Green city illustration

Sir James Bevan: Investing in nature could save NHS billions annually

As part of a speech at University College London (UCL), Environment Agency Chief Executive Sir James Bevan is set to say universal access to a healthy natural environment could save the NHS billions of pounds a year in treatment costs.

Coinciding with the publication of the Environment Agency’s new report, The State of the Environment: health, people and the environment, which shows the green inequality in society, the speech will advocate for everyone in England to have access to good quality green space.

Sir Bevan will highlight evidence showing the physical and mental health benefits of good environment and make the case for “levelling up” access to the environment as part of the green recovery from coronavirus.

He will also lay out the steps the Environment Agency is taking to protect and enhance our precious green and blue spaces, while adapting to the threat of a changing climate.

Sir Bevan is expected to say: “Investing in a healthy environment is about the smartest thing we can do. It makes medical sense, because it will mean better health for all and less strain on the NHS. It makes economic sense, because it will save the NHS billions of pounds: the NHS could save an estimated £2.1bn every year in treatment costs if everyone in England had access to good quality green space.

“And it makes socio-political sense, because those who live in poor environments are also those who have the worst health and the lowest incomes: levelling up the environment will also help level up everything else.”

The Environment Agency report, which draws together a wide range of evidence, finds that people living in deprived areas are not only more likely to suffer from poorer health outcomes, but also have poorer quality environments and access to less green space. One study found that city communities with 40% or more black, Asian or ethnic minority (BAME) residents have access to 11 times fewer green spaces locally than those comprising mainly white residents.

While the report acknowledges significant improvements which have been made in the quality of England’s air, land and water, there is still a long way left to go, with:

  • Air pollution still being the single biggest environmental threat to health in the UK, shortening tens of thousands of lives each year.
  • Antimicrobial resistant microbes becoming more common in the environment due to contamination, meaning infectious illnesses may become harder to treat.
  • Mental health conditions increasing – and can be caused or affected by pollution, flooding and climate change.
  • Substantial and growing evidence for the physical and mental health benefits of spending time in the natural environment, but that children are engaging less with nature.

The World Health Organisation estimates that environmental factors like these contribute about 14% of the total burden of disease in the UK.

Emma Howard Boyd, Chair of the Environment Agency, added: “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.”

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NHE May/June 2024

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