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ECO - Bioregionalism, Britain and Ireland

Lawrence F. London, Jr. Venaura Farm ICQ#27930345
lflondon@mindspring.com  london@metalab.unc.edu
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Title: ECO - Bioregionalism, Britain and Ireland


The Campaign for Political Ecology

Britain and Ireland
Constitutional change and bioregionalism

by George Williamson

This paper is the personal view of the author. ECO is pleased to publish it although publication does not mean it will necessarily be endorsed as ECO policy. The proposals for constitutional change presented here combine elements that have been discussed before with a number of new suggestions. Of particular significance is the link between political reform, carrying capacity and bioregionalism. The paper is a contribution to the constitutional debate and proposes an arrangement which is ecologically and therefore politically sustainable.



The apparent intransigence of the unionist and nationalist communities in Northern Ireland is matched by an unwillingness among most politicians in Britain and the Irish Republic to contemplate any really fundamental changes to their constitutions, not least a new federal union of these North Atlantic islands. It is not only the communities in Northern Ireland that are refusing to reflect on or to reconsider their long-held positions.Yet the difficulties being faced in Northern Ireland could be alleviated if proposed changes to the constitutional arrangement were to be considered within a radically changed relationship between Britain and Ireland and the regions making up both countries.

Any proposed constitutional rearrangement between Britain and Ireland should be set in the context of other pressing matters affecting both states: regional self-determination for the people living in the old national territories of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and the political and economic dominance particularly of London and the south-east of England and to a lesser extent of the whole of England. This dominance is achieved by living off the ecological carrying capacity of other parts of the national UK territory and further afield. There is also a need for a European and global dimension in coming to any new arrangement.

Despite undoubted differences and past injustices, there is much common culture and shared history between the nations which originally made up Britain and Ireland through which to pursue a settlement of the dispute over Northern Ireland. There is a long-established passport-free border between the states of Britain and Ireland. Internal migration and intermarriage among the nations making up Britain and Ireland have obscured the historic origins of millions. Concentrating therefore on what unites rather than divides could be the basis of a new system of government for the people of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales in a revised partnership between these four old countries which enables their people to begin living sustainably on the land they occupy.

Central to the proposals outlined in this paper is the strengthening of local economies within a new provincial structure. Each province would have an elected assembly with powers to decide economic and local taxation policy. The UK government's ministry and civil service structure in London would be effectively dismantled and the Irish Republic's in Dublin restructured. The provincial assemblies would have powers to adjust primary federal legislation to local circumstances. Much of what is currently legislated by London and Dublin would be removed to the provinces, such as energy supply, agriculture, forestry, land control and use, water supply and management, health, education, trade and industry, and provincial transport systems. The provincial economies would be designed to limit the movement of goods, services and people. (Fish and other offshore `commons' resources would become the remit of higher democratic bodies from federal to global level.)

The provincial assemblies would require democratic accountability from any remaining quangos within their boundaries (many quangos would be disbanded). One of the central aims of the project is to slim down ecologically damaging economic and non-economic activity throughout the federation in order to achieve a steady-state economy operating within the constraints imposed by finite planetary resources. A primary role for the provinces would be to encourage a `bioregionalist' sensitivity and culture to develop. An essential part of that role is matching their population level to the ecological resources within their boundaries. The population of the federation as a whole would therefore have to be reduced by socially acceptable means over an appropriate time span.

Why Regionalism has to be Bioregionalism

The idea of bioregionalism (and biolocalism) is founded on `a sense of the land' from which come `organically sensitive' communities, that is, communities aware of resource and population limits and the constraints imposed by ecological carrying capacity. This form of `land ethic' helps communities and societies relate to the specifics of their own place or region, each distinguished by the geology, climate, vegetation, water, physical features and living creatures which have shaped their culture and history. It is the loss of this `sense of place'which has contributed to the rootlessness and restlessness which so undermines society today. The land ethic respects the habitats of other species and recognises the need for wildernesses and other areas where humans do not intrude. The regions' economic and social viability is dependent on matching an optimum population to their resource carrying capacity, in order not to `borrow' from other regions more carrying capacity than they `lend'. Such regional and local economies can then rightfully justify a large degree of economic protectionism against the voracious and worldwide free-trade regime which threatens communities' self-reliance and stability across the globe.

Constitutional change in support of a new regionalism is doomed if it is motivated by prospects of endless economic growth through increased trade. The pursuit of open-ended economic growth, coupled with the anarchy of the world market, can only destroy any political reform. Generally, economic activity would be limited to that level which maintains long-term ecological health and productivity. Cultural policy would encourage a greater appreciation of and respect for the underlying character and capacity of the biogeographical regions on which the provinces would be based. Therefore regional arrangements must be harmonised, as far as possible, with the underlying bioregions.

Human societies have become `biophobic': at best indifferent, at worst mainly hostile to the workings of the natural world and the nurturing of nature. Such societies have long lost the awareness of their dependency on ecological resources. A `biophilic' sensitivity to and a consciousness of the workings of nature are essential to making the proposed provinces aware of their bioregional identities. A general sense of the land and people, and a specific sense of their land and people, must be restored to rural as well as to urban cultures from which they have virtually disappeared. Only in this way can people begin to put down roots again. Without communities sustained by a bioregional identity born of awareness of resource dependency, these provinces would end up as no more than smaller versions of the disintegrating biophobic societies from which humanity has to rescue itself. This is a lesson all devolutionists must apply to whatever constitutional changes they propose.

Furthermore, although those regional devolution proposals based on `journeys to work areas' (dependent on the road network!) address current realities, they ignore the fact that present road movements simply cannot be sustained. Mass commuting by road is a way of life doomed to disappear. Such proposals fail to put first things first. A sustainable economy would survive if every motorway fell to pieces but the collapse of the water supply system would wreck even a sustainable economy and people would soon die.

A Federation of Provinces

Bioregionalism is best developed within a provincial legislative structure which can address essential local needs without exceeding the ecological carrying capacity on which they depend. Provincial government can express the collective interests of the urban and rural communities within its boundaries, providing the political and economic restraint needed to prevent ecological brinkmanship. Historically, provinces often coincided with bioregional areas, usually water catchment areas. After the air we breathe, water is the primary sustainer of life. Therefore the catchment areas from which it is obtained are the principal indicators of how provincial boundaries could be decided. Indeed the boundaries of the much-maligned water companies come very close to what is required. The provincial boundaries should therefore reflect this bioregionally-ordained fact by containing one or more of the water companies' catchment areas.

It is essential that the new layers of government govern by consent and accountability. The aim should be to remove the national authority of London and Dublin (giving them a new but different national status together with Edinburgh and Cardiff) by devolving certain powers to the provinces of Britain and Ireland, including the levying of local taxes. Other powers should be transferred to a federal state legislature representing these new provinces - powers such as the federal currency, federal taxes, federal transport systems, internal security and foreign relations within Europe. The philosophy of bioregionalism by which policy-making is informed has to be the motivator of federal government also. Other important matters, such as multilateral defence, foreign policy beyond Europe and transnational environmental issues, would in time be removed to a democratically accountable European body. This would occur only when the other states making up this European body were also devolving specific powers to their provinces or regions. Westminster and Dublin, as presently constituted, would be the layers of government which eventually disappeared.

In this way, devolved power to the provinces, while not ignoring residual nationalism within the old countries of the federation, should provide the binding matrix and the format of the new federation. All old national identities on the islands of Britain and Ireland would still have their historic national territories acknowledged and recognised at provincial and federal level.

The critical and essential new element would be the advocacy and promotion of a bioregional awareness to underpin the whole project. This would acknowledge the bioregions within and overlapping each province and the fact that the islands of Britain and Ireland are themselves bioregions within a hierarchy of even larger bioregions. The precise boundaries of the new provinces would be a matter for negotiation but, as far as possible, would blend commonly accepted geophysical areas with those purely human patterns of history, culture and self-identification. Provincial devolution, informed by bioregionalism, would bring greater incentives to manage economic affairs and other activities in an ecologically sustainable manner. The penalties for failing to do so would be more obvious and more rapidly felt. In the case of London and south-east England in particular, the process of ecological `overshoot' and breaching of limits has already reached gross proportions. At present, the problem is mitigated by an extreme dependency on the carrying capacity of other regions for resources and for waste disposal. Yet most of the discussion on the future of the Home Counties conurbation and future government of London fails to address this most basic problem. Devolution in the form proposed would at least give other regions the power to defend their own long-term security.

Structure and Government

The structure and government of the proposed federal state are sketched out in broad principle as follows. There would be seven provinces in England, three in Scotland, two in Wales and three in Ireland of which one could be Ulster, perhaps comprising its nine counties. All except Mercia (the English Midlands) would have a coastline. The names of the provinces would be agreed by democratic consent.

In England there would be the following provinces: Northumbria (the North East), York (largely old Yorkshire), West Pennines (Cumbria and Lancashire), Mercia (the Midlands), Wash (Lincolnshire and East Anglia), London (Thames Valley and south-east coast counties), and Wessex (the South-West). Wales' provinces would be Glamorgan (the old industrial valleys) and Cambria (the rest of Wales). The provinces of Ireland would be Ulster (possibly the nine counties), Leinster (Dublin, the South-East and Midlands) and Atlantic (the West and South-West). Scotland's provinces would be Forth (Forth valley and Borders), Strathclyde (Clydeside, Galloway and Argyll) and Highland (the Highlands).

The territory of these provinces would be based on the bioregional water catchment areas previously described. They would be divided into `city regions', administrative areas based on important urban centres and their surrounding hinterlands, areas by which people have historically felt defined and with which they have culturally identified. Each province would have its own assembly, consisting of representatives of the city regions, elected under a uniform proportional representation voting system.

The legislature of the federal state would comprise members elected as representatives of the provinces through a multi-member proportional representation voting system; the approximate numbers would be 118, made up of 88 from England, 12 from Scotland, 12 from Ireland and 6 from Wales.

The executive would be formed from among the members of the legislature. In addition there would be four presidents, each elected by and representing one of the four constituent countries. They would replace the privy council. The House of Lords would be abolished, thus removing one layer of government, and the future of the monarchy would be left in the hands of English, rather than Irish, Welsh or Scottish taxpayers. The royal family is an English institution and could not be expected to have a role in a new federal state where the removal of the dominance of the English establishment is a central part of its raison d'être.

The presidents would oversee the executive and confirm the appointment of the chief ministers, the speaker of the parliament and the heads of the federal bank and four national banks. They would also appoint the chief law officers, one for the federation and one for each of the four countries, reflecting legal differences between them and thus removing the current supremacy of English law, as it operates through Westminster. English law would cease to be paramount in international legal affairs and would be replaced by a new federal legal system for this purpose. Each of the four national presidents would have control over the police forces in their own national territory. The federal president would be in charge of the armed services and would be responsible for the overall security of the federation. In order to deal with the extremely delicate matter of integrating the British and Irish armies, it is proposed that the Irish provide the military Chief of Staff for a fixed initial period.

The small 118-member legislature would rotate round each of the national capitals, London, Cardiff, Dublin and Edinburgh, remaining in each for a fixed four year parliament at the end of which there would be an automatic general election even if one or more elections had been held during the four year period. The four presidents would be elected at the same time as the federal assembly and their period in office would coincide with the fixed four year parliament period. In order to help deal with Irish apprehension it is proposed that the first federal parliament sits in Dublin, followed by Cardiff or Edinburgh (depending on who wins the toss of the coin!) with London hosting it last. The president of the country hosting the government would be the titular, not executive, head of the combined federation for these four years. The much smaller numbers of the legislature would reflect the diminution of powers presently held in Westminster and Dublin, as many of these powers would go down to the provinces and a far smaller number would eventually go up to a new democratically elected European body.

A new and largely ceremonial capital of the federation would be located on the politically more acceptable and appropriately situated Isle of Man. Specific statutorily required meetings of the four presidents and chief ministers would take place at a new presidential house on the Isle of Man. Visiting heads of state and other dignitaries would be officially welcomed to the federal state in the capital of the country currently hosting the legislature or at the presidential house on the Isle of Man. The federal bank and treasury would be located on the Isle of Man. The federation's chief law officer would also be based there. Secretariats responsible for liaison with the legislatures of the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands and the Commonwealth countries, and for the affairs of overseas British dependencies would remain in London.

Foreign Affairs

In the long term, much of the activity generated by foreign affairs should diminish at federal state level, as European and global democratic bodies are eventually put in place. Already much defence and foreign policy is addressed at European and UN level. As this increases, the need for separate diplomatic relations between each state diminishes and with it the size of the ambassadorial and diplomatic bureaucracy.

The proposed constitutional rearrangement is aimed at promoting provincial economies which are much more self-reliant and less dependent on external trade. Consequently, one of the principal roles of foreign policy - that of trade relations and business support, which currently takes up much more than half of diplomatic time - will be considerably diminished.

Altogether this means that the need for a large foreign ministry will be much reduced. What is still required of this truncated ministry would be located away from London in Dublin, which already has the trappings in a more appropriate miniature form. Consular presence would be necessary in the other three national capitals and in the provincial capitals.

Sustainable Economies

The core of this proposal is to grant considerable autonomy to the new provinces to enable them to develop their own sustainable economies. To begin this process, there would be separate national banks with their own currencies for England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, with the power to decide their own interest rates. These national banks would be answerable individually to each of these countries' own MPs elected to the federal parliament and to their own elected president. A federal currency for trading in specific commodities and services would be created, controlled by a new federal bank. Legislation would be enacted in order to prevent currency speculation.

The four national banks, as well as the federal bank, would have an important role in helping with the sustainable reconstruction of their own national territory and the provinces within it. This is in order to make good and prevent further ecological damage caused by economic activity which `overshoots' resource carrying capacity. Just as the purpose of currency harmonisation is to promote and facilitate trade in materials, goods, services and people, so the creation of the banks is to prevent the centralisation of the currencies within the federation. The four national banks' control over their own interest rate would enable the provinces within the four countries to develop their own economies with a much greater measure of independence from the current London financial institutions. The new English national bank, merely one equal among four, would not have the old Bank of England's status as manager of the U.K currency and staunch supporter of City of London financial institutions. The latter would be reined in by the federal bank in order to bring to an end the investment practices which have resulted in serious ecological damage throughout the world.

The neutering of the London political and financial establishments and decentralisation on the scale proposed would hasten the much needed break-up of the inflexible, outdated political parties which compete to run the highly centralised state controlled from Westminster. This proposed constitutional rearrangement is more decentralised and democratically accountable and also recognises the relative autonomy and the strong interconnectedness of all the countries comprising the federation. By redressing some of the balance in favour of the three smaller ones it alleviates the present Westminster bias which has ensured England's continuing and increasing dominance, despite that country's large degree of ecological dependence on the others through borrowing their ecological carrying capacity.

European and Global Dimensions

The constitutional changes proposed for Britain and Ireland have to be placed in a larger context. Although these proposals cover only Britain and Ireland, clearly a parallel programme of bioregionalism is desperately needed across the European Union and indeed right around the world. A twin track approach, with most powers devolved down but a few transferred to higher levels, coupled with a bioregional awareness, has to be part of the solution for resolving the often troubled relationship with the European Union.

All states are too small to address global problems, such as environmental collapse, climate change, unhindered movement of capital, and international instability caused by military, terrorist or criminal threats. Most are too large to address local and regional grievances within their own sovereign territory. Indeed many nation states, as presently structured, are unsuited to dealing with present day problems arising from new political circumstances. Their days are numbered. In future, new federations and alliances with properly constituted sovereignty will be needed. In Europe and the world at large, present existing states will in the main require new constitutional arrangements, usually internal ones but often also with their neighbours.

The inability of individual states, owing to their relative `smallness', to address issues which have a global context means that institutions which provide democratic accountability at supranational level, both European and global, are urgently required. These institutions, together with the creation of elected assemblies representing provinces or regions within the existing sovereign states, will inevitably take power away from governments such as Westminster. This is no bad thing, as it improves democratic accountability in two directions without adding to the overall burden of government upon the people. Indeed, although another level of government has been added, the overall size of the government bureaucracy is reduced.

Consequences for Local Government

In devolving powers downwards from Westminster, the role of local government has to be reconsidered. To gain loyalty, support and respect, the new provinces have to be popularly accepted through a shared cultural identity and history of the people within their boundaries. A recognised city or town with new or long-standing provincial status will be essential to their cohesion, if it is to be the provincial capital in which people have pride and which commands and receives their loyalty. Each province would be divided into city regions centred on the major urban settlements. As well as electing their own councils, the people of the city regions would also elect their representatives to the provincial assembly, thus binding local identities within the provincial ethos and the history born of its bioregions. These are made up of its geographical and physical features - mountains, hills, lowlands, flatlands, wetlands, rivers or lakes which form ecosystems with climate, flora and fauna - and so shape and provide resources for the regions' farming, forestry, industry, buildings and transportation.

Unsustainable Regions

There is a pressing need to deal with the widespread ecological unsustainability caused by overpopulation of the federal territory as a whole which will undermine the proposed federation if it is not addressed. It is unacceptable that the London and south-east region of England has achieved political and economic domination, much of it due to its large population concentration, although it is almost totally dependent on the carrying capacity of other regions' ecological resources. The south-east, in common with most other heavily populated areas, has breached ecological carrying capacities and damaged ecosystems way beyond its own geographical boundaries.

The new constitutional arrangement would start to remove the unacceptable influence of London and south-east England on the ecology as well as on political and economic life, not just of the rest of the UK but also of Ireland and beyond. Provinces will have the opportunity to protect their ecology and ecological resources by having much more autonomous economies. Being free from the centralising power and ecological damage of London finance, they can then treat the south-east England and London region as simply one of the other provinces in the federation.

The concentration of the civil service and defence establishments in London and the South-East would be ended by relocation and closure. The other national capitals would share the relocations of those ministries which retained functions not carried out at provincial level. The core senior civil service would accompany the peripatetic legislature. Much of the media establishment would have to follow suit, so loosening many of its London connections, in the same way as is proposed for the diplomatic establishment. The dispersal of, and structural changes to, all the institutions dependent on central government, together with the diplomatic establishment and the economic activity they all engender, from which London and south-east England take advantage over the rest of the country, would play a large part in bringing about the essential slimming down of that region's economy. This would start to reduce the ecological damage that such an overconcentration causes. Along with measures to address the breaching of ecological limits due to overpopulation in other areas, the long-term and socially acceptable reduction of the federal territory's total population to an agreed optimum level, commensurate with a chosen standard of living, can begin. This would also recognise that optimum concentrations of population are more ecologically sustainable than totally scattered populations.


The political map of Britain and Ireland needs to be redrawn at various provincial and regional levels in order to establish bioregions and biolocalities based on communities that understand humanity's organic dependency on the land, water and resources of those regions. Thus a positive, new and crucial dimension would be added to the national traditions of these islands. A new ecological-political arrangement such as this is essential to people's physical, social and cultural survival and is much more important than pursuing the old feuds based on old national identities. Of course long-standing antagonisms would not disappear overnight. Yet the reorientation around new provinces would dissipate fears about being submerged under hostile political structures, especially where demands for `provincial' autonomy run counter to demands for `national' devolution in the country containing the province. While it is exaggerated on the island of Ireland, the issue is also there, just below the surface, in Scotland and Wales. The proposals outlined in this paper deal with this issue. Also, with these proposals the threats from `Catholic' Dublin to `Protestant' Ulster and from `imperial' London to `colonised' Ireland would recede, as the concerns of Irish nationalists north and south of the border and unionists in Ulster, Scotland, Wales and England are addressed by radically restructuring and uniting the governments of Britain and Ireland in a new federation of these islands in the north Atlantic.

Some of the principles expressed in this paper coincide with ideas developed in the following ECO discussion papers, all of which are available from the address below at a cost of £1.25 including p&p (cheques payable to ECO, please):

Introduction to Political Ecology: Core Principles Explained

Discussion paper no 1: Protecting Economies through New Sovereign Regions

Discussion paper no 2: Population and Carrying Capacity

Discussion paper no 3: Features of a Sustainable, Ecocentric Economy

Other contributions to the debate on devolution and constitutional reform can be obtained from the all-party lobby group, the City Region Campaign, 26 Danbury Street, London N1 8JU, UK. Tel: 0171 454 0831 Fax: 0171 454 0825.

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Copyright © The Campaign for Political Ecology
Published October 1996, reprinted October 1997, revised February 1999.

This page last updated: 18-February-1999