My personal experience of regeneration is that my job is two-fold. My job is that I am an exorcist.
I’m not joking. I go to places like mid-Cornwall, Morecambe, Dundee, the earthquake zone of Christchurch in New Zealand, the giant coal mine of Anglesey in Australia, and our biggest project in China, and we start with what are called ‘meanwhile projects’, where people start to get the hang of the fact that you could make places beautiful.
And the moment you start to make places beautiful, people start to believe that there might be a sea change.
The greatest thing that happened to me in terms of doing the Eden Project is that a place that some of you may have heard of called The Lost Gardens of Heligan, that gave me the understanding of how – if you remove technical language from something and allow it to become an experience of shared beauty – then hundreds of thousands of people come.
My proudest thing – other than the birth of my children – would be that more than 400 people have asked to have their ashes scattered at Heligan. That is a tremendous privilege – but what I learned when I started the process was to listen to people.
I went to Wales to speak to the people who had built the Ebbw Vale garden festival, which had not been a great success.
These civil servants were so brave and so honest about what they’ve done that had messed things up, but it would make a big difference that what I did in Cornwall. They said, first of all, the biggest mistake they made in Ebbw Vale was they went there and they saw the Wales of their imagination not the actual Wales that was in front of them.
Which – when you think about it – is a very interesting observation. Because they saw the Wales in terms of big coal, big steel and so on. But by that time already
Wales had become a place where there are enormous numbers of small businesses – two people and a dog – and there was no capacity to actually bulk up what they do.
They said that was the first major problem they had. And the second thing was, not having realised that, they then tried to make sure the money was spent in Wales and they couldn’t, because no one could spend it. So it was a disaster.
Most of the money from the Ebbw Vale garden festival haemorrhaged out – not through any evil intent – it was just to do with the organisation.
So when we raised the money to build the Eden Project in Cornwall, we began procuring right through from two years ahead.
I’m very political – I’m also a capitalist – but I believe that capitalism only works with a moral compass. And if you don’t have a moral compass, you will really screw it up. So what we did was we started procuring the food for Eden that was going to open two years later.
To give you some idea, Eden consumes in three months all the cheese that was then made in Cornwall. The same with ice cream, and the same with a whole bunch of stuff. So you need to go to those businesses and set them up.
Then the next thing you need to understand is why most people who say they are business people are not – and betray their local people – is that, if you want small businesses to become big businesses and stay local, then you need to understand that, if you are going to ask ice cream makers to make organic ice cream for you, they cannot grow unless you give them long-term contracts.
Yet if you are a business person you’re told that short-term contracts are good business…
So you need to offer three-year contracts and be very factual, because what I want to say is that regeneration isn’t about talking about stuff in the corridors of London. It’s about getting dirt under your fingernails and understanding how business works.
So we offer three-year contractors and we are very political. We said, after 18 months – if your company is waste neutral – we’ll give you a contract for another 18 months and this continues forward. It’s really important that you incentivise the use of business to create a really beneficial outcome.
That has worked really well for us, and so today we have 1,200 suppliers at the Eden project in Cornwall, we have over a million people a year come to us. Why do they come?
In the loud world of today we don’t have the bravery we’re actually the quality of something everybody tells me: “Why don’t you go to that London Town? You’d have made a lot more money.
No, you wouldn’t. If you’d gone to London have been full of people consuming like pigs in a trough, you’d have been another thing to do – an entertainment.
Now when you come to Cornwall as would have been the case in Wales – as it will be the case in Morecambe – it has become in effect a pilgrimage. The journey in itself is almost like a commitment to go to somewhere special that becomes over a period of time, if you’re lucky, it has a sort of sacred power – I use the word in a secular way.
But then you’ve got to continue with doing the stuff. We need a balance between the entertainment to make people come with the science required to get people to change their behaviour.
The danger for the Eden Project is that most scientists are utterly rubbish at conveying the majesty of the moment.
Because everything is now unbelievably exciting. Let me tell all of you who think that we’re going to hell in a handcart that you have no idea what in the world is coming at us over the horizon.
It is going to be more life-changing for everybody than at any time since probably 1660. And the biggest problem we have is that we have a culture dominated by middle-aged grumpy men and those grumpy men like to read tabloid newspapers that tell you that they’re going to hell in a handcart.
And we were never told that the reason we need to believe we’re going to hell in a handcart is because we’ve never had it so good. As a species, we need to be trained to fear the future so that we can actually be resilient.
Yet 15 years from now, Yorkshire will be independent – as will so many places in our country – and it’s about muscular localism.
We are sponsored by a company called Volvo – they actually are planning to have no supply chain 15 years from now. They will be printing their cars wherever roughly wherever you live. We will have renewable energy freely available or cheaply available throughout our country.
And what a fantasy, say people like Boris Johnson – the only man this year I have sworn at!
Yet I know that we are living in an age of brilliant technology. In fact, we have dug a hole 5.3 kilometres deep.
Because we can.
But why would we do that when you have had to hear, year after year after year, from these men – many of them supported by people in the fossil fuel industry – that you can’t do this and you can’t do that. Because it’s unaffordable.
It’s a bit like selling you clean spring water over here and cyanide water over there. The cyanide is cheaper so you’d better have that.
During covid, I was standing next to my neighbours doing the clapping for the nurses, and we started talking about how we couldn’t afford the things that we all said we wanted.
The conversation then went to, well, what are you doing about it yourself? You could actually cut the hedge, you could remove the Tesco’s trolley from the river – you could do all these things to engineer what we all said we wanted.
I know there are many honourable politicians in the room today. What I would say is that the rest of us have got to grow up. Because if we stand around asking people to tell us that we can have what we want, when we’re living in the world that is completely unaffordable – it’s not good enough, is it?
It’s like us saying to them: come on, lie to us!
We’ve got to see this birth as a new philosophy in politics which is about citizenship. We’ve actually got to take control of our destiny by working out what is absolutely essential, and what we can in our communities do.
That is why what I call muscular localism is so important. Because I believe we are at the birth of something really important.
But it requires courage that – if we stretch out and are brave – people will remember this in 100 years’ time that there was this moment.