Emma Howard Boyd, Chair of the Environment Agency, talks about the latest 'State of the Environment' report published today (8 September).
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed and amplified green inequality in society. Too many towns and cities in England, especially those with a strong industrial heritage, have too little green space, too few trees, culverted rivers, poor air quality and are at risk of flooding. This holds back economic growth and the building of new homes. It’s also a fundamental moral issue. Areas of higher deprivation and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic populations have less access to high quality green and blue space and this contributes to differing disease burdens and life expectancy.
Creating, and connecting people with, green or blue spaces will support new local jobs and benefit health & wellbeing. This is why it is important that the recovery from coronavirus is a green recovery. The pandemic has led to an increased appreciation of nature and more engagement with the water environment, we need to build on this revitalised interest in the natural world to achieve something that is better and that lasts.
In June, the Prime Minister said the way back from the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic was to “Build, Build, Build”. This caused some alarm amongst environmentalists, but building back “better, greener, and faster” is an opportunity to make development healthier. If the Government wants to bring about a step-change in the nation’s health, planning reform could be a golden opportunity.
The Environment Agency works to speed up sustainable development by helping developers meet regulatory requirements efficiently, providing advice so they get it right first time. It is encouraging to see house builders revisiting plans in light of coronavirus with a focus on providing more and better quality green and blue spaces. The Government is right to emphasise “levelling up”; access to such spaces for all adults and children is vital to that.
Air pollution today remains the single biggest environmental threat to health in the UK, shortening tens of thousands of lives each year. Even during the industrial revolution, the Victorians realised that parks would provide cities with “lungs”. Today our ambition can be greater than that: let’s Build, Build, Build in ways that will help people to Breathe, Breathe, Breathe.
Steered by the ambition of the 25 Year Environment Plan, the principle of net gain, and the idea of natural capital, we can improve the country’s health through the choices Government, businesses and individuals make. These range from multibillion-pound investments in green infrastructure and procurement, to healthy choices such as walking and cycling to work, or putting in place property level resilience to reduce the disruption caused by flooding, which is known to have significant mental health impacts.
In June, Dr Maria Neira, Director of Environment, Climate Change and Health at the World Health Organization, said: “The world has gathered around one goal: the race to zero deaths from COVID-19. A healthy recovery from this pandemic means we need to continue and expand this race to zero deaths from climate change and environmental pollution, a race to zero people pushed into poverty because of health costs, to zero people breathing polluted air.”
Through regulation of the waste, water, nuclear and carbon intensive industries, through our flood resilience work, and by heading to net zero by 2030, the Environment Agency is reducing emissions from industry, creating cleaner rivers and bathing waters, and helping to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. There are some great examples in this report. Our work to connect people on the Fylde coast to their beaches has drawn on social prescribing through doctors’ surgeries; we have restored Middlesbrough’s becks to connect the community with water and wildlife, and we are helping people find rest and relaxation outdoors through angling.
The physical and mental health of everyone depends on quality green and blue space, and it reduces the burden on the NHS. At a time when there is such widespread recognition of these essential facts, we should value work to protect and enhance the natural world highly.
Emma Howard Boyd, Chair of the Environment Agency