The North has some of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the world. From the Lake District, to the Yorkshire Dales, to the Northumbrian coast, and everything in between, the North is home to an abundance of natural assets. It is disappointing, therefore, that debates about the Northern Powerhouse have paid little regard to the opportunities nature offers, nor the growing threats it faces.
Wherever you look, the fate of the Northern economy is deeply entwined with that of the natural environment. Think of recent events in South Yorkshire for example. At the end of last year, heavy rain in the upland areas around Doncaster fell on land already saturated with water. The area was devoid of significant vegetation, with exposed and compacted soils, which meant that the flood waters ran rapidly downstream. Eventually the rising waters overwhelmed the defences protecting the village of Fishlake, forcing families from their homes over Christmas, and causing damage to infrastructure and local businesses.
The flooding made national headlines. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in the middle of an election campaign, was swiftly dispatched to offer apologies to angry residents. The government promised rapid action to help families and businesses, and to rebuild flood defences. A decade of cuts to Defra budgets were conveniently overlooked. But what was also ignored was the fact that the flooding was made so much worse by the poor state of the natural environment upstream.
It could be so different. With the right investment and proper management, a healthy natural environment can help protect homes and reduce the need for public money spent on hard flood infrastructure and the cost of repair.
In addition, restoring peatlands, planting trees and reclaiming low grade land for nature can provide the North with a clean and inexpensive water supply, draw down carbon from the atmosphere, and host a wide ecosystem of plant and animal life, as well as slowing water flow. Bringing nature into urban areas, especially in the poorest neighbourhoods, can improve air quality, and provide places for people to relax, socialise and exercise. Throughout, there is huge potential to create new, skilled green jobs and to increase the region’s appeal for visitors and locals alike, providing tourism revenues to rural areas.
It is time to act. Many of the UK’s natural assets, from rivers to soils to coasts, are in poor condition – and in many cases the North of England is particularly badly affected. Climate change risks causing far deeper and long-lasting damage.
Investment in nature is a win-win situation, and the North could lead the way on how to put our environment at the heart of planning for a resilient, zero-carbon 21st century economy.
To change this, we need a strategic approach to the planning and management of the North’s natural environment. This would maximise the potential social, economic and environmental benefits that investment in them can deliver.
We also need everyone to play their part. Successful examples, such as the pioneering Living with Water partnership in Hull and the ambitious Northern Forest project, bring a wide range of organisations together to develop ways of working with nature to reduce flood risk. Such initiatives recognise that shared problems require shared solutions.
But a rethink of how land is used is long overdue, too. We must completely redesign the current system of subsidies for farmers, in order to reward them for taking responsibility for the health and resilience of nature on their lands, and ban destructive practices, such as the burning of heather on upland areas. We also need to ensure that major landowners – including those in the public sector – exercise their responsibilities to the natural environment to the fullest degree.
To achieve all this, we need new funds and powers from Westminster. The North’s leaders should jointly demand the means to protect and enhance nature across the region. In turn they could promise a significant return to national prosperity, including a significant contribution to the UK’s net-zero carbon ambitions, improving public health by reconnecting people with nature, and “levelling up” (to borrow a phrase) the North’s long-neglected rural economies.
This is largely absent from conversations about the future of the North, however. Nothing that our leaders currently talk about in the context of the Northern Powerhouse – from trains, to skills, to metro mayors – will matter much if the natural foundations of our region are allowed to erode. There is growing interest at the Northern Powerhouse level in sustainability and in clean growth, but this has tended to focus mainly on renewable energy. And this is just one of many ways to invest in the natural environment.
Instead, we need a more adventurous vision for the North that includes investment as a down payment on our collective wellbeing.
If this vision is to come from anywhere, it will be from the North itself. With the creation of the new northern institutions, including the metro mayors, and Transport for the North, the region is gaining a collective voice and starting to assert itself. As IPPR North has previously argued, the next phase of the Northern Powerhouse project must be led by the North, for the North, with a far greater focus on social infrastructure and economic justice.
But it should also include a radical plan for nature at the very heart of efforts to build northern, and national, prosperity.
Sarah Longlands is the director of IPPR North.