Last month, we published the first instalment of our interview with Steady State Manchester, a campaigns and lobbying group who believe society can be run in a more equitable, sustainable and environmentally responsible way. Their pamphlets and publications have outlined logical steps that can be taken at all levels of authority, from the grassroots upwards, towards their vision of a Viable Economy, free from boom-bust economic instability.
While the first half of our interview focused on broad topics applicable to the UK and beyond, their post-growth goals also concern the actions in localities and city regions, whose models of unchecked growth, austerity budgeting and undemocratic planning have affected social justice and fairness. Here, Mark Burton from the Steady State Manchester talks about pay inequality, energy efficiency and devolution.
What are your expectations for DevoManc and the imposed mayoral system? Could it help to achieve the aim of greater localisation and community ownership?
Our criticisms are threefold. Firstly, it is based on the unviable economic model promoted by the Treasury and uncritically reproduced locally: increased and endless economic growth based on positioning the region to compete in the global economy – not just unrealistic, but a profoundly dystopian and cynical world view. And, underfunded, it may be little more than a clever way of delivering consent to austerity.
Secondly, there is the democratic deficit. Not just the imposed mayor, who will at least be elected, but the lack of an assembly at regional level and therefore the muting of citizen voices and expertise in decision making. This is not surprising given the piecemeal approach to delegated powers (we hesitate to call it devolution) without any kind of constitutional settlement on a national level.
Thirdly, the definition of the region is inadequate, focussing only on the conurbation and not its rural hinterland and the surrounding settlements that will be left out. As such, it will establish an economic unit that makes little sense in a changing and increasingly challenging global context.
But changes always create opportunities and the re-focussing of economic and social policy at a regional level could also open up paths for more community ownership and economic localisation. For that reason the mayoral campaign is a space to air arguments about the kind of economy and society that we want in our region, and what policies and struggles are needed to achieve it.
How have you been able to promote greater energy efficiency of Manchester homes without it being too expensive for residents?
It isn’t really our role to do that promotion and, despite friendly criticisms of our councils and other bodies, we do note that there has been considerable work on this front. We did put some thought into how this agenda could be combined with skills and youth employment, but didn’t get very far with that when we presented to one local council.
Achievements have been patchy. The easy bits of insulation retrofit have largely been achieved in the social housing sector, but little has been done by private landlords and it is owner-occupiers who, per capita, use most energy domestically. We argue for an upping of ambition here and advocate the idea (from the Transition movement) of energy descent planning for the region as a whole. The UK could switch to renewable energy quite rapidly if its energy consumption was managed down assertively and fairly.
What practical steps can people take to help to improve fairness across the Manchester region? And what do you think the councils or other authorities should be doing? Have you found Neighbourhood Plans to be effective at all?
All councils and other public authorities should follow Salford’s lead and become Living Wage employers. Beyond that, there needs to be a cap on maximum salaries and there needs to be much more discussion of pay ratios and the supposed justifications for paying someone 15 times more than someone else.
Citizens can lobby and campaign for that. But addressing pay inequality is only part of the picture. Above all, the reality of poverty needs to be exposed and kept in the public eye. Initiatives like the Salford Poverty Truth Commission, the GM Poverty Commission and the GM Living Wage Campaign are examples we can build on.
Environmentalists also need to take this on. An additional pound awarded to someone on low income has a much lower emissions impact than when given to someone who is already comfortably off. Inequality is one driver of environmental destruction. Beyond the formal economy, we are very interested in the many ways in which resources are shared without being monetised and in the contribution this can make to material and personal wellbeing, although we are not finding it easy to find ways of increasing the scale of this activity.
Are there other city regions you’d cite as positive examples to follow?
There is no ‘utopian city region’ out there, but a number show some fragments of a possible viable city region. Places to look at, despite their shortcomings and contradictions, include Malmö-Copenhagen, Freiburg and Barcelona, as well as some cities in the Americas.
In which areas and campaigns have you been able to make the most progress?
We have probably done best in beginning to change the conversation. While we alone haven’t achieved this, talk of economic ‘growth’ is more likely to at least nod to the need to share the benefits and for it to be environmentally benign, while the absurdity of the concept of an ever-growing economy is increasingly understood and accepted.
Our concept of the Viable Economy has gained some traction. Some of our best work has been in alliance with others, on issues as diverse as pay inequality, food poverty and sustainability, local economies and fossil fuel divestment. That gives us the ability to have an influence beyond our size, although we wouldn’t want to exaggerate the impact. It often feels like we are screaming at the hurricane, but perhaps we are finding better loud hailers.