The campaign for the new Mayor of the North East has not begun yet, officially. You would be forgiven for thinking it had, though, if you read Jamie Driscoll’s columns, which usually appear next to mine.
Jamie focuses on job creation, but it is a debatable point whether all the new jobs are to do with him. The existing combined authorities, local authorities, and the Learning and Skills Council may have had something to do with it. We can leave that argument for another day.
More than job creation
But the new mayor will be about more than job creation. Kim McGuinness has pin-pointed child poverty, which should not exist in a society like ours, but regrettably does. The new mayoral authority should focus on it. The big issue at the moment is how we can have growth and protect the climate. As I write, the government is releasing details of its plans to achieve net zero, after the High Court ruled its existing plans were not sufficient to reach its climate targets. I haven’t heard much about this in the regional debate so far.
It would be fair to counter with “Surely this is something for government. What can we as a regional authority do?” Quite a lot actually, and I would hope the North East can point the way to what net zero growth would look like.
There have been examples recently of how the rash pursuit of supposedly environmentally friendly policies have actually damaged the environment. In Cambridge, the council agreed to build a new busway, which will use optically guided electric or hybrid buses in an effort to reduce pollution from cars in the city. So far so good, but they then decided to build it through Caton Orchard, which has over 1000 trees and grows 26 varieties of apples as well as pears and plums. It is thought to be a centre for biodiversity and supports a wide range of wildlife. The proposal has provoked widespread anger in the city.
The council has said it will plant new trees to mitigate the effects. But this misses the point. Ancient woodland supports a wide variety of wildlife, and new trees would take over 100 years to establish the same system.
Cambridge has time to change its mind. The situation in Plymouth is far worse. Here the council had a similar idea. It wanted to build a new walkway into the city centre to cut pollution from cars. But it decided to route it through an area where there were mature trees much loved by local people. Despite 16,000 people signing a petition against it, the council felled most of the trees in the middle of the night and were only stopped by a court injunction which saved some of them. The resulting furore led to the resignation of the leader of the council. The Woodland Trust are now campaigning for trees to have the same protection as ancient buildings.
Be wary of good intentions
Hopefully we in the North East will avoid such misguided fiascos, done in the name of improving the environment. Unfortunately, we currently have one on our doorstep. The situation at Teesport and the Durham Coast, which has seen the mass die-offs of crabs, starfish, and other sea life, is not only an ecological disaster but an economic one for many inshore fishermen. In his rush to build a new freeport at the mouth of the Tees the mayor, Ben Houchen, has tried to do in three years which should have taken ten in his rush to attract windmill and other environmentally friendly manufacturers from other sites such as the Humber. To build the new port a considerable amount of old industrial waste, much of which is toxic, had to be dug out. The jury is still out, but I cannot see how the dumping of a considerable amount of toxic industrial waste into the North Sea can have done the environment much good. Another example of a good intention, developing green industries, has probably ended up doing the environment harm.
We need to have a proper debate about how we can have green growth which does not damage the environment. This area has considerable assets, such as the beautiful countryside in Northumberland and West Durham. These could be developed for tourism in an environmentally friendly way. We have the ospreys at Kielder, and some of the best ancient woodland in the country in our coastal denes, particularly Castle Eden. Let’s develop them in a nature-friendly way so that areas blighted by the decline of old industries can benefit from the development of tourism. Believe it or not, coast path walkers now stay overnight in Horden.
Most important, though, is the development in our region of green industries. Achieving net zero though can also be done by improving our housing, particularly making sure it is properly insulated to reduce heating bills. I have mentioned Horden in County Durham. Well just go and look at the state of some of the old colliery housing there. I am sure it is the same in many other old industrial villages. There is much that needs to be done.
What we want is not some mad dash for growth which could cause more damage than good. There needs to be a thoughtful debate about how we can achieve a green net zero North East.