This morning saw the publication of a further update of the Government’s proposed measures of national well-being or ‘happiness index’ as it has become known in some quarters. Visitors to the ONS website will not lack for quantities of data to look at. Interpretation of what it may mean for woods and trees is not immediately easy but the implications could be significant and the timing helpful.
It looks as though the Government is minded to make the best use of existing data sources (fair enough in the current public spending climate) and that, following the consultation earlier this year, it wants to stick with the measures it initially proposed. Of greatest interest to Woodland Trust supporters perhaps will be the domain entitled: ‘Where we live’. Within this, the Government proposes a measure on ‘access to and quality of, the local environment’ and it proposes to measure it by using data on how frequently people access local green space and how they feel about its quality.
We remain supportive of the process and believe that the trees and woods sector has an increasingly strong contribution to make. If the Government is serious about this process and given the emphasis that Defra at least has placed on ‘GDP plus’ around the Rio summit – then there are some signs of hope – then two connected things need to happen.
Firstly, No 10, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury need to unashamedly champion cross-Government action on the indicators. They need to show that in the preoccupation with growth they have not downgraded what was one of the more eye catching Coalition policies. Debate may rage about whether or not Government can make people happy but – leaving aside the impact of how the economy is managed – there are undoubtedly common themes around quality of surroundings and the promotion of physical and mental health (ONS itself notes that ‘the most common response from people about what affected their well-being was health’. )
If the Natural Environment White Paper is genuinely a cross-Government strategy as is claimed, then the well-being indicators are a good place to start making this clear.
Which leads to a second point – that the Government has a very clear opportunity to do this with its response to the report of the Independent Panel on Forestry. When it does so, it should show an ambitious approach to extending the benefits of trees and woods to as many people as possible. The Panel report could not be clearer:
‘As a Panel, we want as many people as possible, wherever they live to enjoy access to woods nearby. . .The message to emerge most strongly from the 42, 000 responses to our call for views was the personal value that people place on being able to visit and enjoy woodlands’.
The Woodland Trust’s Woodland Access Standard shows how this can be translated into action. Its aspiration is that everyone should live less than 500m from at least one area of accessible woodland of no less than 2ha in size, and that there should be at least one area of accessible woodland of no less than 20 ha within 4km of people’s homes.
The evidence base around health benefits also grows stronger every year. For example, recent media interest was attracted by Glasgow University work showing that jogging in a forest was twice as good as a trip to the gym for mental health.
The Panel report is very clear in its asks here, recommending: ‘That Local Health and Wellbeing boards implement their public health duties by investing in local access to nature and woodlands.’ Also that:
‘Government and other woodland owners to give as many people as possible ready access to trees and woodlands for health and well being benefits – this means planting trees and woodlands closer to people and incentivising more access to existing woodlands’.
It is ever more clear that woods and well-being are intertwined. Some may say that has always been clear. The difference is that there is, right now, a real opportunity for Government – both central and local – to start seriously acting on this.
Dr James Cooper – head of government affairs