The green thread

Ed Wallis

In an evolving and fragmented devolution policy landscape, green infrastructure can be the ‘green thread’ that binds devo deals together, writes Ed Wallis. 

For a long time, the environment has found itself cast to the periphery of political debate. The hopeful spirit of the early 21st century, which saw making poverty history and securing the world from the threat of climate change as the defining challenges of a generation, disappeared in the dust of Lehman Brothers. As the Great Recession gradually exerted its stranglehold over political debate, the environment increasingly became seen as a frivolous sideshow.

Similarly, the environment is at best an afterthought in our current ‘devolution revolution’. The ‘northern powerhouse’ has been essentially an economic project: from the RSA’s City Growth Commission to Andrew Adonis’s growth review, it has been argued that dynamic regional economies can be created by giving greater decision making powers and control over budgets to local areas. And while there is a range of potential aims for the government’s programme of sub-regional devolution – from bringing power closer to people to transforming public services – Professor Andy Pike of Newcastle University told a CLG select committee inquiry that other objectives “do not get addressed as much” as the local growth agenda. In terms of the 10 devolution deals so far agreed, only Greater Lincolnshire (flooding), Cornwall (renewable energy) and Liverpool (tidal power) have a specific environmental aspect to their powers, and these relate to their particular geographical character. It is hard to look at the deals and feel they are motivated by a desire to respond to our environmental challenges or harness the potential of our natural capital.

And yet, there is growing recognition in public policy of the importance of green infrastructure – our interconnected network of green spaces. They bring significant economic, social, and environmental benefits to society, as well as providing crucial community spaces where people can come together, meet their neighbours and build trusting relationships.

The Natural Capital Committee recently concluded that investments in environmental assets generate economic returns that are competitive with the returns generated by more traditional infrastructure investments. This echoes the conclusions of the EU green infrastructure strategy, which says that, “green infrastructure investments are generally characterised by a high level of return over time, provide job opportunities, and can be a cost-effective alternative or be complementary to ‘grey’ infrastructure and intensive land use change.” This is in addition to the role green spaces play in reducing flood risk, and their contribution to all aspects of health and wellbeing, by promoting more active lifestyles.

In many ways, this multiplicity of benefits reduces green infrastructure’s political impact. It doesn’t fit neatly into one department or budget line, and so tends to blend into the background in Whitehall. And yet the cross-cutting nature of green infrastructure might just be a tremendous strength in a new political settlement that is emerging in response to devolution. Getting the most out of devolution will require a different approach to politics: patience, collaboration, co-ordination, relationship-building, long-termism, early action. This is a language social democrats have struggled to speak and is the polar opposite of the left’s traditional politics of centrally-directed tax and spend. But with Labour out of power in Westminster, and its historic political offer increasingly put out of reach by fiscal deficits and the reduced agency of central states, there is an opportunity for the left to develop a new politics of social and environmental justice: a red-green vision of devolution that brings people and places together.

Ultimately, devolution requires us to connect – and this is just what green infrastructure does. The point of green infrastructure is that it is an integrated network; it is all of the green spaces – both formal and incidental – that form the sinews of a place. So by thinking of green infrastructure as a ‘green thread’ that weaves itself around a region, a vision emerges of the local environment not at the periphery of the emerging devolution settlement, but as its very essence. As Kate Swade of Shared Assets has written: “too often we see the environment as an external thing – as something that needs to be protected and conserved (or is available to be exploited for our needs). In reality, of course, the environment is what sustains us … it is everything.” So, in other words, we needn’t worry about what the environment’s role in the devo deals is: it’s the place where they exist. The environment is not peripheral, it’s where devolution is happening.

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There are two important ways that we might realise this potential for the local environment to be the ‘green thread’ of a new devolution settlement.

First, green infrastructure can connect ‘horizontally’ – by joining-up the various policy levers currently being handed down to combined authorities and metro-mayors. Devo deals will be most successful when they are part of a wider strategy for the region. Central to Greater Manchester’s vision for health and social care, for example, is that it recognises the wider determinants of health, and the virtuous circle that exists between employment, economic growth, and health and wellbeing. The benefits of prevention have been recognised for some time, but rarely has this understanding truly informed decision-making. Now, by taking control of a wide range of levers – like skills, housing, transport – across a definable area, Greater Manchester will be able to practise a whole area strategy in a way that previous initiatives have only scratched the surface of. What’s more, it will be able to use its protected health spend to leverage support for other important environmental assets like parks, which have strong public health benefits but are currently under threat.

As a recent Green Alliance briefing on Greening Devolution pointed out, the co-ordination problems that beset policymaking at a national level can be joined-up more easily at a local level: “city and local level devolution can create better coordinated approaches to planning and infrastructure, to enhance and protect waterways, green spaces and air quality alongside city development, with benefits to health as well.”

So with control over a greater range of policy levers being devolved to a more local level, there is an opportunity for green policy’s great weakness in national policy debates – its status in Whitehall as a jack of all trades and master of none – to become absolutely central to a place-based politics of connection, co-ordination and collaboration. In this report, Kate Chappell – executive member for environment at Manchester City Council – explains how this is happening in Manchester through the integration of health and social care, a refresh of the city’s parks strategy, and through the strategic 10 year plan for the city.

This final element of strategic planning is particularly important, as it provides a framework for how the role and function of a city’s network of green spaces can be designed and invested in to maximise its economic and social value. Peter Massini – who was the policy lead for London’s Green Infrastructure Taskforce – told a Fabian conference that the key question is at what scale you need to design and manage a green infrastructure network to optimise its potential. London boroughs aren’t necessarily the best geography for managing flood risk for example, so the GLA provides a better strategic tier to ensure integrated investment. So newly created combined authorities may well provide the right spatial level to plan and co-ordinate green infrastructure investment across a region – and also ensure each region’s network connects with their neighbours.

But while green infrastructure can connect a region ‘horizonally’, it must also connect it ‘vertically’ – by joining-up region-wide strategic green infrastructure planning with local-level community-led green spaces. There is a big risk that rather than bringing power closer to people and communities, city and county devolution deals actually take it further away; away from local councils and into newly created regional bureaucracies. One of the main critiques of the government’s approach to devolution has been that it is an elite level project that has been cooked up behind closed doors and imposed on citizens. So now, in the early phases of implementation and with a new government in place to drive it forward, it is crucial that we are much more ambitious about the potential of devolution to reinvigorate local democracy and reengage citizens.

Hannah Jameson shows in this report how Labour’s co-operative councils have been doing precisely this. In attempting to reinvent their role in the face of the coalition government’s austerity budgets, they have found that people didn’t want their services to be delivered to them from on high. Instead, people want “public servants to give them the means to change their communities, to help bring them together with their neighbours so they could improve the appearance of their street or start new food growing projects.”

This active and democratic spirit can be given space to flourish if the process of devolution does not stop at the regional level, but flows ever downwards, so people are empowered to take control of their own neighbourhoods: what David Miliband called “double devolution”, a decade ago when he was communities secretary.

The Fabian Society report Places to Be has shown how important the local environment can be to empowering communities. While many councils have been struggling to maintain green space provision in the face of an incredibly tight fiscal settlement, creative new management models for parks present huge opportunities to engage local people and support volunteering, by building partnership between local authorities and local citizens. Places to Be suggested that community organising and development approaches, parish councils, and asset trusts all have potential to rebuild community spirit and ensure the continued viability of green space.

It is crucial that devolution focuses reform on models like this that empower citizens and build democratic relationships. Greater Manchester’s approach to health and social care transformation is a good example of how this framework can be got right. At the region-wide level they are standardising acute and specialist care, and creating clusters of pooled specialist services, to realise efficiencies and drive up standards. However, most commissioning will be done at the lowest possible level, through local care organisations. This is where services can be designed around the real needs of citizens. In a similar way, climate risk, flood management and joined-up green infrastructure management might be most sensibly managed at the regional-level, working across boroughs and councils – while at the same time prioritising local control of environmental assets and enabling a community-led environmentalism to flourish.

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Before the consequences of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union swept all before it, the big political story of this parliament looked set to be the devolution of power. In policy circles, the devolution process has been broadly welcomed. Most acknowledge England’s status as one of the most centralised countries in the world, and see potential for the decentralisation of power to tackle a variety of stubborn public policy challenges.

However, this consensus comes with some fairly sizeable caveats. The context of austerity has threatened to undermine the transformative potential of the ‘northern powerhouse’ project from the outset. What’s more, the lack of public engagement in the process, and the secretive nature of the devolution deals – based around a particular model of governance and a particular model of economic growth – has called into question its democratic legitimacy.

And yet it would be a mistake to allow a focus on devolution’s flaws so far to crowd out its potential. There are huge opportunities for the left to develop a different story about devolution through a new politics of environmental and social justice, that seeks to connect devolution and the community – and is built from the ground up.

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