The North West has a long tradition of strategic greening initiatives, starting with Operation Groundwork in St Helens in the early 1980s. This was the first of the now nationwide movement of Groundwork Trusts.
Two Community Forests around Manchester and Merseyside were designated in the early 1990s to enable and facilitate change at the landscape scale. More recently, the Forestry Commission and NWDA’s £59 million ‘Newlands’ programme aims to reclaim large areas of derelict, underused and neglected land and turn them into community woodland. The programme is led by a partnership board of regional stakeholders, lead by the private sector.
There is a mainstream capability in the region, due to targeted investment and ongoing commitment from local authorities and regional agencies - notably NWDA and Natural England - over an extended period. This investment, and success in attracting funds from national and European sources, has created a substantial capacity to develop and advocate for green infrastructure, including:
- developmentally mature enabling organisations
- an environmental regeneration skills base
- intellectual activity in the region’s universities
- an evidence based approach to site selection
- ready access to advisory services
- the provision of capital and finance
- socially inclusive strategies
- support for business-led activity.
Embedding green infrastructure in regional planning
Policy advocates from key organisations have ensured that green infrastructure is recognised as critical infrastructure. It is used as a strategic regeneration tool across the region, and embedded in the main regional policy documents:
- The North West Regional Economic Strategy sets out the need to "develop the economic benefit of the region’s natural environment through better alignment of environmental activities and economic gain" and ”developing new uses for brownfield land, including strategic green space”
- The Regional Spatial Strategy states it is important to “identify, promote and deliver multi-purpose networks of green space, particularly where there is currently limited access to natural green space or where connectivity between these places is poor”.
Placing a regional value on green infrastructure
Research work on the economic benefits of green infrastructure has been instrumental in persuading senior actors in regeneration agencies to back the green infrastructure approach. The work was co-ordinated and disseminated by Natural Economy North West.
The research highlights green infrastructure's role in economic prosperity and stability. It gives a direct gross value added (GVA) from the North West’s environment of £2.6 billion, supporting 109,000 jobs in environmental and related fields. The work also identifies 11 economic benefits, which have been used to guide investment decisions in projects and programmes. These include:
- economic growth and investment
- land and property values
- labour productivity
- products from the land
- health and wellbeing
- recreation and leisure
- quality of place
- land and biodiversity
- food alleviation and management
- climate change adaptation and mitigation.
Employing green infrastructure advocacy
Widespread consultation and targeted marketing have produced a receptive environment for green infrastructure. A Green Infrastructure Unit circulates information and stimulates debate among local and regional stakeholders. The Unit is a partnership between the local community forests and Natural England. Natural Economy North West works to raise the profile of natural environment projects, with the aim of ‘unlocking the economic potential of the environment’.
The regional Green Infrastructure Think Tank, a grouping of practitioners, policy-makers and academics, has produced a Green Infrastructure Planning Guide. The Guide supports the green infrastructure policy in the Regional Spatial Strategy, and is relevant to those involved in producing Local Development Frameworks. Tools and findings are disseminated via training and events. These have included a series of seminars for planners in collaboration with the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI).
There is also a vision for green infrastructure to operate seamlessly at the regional, sub-regional and local levels. Paul Nolan, director of The Mersey Forest, one of the key organisations involved with green infrastructure, points out that “embedding green infrastructure at these three levels will allow policy and delivery to converge”.
Advocates are clear about who the key players are, and that they must be engaged with at the most senior level. They include
- North West Regional Development Agency (NWDA)
- Government Office North West
- 4NW - the regional leader’s forum
- Natural England
- the two Community Forests
- key local authorities
- senior politicians.
Natural Economy North West’s green infrastructure manager, Peter Wilmers, says that the involvement of NWDA has been “especially important” as it has “facilitated many relationships that would not otherwise have been available”. He notes that this has had a “particular impact at the sub-regional and local levels”.
Working at the sub-regional and local levels
Sub-regional partnerships have been invaluable, especially in work to unlock the economic potential of the environment.
Work is underway in each of the five sub regional partnerships of the North West – including Lancashire, Weaver Valley, Liverpool, Manchester and Cheshire / Warrington - to create Green infrastructure strategies that can provide a guide for joint work at the sub regional scale and inform Local Development Frameworks. The Mersey and Red Rose community forests and Natural England North West regional team are at the forefront of this partnership work.
The Newlands programme is critical to transform sites of scale to lever and facilitate regeneration and economic development. The Brockholes project at Preston is a very good example, with a 172 Ha brownfield site set to regenerate the landscape, provide new visitor attractions and produce £55M of GVA benefit over the next 20 years.
St Helens ‘Town in the Forest’ initiative is an example of a substantial, local-level programme with transformational potential. The aspiration is ‘to create a green woodland infrastructure for the Borough that is attractive, accessible, multifunctional and viable. It would serve the needs of the people and create an improved environment for inward investment, tourism and recreation, contributing direct and indirect economic benefits to the regeneration, liveability and sustainable development agendas’.
- planners are embedding green infrastructure in St Helen’s core strategy (Policy CQL 1) as well as in three ‘action area plans’ giving it statutory recognition
- one of the action area plans is a Forest Park which includes the ‘Dream’ public artwork erected in April 2009 at the Sutton Manor Colliery site. Consultants are finalising feasibility proposals.