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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

We must put nature at the heart of the North’s post Covid-19 recovery

The pandemic has temporarily reset our relationship with nature. Under lockdown, our air is cleaner, and we’ve been able to hear birdsong instead of traffic.

At the same time, we’ve been encouraged to stay at home, and inequalities in access to green spaces have been brought to the fore.

In each case, Covid-19 has shown us how many of us take nature for granted. Now, as we recover and rebuild from it, we must ensure that nature remains central to our thinking. No more so than in the North of England, where there is tremendous potential to use investment in nature to build a greener, fairer and more resilient region that will make a substantial contribution to ‘levelling up’ the country in the wake of this pandemic.

Nature is essential to everything we do. From the water we drink, to the air we breathe, to the food we eat, to our physical and mental health, nature provides a foundation for the health of the North’s 15 million people and its £300 billion economy. And when we fail to look after it, there are serious, even deadly, consequences, as recent floods in South Yorkshire and wildfires in Greater Manchester have shown. Throughout IPPR North’s two-year programme of work on Natural Assets in the North, we have explored the myriad ways that our health and wellbeing is deeply, inextricably linked to the state of nature around us.

The North in particular is disproportionately rich in nature. From the Lake District to the Yorkshire Dales to the Northumbrian Coast to the nature reserves, parks and green spaces within our city regions. Nature in the North is highly distinctive and hugely valuable.

Investment in nature can unlock huge benefits in terms of flood resilience, clean water and air, public health and green jobs. For example, restoring peat and planting more trees in the right places can hugely increase flood resilience, enhance air quality, play an important role in our water quality and boost biodiversity. Creating more green spaces in urban areas can have benefits for mental and physical health and reduce air pollution. And, as IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission showed last week, early action and ambition has the potential to create 850,000 new jobs across the country in the green energy sector alone, as part of a “just transition” for communities across the country over this decade.

Because of this, investment in nature should be at the heart of plans for our post-Covid-19 recovery.

The devastating impact of this pandemic will require the government to finally deliver on billions of pounds of investment into the potential of the North of England. But echoing the calls to 'build back better', this investment must be transformative, not just restorative - we need to ensure that the Northern economy that emerges is a greener, fairer and more resilient one than before the pandemic.

There's no way to do this if we ignore the importance of nature to the health and wellbeing of the people and economy of the North. This means we need to consider investment in nature in the same ways that we do about the other foundations of a healthy population and a resilient economy.

This in turn means thinking big, across the whole of the region. As we begin to plan what the Northern economy should look like in a post-Covid-19 era, we need a determined, pan-regional effort, led by the North’s leaders and backed by government, to create a Plan for Nature in the North which will protect and restore nature and ensure that the benefits that stem from it are equally shared. And that effort must begin today.

Jack Hunter is a Research Fellow at IPPR North. He tweets @JackHunter_UK