Don’t just move the Lords to Leeds – replace it with a Citizens’ Assembly

The House of Lords. Image: Getty.

House of Lords reform is back! Rebecca Long Bailey has made the issue the centrepiece of her leadership campaign, calling for the House to be replaced with an elected senate. Meanwhile, the government has been floating the idea of moving the chamber outside of London possibly to York or Birmingham.

Both ideas are mooted as an attempt by our leaders to re-establish trust with a population that is deeply frustrated by Westminster shenanigans. But measured against that criteria neither will work. 

The evidence is strong that millions feel cut out of the debates and processes that shape the big decisions that affect their lives. It is that sense of marginalisation that was exploited very effectively by the Leave campaign to win the EU referendum and which has formed a leitmotif of Boris Johnson’s march to power ever since.

Moving the Lords to a more northerly location clearly does nothing substantive to make citizens feel they are being heard. It has symbolic value, which is not entirely to be dismissed, but little more than that. 

Replacing the current ragbag of aristocrats, bishops, ex-MPs and worthies with an elected chamber is, at least, a more serious change. But the idea is akin to suggesting that the solution to antibiotic resistance is the prescription of more antibiotics. It fails to recognise that people are already very hostile to the House of Commons. Merely doubling the number of chambers crammed full of professional politicians representing widely unloved parties will only deepen the impression of a polity that is more about the pursuit of personal ambition and self-interest than the representation of the people.

For Lords reform to be a serious attempt at listening, inspiration needs to be taken from the local level. Councils also struggle with a crisis of trust and legitimacy.

That is why a growing number are turning to forums such as citizens’ assemblies. Done well, this deliberative approach is proving a powerful complement to the more traditional representative structure of a council. It brings the voices of residents into the heart of decision-making, but in a far more considered and consensual fashion than the fraught climate in which politicians usually engage with voters – something recently acknowledged by Jess Phillips in her six-point plan to restore trust in politics.

The intriguing possibility emerges, therefore, of a two-chamber legislature: one based on elected representation made up of MPs, and the other on deliberative democracy made-up of ‘ordinary’ citizens. In effect, the House of Lords would be replaced by a permanent citizens’ assembly guaranteeing the general population a direct, consensual voice at the heart of political decision-making to complement the representative and adversarial traditions of the Commons.

Of course, what exactly this national citizens’ assembly might look like would need to be carefully determined. Would participants be chosen randomly as in jury service, or might they be drawn from a network of local citizens’ assemblies? How long would participants be expected to take part? What expert support would they require and how would that be provided? And would they simply take on the powers of the current House of Lords or would that require reform as well? This detail is important and probably not best left to Parliament which has a history of watering down constitutional change proposals to homeopathic levels of dilution. It is a job, in fact, for a citizens’ assembly.

This will all sound very radical to Westminster ears but radicalism is precisely what is required. A deep frustration with politics has been allowed to fester for far too long. The result is a spreading disenchantment with democracy as a whole and the gravitation towards polarised and aggressive extremes.

The UK cannot be allowed to follow the example of Hungary and Poland and see its liberal democratic institutions gradually degraded for want of imagination and courage on the part of those who actually care about those bodies. In short, bold moves rather than tweaks are required to regain the trust of an angry population. 

Adam Lent is director of the New Local Government Network.


Here’s how we plant 2 billion more trees in the UK

A tree in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

The UK’s official climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), recently published a report outlining how to reduce the 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions that come from land use by two thirds by 2050. Alongside recommending cutting meat and dairy consumption by 20 per cent, the report calls for the annual creation of up to 50,000 hectares of broadleaf and conifer woodland for the next three decades. This would increase forest cover from 13 per cent to at least 17 per cent – a level not seen in Britain since before the Norman invasion.

Reforestation at that rate would mean creating roughly the area of the city of Leeds every year for the next three decades. At typical stocking densities of 1,500 stems per hectare, the ambition is to establish some 2.25 billion additional trees. Given that the UK, as with most of Europe, is in the grip of ash dieback, a disease likely to prove fatal for many millions of native ash trees, the scale of the challenge is massive.

On a crowded and intensively farmed island like Britain, unlocking a million and a half hectares of land will be no mean feat. But it’s not impossible – and is an unprecedented opportunity not only to tackle the climate crisis but also the biodiversity crisis that is every bit as detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees and farms

One million and a half hectares is just 6 per cent of the mainland UK’s land area. To give some sense of perspective on this, 696,000 hectares of “temporary grassland” were registered in 2019. So if land supply is not the problem, what is? Often it’s cultural inertia. Farmers are firmly rooted to the land and perhaps understandably reluctant to stop producing food and instead become foresters. But the choice need not be so binary.

The intensification of agriculture has caused catastrophic declines in many species throughout the UK by reducing vast wooded areas and thousands of miles of hedgerows to small pockets of vegetation, isolating populations and making them more vulnerable to extinction.

Integrating trees with the farmed landscape delivers multiple benefits for farms and the environment. Reforestation doesn’t have to mean a return to the ecologically and culturally inappropriate single-species blocks of non-native conifers, which were planted en masse in the 1970s and 1980s. Incentivised under tax breaks to secure a domestic timber supply, many of the resulting plantations were located in places difficult or in some cases impossible to actually harvest.

Productive farmland needn’t be converted to woodland. Instead, that 4 per cent of land could be found by scattering trees more widely. After all, more trees on farmland is good for business. They prevent soil erosion and the run-off of pollutants, provide shade and shelter for livestock, a useful source of renewable fuel and year-round forage for pollinating insects.

The first tranche of tree planting could involve new hedgerows full of large trees, preferably with wide headlands of permanently untilled soils, providing further wildlife refuge.

Natural regeneration

Where appropriate, new woody habitats can be created simply by stopping how the land is currently used, such as by removing livestock. This process can be helped by scattering seeds in areas where seed sources are low. But patience is a virtue. If people can learn to tolerate less clipped and manicured landscapes, nature can run its own course.

A focus on deliberate tree planting also raises uncomfortable truths. Most trees are planted with an accompanying stake to keep them upright and a plastic shelter that protects the sapling from grazing damage. All too often, these shelters aren’t retrieved. Left to the elements, they break down into ever smaller pieces, and can be swept into rivers and eventually the ocean, where they threaten marine wildlife. Two billion tree shelters is a lot of plastic.

The main reason for using tree shelters at all is because the deer population in the UK is so high that in many places, it is all but impossible to establish new trees. This also has serious implications for existing woodland, which is prevented from naturally regenerating. In time, these trees will age and die, threatening the loss of the woodland itself. Climate change, pests and pathogens and the lack of a coordinated, centrally supported approach to deer management means the outlook for the UK’s existing treescape is uncertain at best.

An ecologically joined-up solution would be to reintroduce the natural predators of deer, such as lynx, wolves, and bears. Whether rewilding should get that far in the UK is still the subject of debate. Before that, perhaps the focus should be on providing the necessary habitat, rich in native trees.

A positive response would be to implement the balanced recommendations, made almost a decade ago in a government review, of creating more new habitat, improving what’s already there, and finding ways to link it together. Bigger, better, and more connected habitats.

But the UK is losing trees at increasing rates and not just through diseases. The recent removal of Victorian-era street trees in Sheffield and many other towns and cities is another issue to contend with. As the climate warms, increasing urban temperatures will mean cities need shade from street trees more than ever.

Trees aren’t the environmental panacea that the politicians might have people believe – even if they do make for great photo opportunities – but we do need more of them. Efforts to expand tree cover are underway across the world and the UK will benefit from contributing its share. Hitting the right balance – some commercial forestry, lots of new native woodland and millions of scattered trees – will be key to maximising the benefits they bring.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Conservation, Nottingham Trent University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.