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Trees and woodland help deliver improved health

In an era of ever increasing concern about our nation’s physical and mental health, we strongly believe that trees and woodland can play a key role in delivering improved health & wellbeing at a local level.

At the same time, the Health & Social Care Act 2012 has passed much of the responsibility for health & wellbeing to upper-tier and unitary local authorities.

Although the relationship between the natural environment and health is a complex one, it is now widely accepted that green infrastructure – such as trees, woods and forests – can help people feel better[i]. Increasing evidence shows how woodland can help encourage more active lifestyles and alleviate the symptoms of some of our most debilitating conditions such as dementia, obesity, heart disease and mental health problems.

This link between woodland and health is now firmly embedded in national Government policy for health, planning and forestry:

  • Health - “Access to green spaces is associated with better mental and physical health across socioeconomic groups…. Defra will lead a national campaign to increase tree planting throughout England, particularly in areas where tree cover would help to improve residents’ quality of life and reduce the negative effects of deprivation, including health inequalities.” Healthy Lives, Healthy People (Government White Paper, November 2010, paras 3.36-37)
  • Planning - “Access to high quality open spaces and opportunities for sport and recreation can make an important contribution to the health and well-being of communities. Planning policies should be based on robust and up‑to‑date assessments of the needs for open space, sports and recreation facilities and opportunities for new provision.” National Planning Policy Framework (DCLG, March 2012, para 73). 
  • Forestry - “Our trees, hedgerows, woods and forests contribute significantly to the quality of life in both rural and urban areas. Amongst other things, they enhance the local environment and biodiversity, support economic growth through regeneration, help mitigate the impact of climate change, assist in reducing air pollution and provide important health and educational benefits… The Natural Environment White Paper recognised the value and potential for green spaces to support and contribute to everyone’s health and well-being. This is being reflected in the Public Health Outcomes Framework, which underpins the new public health duty of local authorities". Government Forestry Policy Statement (Defra, January 2013, p.16).

But when it comes to turning this national policy into local policy and also local delivery the situation is more confused, with local authority Public Health teams and Health & Wellbeing Boards jostling with Clinical Commissioning Groups, Public Health England, NHS England and the National Institute for Health & Care Excellence (NICE) to find new ways of working.

There are of course excellent individual case study examples of woods and trees delivering local health benefits, such as Forestry Commission Scotland’s Branching Out mental health project, but there is an urgent need to mainstream this relationship across the country in local policy and delivery.

At a time of ongoing public budget cuts, such mainstreaming will clearly be a challenge. However evidence suggests that, as well as providing the obvious environmental and biodiversity benefits, woods and trees can also be a cost-effective solution for reducing negative climate change impacts like poor air quality and for supporting local economic growth, as well as promoting healthy lifestyles. There are also great opportunities for positive local community empowerment and neighbourhood planning initiatives in woodland creation and management.

The King’s Fund, an independent healthcare charity, has produced Improving the public’s health – A resource for local authorities, a report that sets out what Local Authorities can do for health together with the business case for doing so. The report says that:

“Increasing access to parks and open spaces could reduce NHS costs of treating obesity by more than £2 billion. Access to green space can reduce mental health admissions too, resulting in additional savings for the NHS… Analysis of Birmingham’s city-wide Be Active programme suggests that up to £23 is recouped for every £1 spent, in terms of better quality of life, reduced NHS use, productivity gains, and other gains to local authorities.”

Research by the Woodland Trust shows that less than 15% of the population of England has access to local woodland within 500m of their home. Providing more accessible trees, woods and green space can therefore provide a critical link to healthier lives and, consequently, to saving money. In addition, the Government’s £3.8bn Better Care Fund (previously the Integration Transformation Fund) could support Local Authorities to better integrate green infrastructure like woods and trees into the health sector.

We are therefore keen to meet Local Authorities, together with Health and Wellbeing Boards, in order to discuss the positive role of woods and trees in contributing to a healthier population. Please do get in touch.

After all, life’s better with trees!