Public-health link key, say parks experts

Report by British Medical Journal says some local authorities diverting public-health funding to parks and other services.

Exercise: boost for public health
Exercise: boost for public health

Parks professionals defended the principle of a more collaborative approach to public health after a British Medical Journal (BMJ) investigation found some councils have diverted public-health funds to parks.

The BMJ claimed council-run green spaces are among cash-strapped departments whose budgets are being topped up from ring-fenced public-health budgets.

Parks advocates say strategic investment in green space helps people's health. The Parks Alliance (TPA) deputy chairman Dr Sid Sullivan said: "We would welcome Government investment targeted at services that are evidenced as mitigating the impacts of a sedentary lifestyle and improve health, but could not support illicit application of funds. We would welcome Government clarification of whether use for parks and associated services is included in their intended use of their investment and outcomes."

The TPA hopes diverted money is spent on initiatives that would improve health, such as exercise classes or gardening groups held in parks. "It would be an excellent use for the money," said Sullivan. "Finessing exercise by citizens in this way is an excellent way of achieving the overall goal of improving their general state of health, and something the TPA would encourage within the context of a much wider strategic approach."

Landscape consultant Peter Neal said: "This BMJ article provides a further illustration on how competitive public funding is becoming. There is a wealth of research that demonstrates how parks can support more active lifestyles to limit obesity, diabetes and heart disease - key ingredients of our growing public-health epidemic.

"So the more money spent intelligently on improving people's health and well-being is surely the better - and the logic is that this should provide much-needed savings over the long term."

Government consultant on health Dr William Bird is collecting data on the connections between parks and public health. He will help communicate the findings of his work to GPs and public-health officials.

TPA member Bob Ivison added: "The parks professionals' perspective is that if money has been used for parks, sport and leisure centres then that is a good thing. The activities in these areas do have and have been shown to have substantial benefits and a positive impact on public health. Spending £1 on a park probably saves £10 in the health service budget."

Local authorities - Deciding health priorities

Local authorities have been able to decide where their public-health priorities lie since the Government transferred public health services, budgets and staff from the NHS in April 2013 under the Health & Social Care Act 2012.

It gave saving money by finding synergies with other departments and local authorities' unique position to "take a very broad view" on what impacts public health in their areas as reasons for the change.

Some of the departments found to benefit from public-health money included trading standards, citizens' advice bureaux, domestic abuse services, housing and sport and leisure centres.

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