Cumbria is one place that could really benefit from a green recovery plan

Published on March 10, 2021

Nick Robins and Ciara Shannon suggest a green recovery plan from COVID-19 for the northern English county of Cumbria now that its council is reviewing its controversial decision to open a new colliery.

Cumbria is a county with a strong industrial heritage and unrivalled natural assets. But it has also attracted international notoriety for the county council’s decision to approve plans to open the new Woodhouse Colliery. The decision is widely seen to bewholly incompatible with the UK’s climate objectives: the Climate Change Committee (CCC) states that “a new coking coal mine in Cumbria will increase global emissions and have an appreciable impact on the UK’s legally binding carbon budgets”. More than this, the colliery risks becoming a stranded asset, as the use of coking coal in steelmaking could be displaced completely by 2035, according to the CCC. This means that any economic benefits in terms of regional revitalisation and jobs would be fragile and short lived.

A better route to economic prosperity after COVID-19 is urgently needed, one that is anchored in the industries of the future rather than those of the past. Cumbria County Council’s recent decision to review the plans for the colliery is a welcome step and presents a perfect opportunity to change course and throw its weight behind a robust green recovery plan.

Four pillars for a green recovery

Drawing on the county’s human potential and striking natural endowment, a green recovery plan could be built around the following four key pillars:

1. Cumbria’s rich potential for green economic development

The first pillar focuses on harnessing Cumbria’s unique green assets for the national effort to build a resilient, net-zero economy by 2050. Here, the county has two core strengths: its renewable energy resources and its rural landscape. Historically, Cumbria’s ‘energy coast’ focused first on coal then on nuclear; now it is moving rapidly into the renewable era. The Walney Extension Offshore Wind Farm, located 15km west of Barrow-in-Furness, is one of the world’s largest, and the area hosts over a fifth of the UK’s wind farm generation capacity.

Cumbria also has one of the UK’s highest tidal ranges, with plans to develop a variety of tidal lagoons mooted, as well as an ‘electric bridge’ across the Solway Firth. Inland are many of the UK’s fastest flowing waterways with more than half of the North-West’s potential for small scale hydropower generation. Community owned energy also offers a route for connecting renewables with local empowerment.

What is missing, however, is a clear strategy to seize all this clean energy potential in ways that can provide high quality local jobs and supply chains.

Alongside renewable energy, Cumbria could also become one of the country’s hubs for nature-based solutions. The county is the one of the most rural places in England, with rich agricultural resources and landscapes that attract almost 50 million visitors a year. With the UK’s departure from the EU, the reshaping of agricultural subsidies holds out the potential for new business models built around enhancing natural capital, not least through carbon storage. One priority could be to improve the management of peatland in the Lake District, which holds about 23 million tonnes of carbon. Cumbria is also one of five pilot areas trialling the development of the Local Nature Recovery Strategy (LNRS) and this could be the starting point for kickstarting business and financing models attracting new investment into nature restoration. This will also be critical to strengthen resilience to the physical impacts of climate change.

2. Economic renewal through local net-zero plans

This pillar would focus on the development of local net-zero plans to drive economic renewal, not least for the housing sector and transport system. The county’s economic strategy already highlights the construction sector as a key strength, supporting 14,000 jobs and involving over 800 small businesses. This sector will provide the foundation for retrofitting every building in the county that needs it, to be energy-efficient, net-zero and resilient to flooding.

There is also the option in some areas to include large-scale district heating networks, along with area-based retrofits focusing on entire streets and communities. A special focus on social housing and low-income households presents the prospect of a triple dividend: lower energy bills, better health and reduced pollution.

Transport infrastructure will also need rethinking to deliver zero emission connectivity across this rural region, rolling out electric vehicle infrastructure as well as expanding public transport and rail links. Taking an active approach to the net-zero transition could also be the basis to realise Cumbria’s ambitions in advanced manufacturing across the industrial, transport, built environment and nature-based solution sectors. A new report by Cumbria Action for Sustainability (CAfS) will shortly set out the county’s green jobs potential.

3. Community participation in plans

The third pillar of the strategy should focus on the vital role of citizen engagement across Cumbria in the design and delivery of plans. A striking conclusion of the UK’s Citizen Assembly last year was the need for climate action to be fair, in terms of people’s jobs, families and communities. Too often in the past, economic transitions have been something done to the people rather than shaped by them. New approaches to citizen involvement are needed; Kendal has already set up a climate change citizens’ jury.  

To be successful, the plans to reach net-zero have to be rooted in community participation across the county, particularly by those whose lives and livelihoods have been hit hardest by the pandemic. This is not only the right thing to do, but it generates greater levels of innovation and ambition, as local people are put in the driving seat. A number of cities and regions are setting up broad-based ‘climate commissions’, to drive this process, for example on the other side of the Pennines in Yorkshire and the Humber. With nearly 70 organisations spanning the public, private and third sectors, the Zero Carbon Cumbria Partnership will be a key driver in developing this shared sense of the way forward, with the overarching goal of achieving net-zero by 2037.

4. Investment to make it happen

The fourth and final pillar is to mobilise private and public investment. A ‘wall of money’ is building up from UK investors and banks committed to net-zero and many are now supporting climate action through a just transition. The challenge is the absence of a pipeline of bankable projects that cannot only deliver financial returns, but also generate real benefits for local communities.

Here, Cumbria, like every part of the country, needs to work out how to access the new UK Infrastructure Bank, whose missions will be to tackle climate change and support regional development. Importantly, this also means drawing on local finance: one estimate suggests there is around £4 billion of investable wealth per 100,000 people in the UK, which means that for the 500,000 in Cumbria there could be around £20 billion. Currently, there are very few mechanisms to enable people to channel their savings and pensions into investments that deliver returns and support the local economy. Recently, local authorities in Warrington and West Berkshire have issued Community Municipal Investments to tap a growing demand from savers. The same could be done in Cumbria.

Of course, making this course correction will not be easy. Yet Cumbria is up for the challenge and has perhaps more potential to prosper from a just transition to net-zero than many other parts of the UK, given its wealth of green assets. Drawing up a green recovery plan in 2021 based on these four pillars could set the county on its way.

Nick Robins is professor in practice for sustainable finance at the Grantham Research Institute. Ciara Shannon is the director of EdenWorks. The views in this commentary are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Grantham Research Institute.

This commentary was first published by Green Alliance and is reproduced here with permission.