We publish “The Viable Economy”

image of The Viable Economy pamphlet

Today we publish The Viable Economy, a pamphlet for everyone concerned about the dangers we face from the current unviable economic system and who would like to explore an approach that integrates economic, social and ecological well-being.

It suggests a path to a resilient, more localised, stable economy that delivers what we all need and will ensure more equity and harmony in our own area and throughout the world. It argues that we can decide on rather than follow economic rules and tread lightly on the earth as well as protect and restore those systems that make life possible.

It argues that to do this we will need a system based on values that include stewardship (caring for the earth), justice, conviviality (community), solidarity, co-operation, equality and respect.

It is in update of Steady State Manchester’s 2012 launch report In Place of Growth (available here). While not fudging the problem of our ecological overshoot (the real deficit), it presents a positive message of an economy that works for all, for us in Manchester and the people at the other end of our supply chains and pollution, now and in future generations. That sounds like a strong claim, and while we are confident about the central principles we do see this as work in progress, and welcome constructively critical feedback so we can improve it.

What are the dangers we face from the current unviable economic system?

We are continually told that economic growth is essential to all our well-being; it difficult to imagine that we can live well without it. From 1945 until the 1970’s, the standard of living of many people, in Western countries increased. Real incomes have declined in the West since then, and many in the majority world have become increasingly poor. Since the 1970s stagnation has haunted the economy. Current austerity policies illustrate how greater equity is continuously postponed.

Despite increasing inequalities locally and globally, the powerful growth lobby continues to say that where there is growth, prosperity will trickle down. But as we cope with instability and repeated crises; it is increasingly difficult to control the actions of big business and working conditions are getting worse. More and more decisions are made on the basis of how much money they will make; this influences how we think, politics and even culture. As Margaret Thatcher wanted, everything is reduced to economic activity, with the emphasis on profit and the free market, with “no such thing as society”.

This economic system damages society. Some people and areas are highly valued while others are left out. Many people are dissatisfied with everyday life (some studies say dissatisfaction is higher in the UK than in places which are far poorer,) and the political process feels irrelevant to many people.

Increasingly our lives are more individual, separated and apolitical. Institutions and values which nurtured togetherness, solidarity, co-operation and a sense of community are less valued. Has this led to widespread feelings of pointlessness and insecurity, and high levels of stress, anxiety disorders, depression and addictions? Rising inequality has increased levels of insecurity and most worrying, a lack of social solidarity – the very basis for our shared life.

Finally, but ultimately even more distressing, we are using more ecological resources than our planet can cope with. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) most recent report has shown, it is economic growth that is responsible for the most immediately threatening increases in greenhouse gas emissions that threaten runaway global warming. And climate change is just one of the ‘planetary boundaries’ that humanity is crossing, or approaching.

That then is the nature of the problem.

So what is the Viable Economy?

The Viable Economy is not something we have just dreamed up but a way of bringing together a number of ideas and practice into a framework.

An economy,

  • that is resilient in the face of bubbles, crashes, supply chain interruptions and the whim of National governments.

  • that delivers (and measures) what we need; where some sectors will grow,(e.g. renewable energy) and some must shrink (e.g. fossil fuels, financial speculation, armaments).

  • where more money stays local and there is local control over savings and investment.

  • where investment comes from within rather than as profit-seeking from external investors.

An economy which is socially viable,

  • that includes everyone, that uses everyone’s energies and talents to the full and is based on nurturing human and social capital,

  • that builds equality, solidarity and co-operation among people, here and elsewhere.

  • Less exploitation of the majority world while keeping open channels for communication and learning globally.

  • Has more space for non-commercial transactions (including care of children , adults, neighbourhoods and exchanging services and skills: the collaborative or solidarity economy.

An economy which is ecologically viable

  • Radically reducing both the use of limited resources and the emission of pollutants, including greenhouse gases: a one-planet economy.

  • Based on production and consumption for need: a frugal abundance.

  • More security for us all because the environment is protected from further destruction.

  • Resilient to climactic and other ecological shocks.

  • An economy that practices stewardship of the natural world that we depend on.

The pamphlet draws on ground breaking thinking of recent years from a variety of fields and movements, including New Economics, Social Justice, Social Ecology, Trade Justice and Alternative Development, bringing them together because ecology teaches us that everything is interconnected.

It covers eleven critical areas: growth; resilience; space; democracy and ownership; investment, money, credit and debt; distribution and equality; work and income; environment; consumerism; living well and its measurement and population and migration. For each area there is an outline of the current problems, the viable alternative and some viable policy ideas.

The themes that constantly run through these 11 areas are equity, localisation, money and measurement. We argue that greater equity is needed globally as well as locally and economically as well as socially. We recognise that greater equity is needed wherever there are preventable gaps if everyone is to live well and the economy if to be viable. This includes within Manchester and compared to other places locally and throughout the world as well as in terms of gender, race, sexuality and disability We argue that localisation of the economy can have an enormous impact on reducing ecological damage and ensuring a more stable and less exploitative approach to money.. We also consider the urgent need to measure wealth of society, not by how much we produce (Gross Domestic Product) but by measures that consider the value of what we produce, who benefits, and any damage to the planet as a result of the activity.

We have a section of population and migration, an area we have not previously explored where we suggest that the focus of action needs to be on the reasons why people have large families and want to migrate, rather than on control.

fig3 conclusion

We are launching The Viable Economy on Tuesday 9th December, 7-9pm at Central Hall, Oldham Street, Manchester. Book your free place HERE.

Copies will be on sale there, or you can download the pamphlet as a pdf file , HERE

Of Devolution, Power and Inequalities – a report from Manchester Policy Week

On Monday 2nd November I attended the first day of the University of Manchester’s Policy Week. The “big event” was Michael Heseltine’s keynote “The Forgotten People”. At least he was honest about his approach to devolution: there must be a top down boss, but he did advocate devolved control over far more money, including a larger chunk of the infrastructure budget. “Then we will realise the energies of the locals and get real growth – This is consistent with his behaviour when he was the President (Minister) of the Board of Trade, when apparently he often wore the President of the Board of Trade suit from 18th Century and had his desk put on a platform so he was always higher than the rest of the people in the room! He also made clear any devolved power must be within the overall policies set by National Government, which made me wonder how much devolved power there would really be!!!

I also attended a session on employment inequalities where we were told that:

1. Since 2002 as GDP goes up, except for the high pay, real salaries have gone down - for Full, Part, Women and Men. Often overtime pay gone.

2. As bottom salaries have been raised though minimum/living wage, the gap between bottom and median has got smaller.

3. 700,000 middle income jobs have gone in the last 10 years and with GPD increasing, the rate of decline of these jobs is increasing. The drop has been particularly seen so far in accounts-related work, retail managers, within construction, housing and postal workers, plus in some manufacturing areas.

4. World-wide the rich are getting richer but in the UK we have a huge concentration – over 50% of the top 1% for all EU countries resides in the UK.

5. Growth of the self employed in UK is huge 56% increase from 2001-2010 and another 46% since 2010 and majority of these are on low income.

Perhaps the most surprising finding outlined is that adding skills to Level 1 and 2 (O level) workers leads to virtually no improvement in their employment – pay or conditions.

Adding skills to Level 3 (A level) and 4 workers shows a marginal chance of their employment improving but as these middle income jobs are quickly disappearing it is becoming harder for that gain to be continued.

Adding skills to level 5 (university) workers still gives them a chance of employment improvement but as the percentage which gains is dropping due to increased numbers of workers with Level 5 education and decreasing middle income employment, leading to the term “Educational con”. Gradually people are finding their costs for higher education; often resulting in large debits has less and less influence in increasing there job prospects. We were told an increasing number of employers prefer to train in house. This year Manchester College has made its first large scale lecturer redundancies – a similar threat to universities seems to be on its way.

The current lack of social mobility through work related activities was highlighted by a key finding – Only one in five people who were employed on low pay in 2002 had escaped low pay by 2012.

What is to be done, with increasing contracting out, especially in the public sector, plus rapidly decreasing middle income jobs leading to crowding of the job market at the bottom end reducing any chance of shortages leading to pay increases? The panel only suggested very small technical answers. I accused them of avoiding the basic question of the growing imbalance of power between employees and employers, suggesting real change would only come when workers had increased power through TU, ownership, and employees’ power on Boards etc. One of the 6 speakers came back and said yes the imbalance of power is the biggest problem, but I thought the others just looked bemused.

Maurice Barnes
Steady State Manchester collective

For a contribution from SSM to Policy week, see also this post.

A Living Wage, a Viable Economy, a Liveable City Region

The difference between the NMW and the Living wage is around £50 per week and £2'000 per year. Which has something to do with why over 50% of those in poverty are in-work.

The difference between the NMW and the Living wage is around £50 per week and £2’000 per year. Which has something to do with why over 50% of those in poverty are in-work.

This week was Living Wage Week. The new Living Wage rate, uprated in accordance with increases in the cost of living, of £7.85ph outside London was announced. At least 21.8% of people in Greater Manchester currently earn less than it, and this is similar across the UK. To mark the event SSM, along with signatories from other Campaign groups including GMB Union, the GM Living Wage Campaign and the Green Party sent an open letter to the leaders (and city mayor) of the Greater Manchester Local Authorities.

The letter urged them to take action on in-work poverty and inequality and demonstrate a commitment to the Living Wage and principles of Fair Pay. It’s below:

Living wage letter signatory logos
Dear Leaders of the Greater Manchester Local Authorities:

Richard Leese Manchester City Council Leader, Ian Stewart Salford City Mayor, Sean Anstee Trafford Council Leader, Jim McMahon Oldham Council Leader, Richard Farnell Rochdale MBC Leader, Sue Derbyshire Stockport MBC Leader, Kieran Quinn Tameside MBC Leader, Clifford Morris Bolton Council Leader, Michael Connolly Bury Council Leader, and Peter Smith Wigan Council Leader,

We wrote to you in May 2014 asking about your plans to reduce pay inequality through a Living Wage and a commitment to Fair Pay. We received no response.
This week is Living Wage week and we are writing to you again to urge you to champion the Living Wage and Fair Pay.
We are very encouraged that the all of the councils in GM have demonstrated a commitment to paying a living wage to their direct employees now or in the near future, and that many have recently uprated their living wage policies to meet the official Living Wage Foundation rate of £7.65 during 2014.
However, although raising bottom pay to a Living Wage has marginally reduced pay gaps, in 9 out of 10 Councils (with the exception of Rochdale) top pay is still over 10 times that of the lowest paid, with top earners still in the top 1% of earners in the UK.
Little progress has been made either, in securing a living wage for outsourced council workers or making outsourcing companies accountable for pay gaps, which can see top managers earning up to 200 times that of the lowest paid.
We urge all GM councils to:
Implement the new Living Wage rate of £7.85 per hour as soon as possible and demonstrate commitment to the Living Wage now and in the future by becoming accredited Living Wage Employers.
Reduce their pay gaps over time so that no employee earns more than 10 times that of the lowest paid, this would help pay for a Living Wage for all council workers and demonstrate a commitment to Fair Pay to the private sector.
Ensure all workers employed in the delivery of outsourced council contracts are paid the Living Wage.
Make outsourcing companies accountable for pay gaps by including them as a consideration in awarding contracts.
GM councils should also work together to ensure the savings made by the Treasury from implementing a Living Wage for all council workers, are transferred through the city deal arrangements to help cover the cost and further tackle low pay and poverty in the region.
We believe the GM councils can, through these steps, create a more equal economy, one which is better for everyone and more sustainable, by reversing the disparities that have opened up between high and low earners.
We look forward to hearing from you.
Yours sincerely,

Steady State Manchester (Benjamin Irvine)
Equality North West (Philip Duval)
North West Green Party (Laura Bannister)
Greater Manchester Living Wage Campaign (Tom Skinner)
National Community Activists Network (Joe Taylor)
Macc (Mike Wild)
GMB North West and Irish Region (Kevin Flanagan)
St Antony’s Centre for Church and Industry (Kevin Flanagan)

A large number of Greater Manchester residents have also expressed their support.

See report: ‘In Place of Pay Inequality: How local authority pay policies can help make Greater Manchester more equal and sustainable, and why it matters’, Steady State Manchester/Equality North West, March 2014.

Also: ‘Living Wage and the Role of Local Government’ Centre for Local Economic Strategies/GM Living Wage Campaign

The letter follows from one sent earlier this year, in which we asked what plans Local Authorities had to tackle income inequality and in-work poverty, if they would make a Living Wage a performance requirement for companies undertaking council contracts, reduce their pay gaps and make outsourcing companies accountable for pay gaps too.

It was based on the report we did with Equality North West, which argued that tackling income inequality is not only key to an economy which is a fairer but is an essential part of sustainable development if we are honest about resource constraints, climate change and solidarity with the majority world.

Whilst the majority of GM Councils are supportive of the idea of the Living Wage, recently uprating previous lower city-specific living wage rates to the official Living Wage Foundation rate for their direct employees, or hoping to do so soon, this support is thin:

Little progress has been made on outsourced contracts: of those that have any intention to influence contractors they have tended to adopt ‘encouragement’ strategies, rather than aiming for 100% compliance by making it a condition of contracts. Research suggests 73.6% of Manchester City Councils contractors don’t pay a Living Wage. Islington council has secured Living Wage on 98% of their contracts in contrast.

As we said in our report, without making a Living Wage a condition of contracts, a Living Wage for direct employees only, is likely to leave indirect incentives to outsource services based on lower labour costs as councils are forced to find savings, undermining and negating any progress on pay equality.

Reluctance to become accredited: Salford City Council was the first accredited Living Wage Employer in the North West but it is the only accredited GM Council. Manchester is currently deliberating over the specifics of its Living Wage policy and is apparently reluctant to become accredited as it’s worried it won’t be able to keep meeting the uprating in line with inflation. This doesn’t demonstrate a sustained commitment.

Accreditation also requires a commitment to work to secure the wage for subcontracted workers, so this reluctance compounds the above point.

No commitments to more equal, Fair Pay: Whilst reducing the top-to-bottom pay ratio of Islington Council to 1:10 was the complimentary measure taken by Islington to reduce inequality, alongside securing a Living Wage as far as possible, in 9 out of 10 GM Councils the gap is still above 10 times the lowest (now ‘Living’) wage, and none have targets to either maintain or reduce it. The largest gap is in Manchester where the CE’s top salary of £203’782 is 14.6 times the annual Living Wage salary of £13’955. This puts all those Chief Executives in the top 1% of earners in the UK.

Devolution, economic powers and the character of growth: This week also saw the announcement of a major devolution deal for GM. It will see decisions over spending in key areas like housing, transport and infrastructure being made at the GM level as a strategy to better deliver economic growth for the region. The question we should be asking is does it increase GM’s power to choose the character of its economic growth, power to produce a more equal distribution or even to pursue forms of qualitative economic and social development not just an increase in the volume of activity?

If the idea of the Living Wage is to remain patchy, rather than a new ambitious national minimum, then, as people have been pointing out for some time, Central Government and the Treasury are a major beneficiary of councils paying and securing the living wage from suppliers. It would therefore make sense for this saving to be reimbursed to them to help cover the cost. Unfortunately that doesn’t appear to have been arranged as part of the deal, it should be a priority.

If Greater Manchester is to have more democratic political and economic autonomy to build the regional economy it wants, (perhaps an economy for all), wouldn’t measures to secure a Living Wage and encourage Fair Pay form a central part?

We’ll post any replies we receive to the open letter here.

Steady State Manchester at Manchester Policy Week

I was one of the panel for a question time session on “An Economy for All” on day five of University of Manchester’s Policy Week, organised in conjunction with CLES and chaired by CLES Chief Executive, Neil McInroy (1). Each panellist gave a three minute introduction. I was asked specifically to address the ecological dimension. This is what I said.

I want to try and broaden the idea of “An Economy for All” by suggesting that the “All” should also include people living in fragile environments (places like the Ganges delta or precarious shanty towns in Central America, those on the front-line of climate change), people who have not yet been born, and also living things that are not people.

Because we are living in a state of extreme ecological malaise whereby the very systems that make life possible are being destroyed by human activity.

These systems are being progressively destroyed as a direct consequence of human ‘economic’ activity, whereby our ecological footprint by far exceeds the available carrying capacity of the planet: that’s the real deficit. That means that globally our footprint is a third bigger than the minimally sustainable level while in the UK the footprint is twice the available capacity.

For dominant economic models, the environment is just an afterthought. Yet without the environment, there is no basis for economic activity, since it is the source of its inputs, and where it puts its wastes.

The invisibility of the environment to conventional economics leads to a naïve, misplaced optimism that technology and markets will come up with solutions to ecological problems.

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) most recent report has shown(2), it is ‘good old’ economic growth that is responsible for the most immediately threatening increases in greenhouse gas emissions that threaten runaway global warming And climate change is just one of the ‘planetary boundaries’ that humanity is crossing, or approaching.

The conventional emphasis on growth (narrowly defined in terms of GDP) leads to various kinds of delusion that the impacts can be resolved, for example by improved energy efficiency, that growth can be disconnected from the flow of materials from extraction to pollution, despite the complete lack of evidence that more than a relative decoupling is possible. And conventional economics has a further sting in its tail when it tries to convert the ecosystem into monetary value, commodifying the natural world, displacing forest dwellers, and bolstering carbon emissions through trading and financial speculation in them.

We therefore need to be not just economically and socially viable, but also ecologically viable.

An economy,

  • Based on production and consumption for need: a frugal abundance.

  • Providing more security for us all because the environment is protected from further destruction.

  • Resilient to climactic and other ecological shocks.

  • An economy that practices stewardship of the natural world that we depend on.

But those are relatively abstract ideas. What does it mean in terms of practical policy?

We can prioritise certain areas for action – and you’ll notice a synergy with what the other speakers are emphasising.

  • Increase equality – since those on high incomes lead more carbon intense lifestyles – spending their surplus on luxury goods, travel and so on; and because in a post-growth economy, inequalities can no longer be masked by the illusion that the cake is growing.

  • Relocalise the economy – using a guiding principle of subsidiarity – that which can be produced locally should be. Start with things like food and textiles, building what I call the Replacement Economy .

  • Tackle the nexus of credit, debt and investment – so that the wealth of the local economy is invested for local prosperity rather than profit-seeking globally – e.g. via a regional green development bank, or, given the appetite for city economic sovereignty, through a Greater Manchester Pound (on the model of other parallel currencies like the Bristol Pound, creating money that can be spent into the local economy).

  • At the same time stop chasing inward investment and building trophy projects, hoping for crumbs off the BRICs table, but focus on the real local economy.

  • Tackle the culture of consumption – not by blaming citizens for their consumption patterns, but by building a culture that has real alternatives to the assertion of fragile identity through largely passive consumption.

  • Change the conversation, emphasising indicators of local economic well-being, like the recirculation of money and the distribution of wealth and income – rather than statistics like GDP and GVA.

Thank you

These ideas and more are explored in our forthcoming pamphlet The Viable Economy launching on 9 December but available here electronically before then.

I also contributed to a workshop on access to information on the Tuesday – read the text here.

1) The panellists were:

Prof Danny Dorling, The University of Oxford
Mark Burton, Scholar-Activist, Visiting Professor, Manchester Metropolitan University and member of the Steady State Manchester collective
Angela Rayner, Labour PPC for Ashton and a Unison steward (NHS)
Sandy Lindsay,  MD of Tangerine PR and Board member of Forever Manchester-community foundation for Greater Manchester

2) See http://report.mitigation2014.org/spm/ipcc_wg3_ar5_summary-for-policymakers_approved.pdf

3) This idea combines Modern Money Theory with the practice of alternative local currencies. See Guinan, J. (2014). Modern money and the escape from austerity. Renewal, 22(3-4), 6–21. and Lewis, M., & Conaty, P. (2012). The Resilience Imperative: Cooperative Transitions to a Steady-State Economy. New Society Publishers.

Mark Burton

A lesson for Britain: Brazil promotes food security and local food procurement, strengthening family farming « Localise West Midlands

A lesson for Britain: Brazil promotes food security and local food procurement, strengthening family farming « Localise West Midlands.

From the Localise West Midlands project comes this interesting piece on legislation to promote local food procurement in Brazil.  This is somewhat at odds with the country’s agricultural extractive policies (for example the industrial farming of soya for export), but consistent with some of its other policies such as the cero fome (zero hunger) programme.

“A School Meal Law (Pnae) was passed, requiring 30% of the public food purchases for school meals to be made locally from family farmers. It strengthened local and regional markets, fostered the circulation of profits in the region, recovered regional food habits and promoted the establishment of associations or cooperatives, which play an instrumental role in organizing food production and protecting the economy of the poorest sectors of the population.”   Read more here…

Having Enough Good Food for the Manchester Region; who we need to influence and what we need to do, to multiply our impact?

Twenty three people came together at a workshop organised by Steady State Manchester (SSM) on Saturday 18th October. In a spirit of shared learning participants generated priorities about WHO we need to influence and WHAT we need to do, to multiply our impact.

The workshop included people involved in urban agriculture and community food growing as growers, researchers and environmental campaigners. They came from Liverpool and Todmorden as well as Greater Manchester.

The workshop kicked off with six three minute presentations.

Mark Burton (SSM) briefly outlined what a viable economy is, why it is important and why SSM is interested in food, he said:

food is a lens through which we can look at our present predicament and start to visualise how to develop a viable economy – one which reduces inequality and conserves the planet.’

The speakers were asked to identify an issue which would make the most difference to multiplying our impact. They included Catherine Burgess from Unicorn Grocery in Chorlton, Lucy Danger from Manchester Emerge and Fareshare, Chris Walsh from the Kindling Trust and Nick Green from Incredible Farm in Walsden. Several speakers felt the key to progress was improvements at all stages of the supply chain.

All pre-registered participants had been invited to bring an issue to share which they felt would make most difference. During the course of the afternoon a range of issues were presented, explored, amended and by the end emerged in new forms. Issues which were transformed into actions concerned ensuring all food is used, communication and bringing Housing Associations on board with viable approaches to food. Many participants left with jobs to do.

Participants could see the great potential of ensuring that more of the food that is grown is used. Debbie Ellen, who had sent the issue she would have presented if she had not been unwell, reported that a frightening 30% of food that is grown is wasted because it is graded out as the wrong size shape or colour. She argued that changing European Union regulation change could reduce this. Workshop participants will make links with local European parliament members with a food remit to explore working with them to change European Union regulations. Others want to work with supermarkets to tackle waste.

In terms of who we need to influence, there was commitment to encouraging Housing Associations to more actively support viable food issues. Several ideas for getting together and improving communication at all levels gained support including: participants will interview one another about their successes and failures and post them on On the Platform; organising community meals which both connect people and encourage conversations about good food support for an existing project to establish a Greater Manchester Food Council and promoting provocative activities (watch this space for details on the last one!)

Don’t miss Steady State Workshop on Saturday – HAVING ENOUGH GOOD FOOD IN THE MANCHESTER REGION


Shaping a viable food economy to multiply our impact

18 October 2014, 1.30-5pm

Methodist Central Buildings Central Hall Oldham Street Manchester M1 1JQ

  • A participative, action orientated workshop for anyone who wants to see a rapid increase in the availability of good food in the Greater Manchester region for all.
  • Find out more about where your contribution fits in with others.
  • Organised by Steady State Manchester in order for us all to learn, generate ideas and plans to multiply our impact.

WE will kick off with 3 minute presentations from some local key players including Catherine Burgess from Unicorn, Lucy Danger from Emerge, Chris Walsh from the Kindling Trust, and Debbie Ellen. They will present the issue they think if implemented will multiply our impact. As well as networking all participants will be able to share their issue which they believe will have most impact in small groups. We plan to end with clear priorities, a sense of how we can work together to realise them. We will get there through good discussion and networking.

The workshop has recruited very well and there are a few more places; please do tell anyone who might be interested to book now.Book a free place today! For more information contact Judith ipogworkshop@gmail.com/

07792 690 278


Future High Streets

high street

A grim reality: boarded up shops are a frequent sight for most Manchester residents

Earlier in the summer I attended the ambitiously titled ‘Prototyping the Future High Street Event’ at Manchester Business School. The aim of the event was to create a vision, via sharing ideas and using lego (!), of what various Manchester based stakeholders wanted high streets to look like in 20 years or so. Most of us will be acutely aware of the widely known problems that high streets have faced over the last decade or so. The caricature of streets lined with betting shops, pawn brokers, takeaways and empty units is all too evident in many of the most deprived areas of Manchester. However, even once highly sought after city centre locations such as King Street now also have many empty units. From my own perspective therefore, now would seem to be the perfect time to re-evaluate how we view the role and purpose of our high streets.

At the event itself a wide array of interests was represented through property developers, retail experts as well as local community leaders and academics. It was heartening therefore that despite the vastly different perspectives round the table a very clear consensus was formed. The picture painted was of a clean, green and secure space where people would want to simply spend time to socialise or otherwise without necessarily being on the high street in order to shop or spend money. The other part of the vision was that the high street should have a distinctive local feel which reflects the area in which it is situated. The conclusion was that this approach would not only yield obvious cultural benefits but also result in more money staying within the local area. Finally there was also an interesting concord in the room, not shared by me, that part of the high street should be ‘technology free’ zones where people were prevented from using their smart phones or tablets by a boundary disabling device. I felt this perhaps to be partly explained that for the first time in a while I may have been the youngest attendee as there was a conspicuous lack of young people present.

Part of the unique process of the event was that delegates could imagine their future high streets without constraining themselves as to what is or is not actually possible. In other words current technological or legal constraints are cast aside in the mind’s eye of the delegates. This technique is known as ‘science fiction prototyping’. Whilst the exercise was obviously fun and liberating it did leave rather a lot of unanswered practical questions to be answered if the group consensus was to be realised. The most obvious question of course is how to secure funding in order to improve transport links to the high street and convert areas into pedestrianised green areas. The other immediate obstacle standing in the way of achieving a broad array of shops and functions giving a high street a distinctive local feel is the fact that many high street units are owned by commercial landlords. Unsurprisingly the prime concern of most of these corporate entities is to extract the maximum possible yearly yields from their investments. Consequently high rents (as well as high business rates) can prevent start-ups and local enterprises from being able to establish themselves on many of our high streets in Manchester.

A traditional solution for local authorities would be to use their powers of compulsory purchase to acquire high street units for use as say venues for local pop up enterprises or community spaces. Whilst local authorities budgets are currently squeezed their ability to actually purchase sites or units is significantly limited. UK Local authorities currently generate 20% of their own income whilst the European average is nearer 50%. Perhaps then greater devolution following the Scottish referendum and more cash raising powers in Manchester would enable the council to have greater control over how its high streets look. If such powers were available it would be interesting to see how committed Manchester City Council would be to converting high streets in line with the vision imagined at the event. It would certainly mean a steer away from a reliance on retail and a radical perception shift in terms of viewing people as citizens rather than shoppers or consumers. It seems to be that if this refocus could be achieved and local authorities can secure the funding necessary to effect change, then our high streets could emerge radically changed and of real benefit to the communities in which they are situated.

Robert J Brown