Can planting trees in the right place be the answer to growing the Liverpool city region’s economy?
Welcome to Wirral Waters: according to developers Peel Group, it’s the largest and most exciting regeneration project in the UK and is set to transform Birkenhead Docks. Dockside regeneration is hardly new: since Canary Wharf rose in the 1980s there can be barely a dock in the country that hasn’t had a makeover as a waterside destination. But Wirral Waters plans include a surprising ingredient in its construction: trees, and lots of them.
In the ongoing debate about rebalancing our economy and tackling the north-south divide, the natural environment doesn’t get much of a look-in. The northern powerhouse rhetoric tends to be all about hard infrastructure — high speed rail, business parks, roads, developments like Wirral Waters — not parks, trees and nature.
Indeed, economic growth and the natural world are usually seen as polar opposites, for instance when the environment in the form of newts or a much-loved tree stands in the way of ‘progress’. Many cities though, and particularly the Liverpool city region, are now recognising that Green Infrastructure (GI), the green lungs and arteries provided by our woodlands, farmland, street trees, parks, rivers and canals, is an essential part of creating a city that people want to live and work in.
The north-south divide is not just economic; in many places it’s visual too. The post-industrial age in many parts of the north has left areas blighted by derelict land once used for thriving industry, and often created new developments that crush rather than lift the spirits. Paul Nolan, Director of The Mersey Forest, believes green infrastructure can be a catalyst for change:
“The legacy of de-industrialisation has left the City Region some complex challenges. There are sites with huge potential for growth but with significant barriers to investment and remaining pockets of derelict land that blight whole areas. We believe, and we have the evidence to back that up, that a programme of targeted investment in green infrastructure can help address those challenges and unlock future investment.”
That programme of investment is outlined in a new Prospectus developed by Arup. With a predicted economic value to the city region of £176m, it really is money growing on trees.
So how can trees create jobs and growth? One aspect is the visual — a greener place is a nicer one to visit and work in — but there’s much more to the science of GI. Recent research by BE Group for the Mersey Forest has for the first time identified that GI can increase investment values by up to 20%, decreasing yields expected in financial appraisal. This is achieved by accelerating development times, reducing the period of vacant plots and buildings in a development and, even in periods of poor economic growth, sustaining increased rental value.
It’s not surprising. Quality of life is an important consideration in modern business location decisions. Cities with attractive green spaces, parks and natural surroundings are more likely to attract and retain knowledge workers and individuals on high salaries.
In the Liverpool city region, the so-called Strategic Investment Areas (SIAs) are the answer to achieving a higher level of growth: places of focus for attracting new inward investment and business. Liverpool’s Local Enterprise Partnership and Nature Connected, the Local Nature Partnership, commissioned Arup to discover which of the 28 SIAs would benefit from new green infrastructure.
They used data created under Liverpool’s Green Infrastructure Framework, developed by the Mersey Forest team and local authorities, to show that there are considerable barriers to investment within these SIAs. These barriers, referred to as ‘pinch points’ mean that the sites fail to attract investment or underperform economically. Examples include poor image, risk of flood, poor air quality, anti-social activities, high cost of land remediation and air pollution and noise issues.
Arup went on to identify a series of locations where there is sound evidence that development of high quality, appropriate new green infrastructure will remove or reduce these pinch points, helping to attract sustainable investment. This is presented in a new Prospectus which shows precisely where investing in trees will bring the most benefit to the local economy. It’s a ground-breaking, replicable process that means that when funding is available — as it will be shortly through the European Structural Investment Fund — the business case for a pipeline of projects is there ready for investment.
At Wirral Waters, the approach is being trialled with trees and green spaces joining roads and utilities as essential local infrastructure, funded by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills and the Department for Transport under the Local Sustainable Transport Fund. Richard Mawdsley, Development Director at Peel Group, sees GI as crucial:
“The role GI plays in driving growth is critical at a number of levels — from individual projects such as Wirral Waters all the way up to Atlantic Gateway and Northern Powerhouse scales.
“GI is a vital ingredient in helping to create environments where people and businesses can thrive. What helps to drive growth is the creation of highly desirable places — places are in competition.”
Wirral Waters is designated an Enterprise Zone and therefore backed by the Department of Communities & Local Government (DCLG). This has given Peel freedom to develop new models of financing such as the Wirral Waters Investment Fund, which is a ‘Tax Increment Finance model’. Tax Increment Financing means investing a proportion of future business rates from an area into infrastructure and related development. This will help fund the next phase of GI alongside potential European funding.
Mawdsley argues that street trees were the first manifestation of change at Wirral Waters, leading to confidence in the area, to further project delivery, to the opportunity of the Wirral Waters Investment Fund which in turn will generate more GI and trees.
The backing from Peel and the Local Enterprise Partnership gives the new Prospectus an economic credibility that is the result of decades of hard work by local environmentalists. Developers are famously focused on the bottom-line, and in Mawdsley’s view the new Prospectus is genuinely innovative:
“We now have the ability to assess the contribution GI plays in job creation and growth. This approach towards GI is genuinely cutting edge. The Liverpool City Region, in conjunction with The Mersey Forest, are leading the way — not only nationally but internationally.”
Health academics and Alder Hey Childrens Hospital are also on board with the proposals. Studies also show that office workers who enjoy natural views, report fewer physical ailments and greater job satisfaction. That’s music to the ears of Liverpool’s public health sector which grapples with high levels of health deprivation and inequality, coronary heart disease, obesity and diabetes plus low levels of physical activity. They recognise that new high quality GI can support opportunities to address a range of health policy objectives, and provides spaces for physical activity, which in turn, improves well-being, reduces the prevalence of diseases and also reduces incidences of mental illnesses.
Eleven sites across the City Region have been identified for GI investment in the Prospectus. Over £180m is expected to be invested in the ‘grey’ infrastructure — buildings, roads and utilities — and the proposal is to enhance this and secure lasting economic benefit through an additional GI investment of just over £10m. This will lead to the creation of 200 hectares of trees, green space and new habitats which could result in related GVA of almost £18 million, property values of £208 million, and bring an economic value of £176 million to the City Region.
The Prospectus is also unusual in the way in which it directly links GI with renewable energy. The work has identified a series of derelict, underused and neglected sites ideally placed for renewable energy projects, particularly solar PV schemes and the planting of energy crops such as the biofuel Miscanthus grass. Many of these sites would also benefit from GI investment and combining the two could unlock new funding models. For example, a proportion of revenue generated from a renewables scheme could fund the creation and management of associated green space.
These kind of creative funding mechanisms are important when local authority cuts are meaning that the management of existing green infrastructure is under pressure in many areas.
A unique mix of private sector investors and public agencies have come together to form a strategic alliance — Green EnerGI — to drive forward the portfolio of projects, promote the benefits of this innovative approach and capitalise on the upcoming opportunity of the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF). The Fund is looking for ‘Whole Place Carbon Solutions’ and the backers of the Prospectus believe their strategic, data-led package of green infrastructure and renewables linking with economy, health and transport is a solution whose time has come. Nolan believes this is a unique opportunity for Liverpool to change the way we think about trees and the economy:
“We now need to move quickly to the commissioning stage to cement the new strategic alliance and prove the value of this unique approach to underpinning economic development. We think this work will give Liverpool a competitive edge — but we also hope other cities in the UK follow our lead in fusing green infrastructure with the growth agenda.”
This article was written on behalf of Nature Connected and The Mersey Forest