This post is by Steve Connor, founder of Creative Concern, a sustainability communications agency based in Manchester. He is also a trustee of the Community Forests Trust. He writes here in a personal capacity.
When he wasn’t being a Dharma Bum with the rest of the Beats, the poet Gary Snyder had a thing or two to say about the state of the environment and our need to tread lightly upon the Earth.
One classic from the Snyder canon is his wonderful command to “Find your place on the planet, dig in, and take responsibility from there.”
His words could be the call to action for eco-devolutionaries.
Flushed with the freedom to act with greater independence, our nations, cities and regions should mark out sustainability, alongside economic prosperity, education or health and social care, as a clear territory across which devolution could be made to matter.
How will sustainability work with devolution?
We’ve found our place on the planet. Now we need to start a global sustainability revolution starting at home. Devolution could mark the start of that revolution.
Those debating so-called Devo Manc will happily testify to this, though the devil’s always going to be in the detail. What might be framed as a great success for localism, such as the handing down of £6 billion of NHS budgets to greater local control, can quickly take on the look of devolved austerity if you find that the budget is several billion short of what it needs to be to keep services running.
So, as we wait to see what a genuine elected mayor’s office looks like (here in Manchester we have an interim mayor) it’s pretty fair to say that devolution has a good deal to prove in the months and years ahead.
For sustainability, there’s less overt devolution happening than in some other domains. While Greater Manchester has long had a low carbon economy plan, a natural capital partnership and a dedicated climate change strategy, it has yet to see these worthwhile locally generated plans and strategies matched with power and resources from Whitehall.
And that needs to be the next step. Transport, health and social care are blazing a trail but we now need to see what it means to tackle issues like energy generation, low carbon retrofit, ecosystem services or urban pollution through the mechanism of a devolved authority and through the office of an elected mayor. We need to figure out how programmes such as Defra’s 25 year plan for nature for example, come to make sense when they play out for a devolved metro region.
Also, where issues like spatial planning, and of course housing growth, impinge squarely on sustainability and the state of the environment, we need a much clearer sense of whether we have the powers we need to make devolution more than a shuffling of the deckchairs.
Getting ahead of national moves on energy
On energy, there is perhaps the greatest set of gains to be made. A devolved Greater Manchester can’t sever its links to the National Grid and go it alone entirely, but there’s a good deal that can be done. Particularly, it can counter national moves on energy and climate change that appear to be moving rapidly backwards instead of forwards. National support for a whole basket of renewables is being slashed and planning permission for onshore wind is being made tougher to achieve. A devolved region could have the scale and mass to make local and community-owned renewables a viable proposition. This may offer some hope perhaps to the 19,000 people whose livelihoods have been put at risk through Amber Rudd’s green policy ‘bonfire’.
Locally, we could also start to make zero carbon homes and domestic retrofit genuinely work across the metro region; it can’t be any harder than working out the Green Deal. We can also tackle distributed heat networks, and try to put a blocker on retrograde steps such as fracking.
There’s a lot to be done if we get more power with devolution, but we’ll need to share it. If we want to achieve a shift to more sustainable transport modes it means working right across the North and in partnerships. We need HS3 as much as we need HS2.
And we need to work with our neighbouring areas, including the shire counties, to broker a deal on the ecosystem services that they provide, particularly around reducing flooding risk.
People make it possible
Finally you can’t achieve green devolution unless you take the people with you. Ask the average Jo in the street and she’ll be able to tell you very little about the Devo Manc deal and that’s a deficit that needs to be tackled. Sustainability is a ‘people’ issue and it’s people that make sustainability possible. What Jo wants and needs is a bit of inspiration, a bit of ownership and a true sense of direction; she needs to know that a sustainable city region is something we can achieve if we have the power and the resources to make it happen.
And that inspiration, that dream of what the future could be, isn’t something to set out as an ‘ask’ to central government.
That’s down to us.