trails, forests and wider countryside.

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, mentioned the worrying figure that 38% of people in this country live more than 15 minutes from a green or blue space. Our new town, Stevenage, has green space accessible to all and five Green Flag parks, including the wonderful Fairlands Valley. Does the Minister agree with me that a new generation of new towns would enable planners to start tackling the housing crisis, as well as delivering homes with access to green space that families need?

I agree with the noble Baroness that, in any new development, it is important that access to green and open space is properly taken into account. That is why it is reflected in the NPPF; it is also recognised in programmes such as the Green Flag Award scheme that the noble Baroness mentioned. We also have the green infrastructure framework, which was launched by Natural England in January last year, to help local authorities and developers incorporate green infrastructure into development plans to improve access to nature on our doorsteps and build resilience to climate change.

My Lords, further to the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, does my noble friend agree that Victoria Tower Gardens is indeed a locally available and easily accessible green space, hugely popular with local residents and tourists? Every statutory body that has been consulted, including the local authority, is opposed to any unnecessary development of Victoria Tower Gardens.

I hope my noble friend will forgive me if I am not drawn any further on this question. There are two separate matters that need to be dealt with here. One is the legislation that is being brought forward to address the legal issues regarding that land, and the other is a separate planning decision that will be taken. All of these facts will be properly taken into account in both those processes.