NHS England should dedicate 1 per cent of its public health budget to invest in nature, including increasing the amount of quality, accessible green space in cities, as a "cost effective solution" to the country's health woes, the UK's most powerful conservation groups say.
The appeal for the NHS to improve the connection of people to nature and reap the health benefits is one of the key "asks" in the Response for Nature report, launched on 13 October by organisations including the National Trust and RSPB.
A healthy environment has "a vital role to play" in a society beset by obesity and mental illness, the report says. By 2018 the coalition wants 1 per cent NHS England's £1.8bn public health budget to be "invested in using the preventative and restorative value of nature to provide cost-effective health solutions".
"This should include a commitment to improve public health locally, by increasing the extent, quality and accessibility of natural green and blue spaces in all urban and rural settlements."
The call echoes the soon-to-be-published Horticulture Innovation Partnership report, which wants to reposition the benefits provided by the sector as a "Natural Health Service" (HW, 30 September). The Parks Alliance chairman Mark Camley welcomed the news, saying the evidence is clear that parks and open spaces benefit people's physical and mental health.
"The Parks Alliance would always encourage greater investment in parks and green infrastructure as investing in prevention is more cost effective than paying for the cure," he said.
"Natural England have estimated that if every household in England were provided with more equitable access to good quality green space, then around £2.1bn in health cost savings could be achieved by the NHS per year.
Camley added: "The Parks Alliance would support green participation prescriptions where GPs refer patients to non-clinical sources of support to improve their mental and physical health. Physical activity could be prescribed to address the root causes of ill health.
Regular participation is better than one-off and parks which are largely free at the point of use offer a low cost means of grass roots participation in physical activity."
Parks consultant Dr Sid Sullivan said the NHS could start by improving "all of the many thousands of local parks, particularly those within walking distance of most urban families - say within 500 meters".
"They act like local doctors' surgeries, dispensing care and wellbeing at a fraction of the cost of the immensely costly pharmaceutical option."
Response for Nature follows the 2013 State of Nature report, which warned of a very rapid decline in UK species including 60 per cent of flowering species.
The report also warns that with DEFRA facing 4 per cent cut to its budget and the Government reviewing its spending priorities, all departments must shoulder the burden of repairing nature.