So what would we do? Towards an alternative strategy for the city region


Download the Working Paper here

It is easy to be critical. We are critical of the way our city and regional leaders have generally tackled the difficult problem of economic, social and environmental viability. We see their approach as based on a fundamentally flawed model that puts the economy first and attempts to restore economic growth to our post-industrial city region in the context of a competitive global order. No doubt this is motivated by concern for the people of the city region, their livelihoods and the future of them and their children, but we question whether the strategies will lead to improvements in overall social, economic and environmental well-being.

So what would you do? What options would you back? What priorities would you set?”. These are fair questions. Previously we have set out ideas but we must admit that it is not easy to produce an alternative analysis and strategy that is coherent, convincing, realistic and practical. Well, someone has to do it, and this SSM Working Paper from Mark Burton tries to do just that.

First it defines the problem, because the way the problem is defined sets the path for any solutions – get that wrong and it is hard to turn off and find the right direction. Then it looks at some of the approaches on offer: the official Treasury/Greater Manchester Combined Authority model, the same model with some tweaks for inclusion and environmental benefit, and the radical reformist approaches of CRESC and CLES. Finally, it makes a selection from those ideas and adds other themes and proposals that those frameworks are missing. The idea is to sketch out the basis for a more convincing alternative strategic approach to economy, society and environment, a deepening of our work on The Viable Economy. Download the Working Paper here.

This paper is about Greater Manchester (and is relevant to GMCA’s “strategy refresh” and to the Greater Manchester People’s Plan initiative), but the thinking should also be relevant to many other city regions.

As a Working Paper this does not represent the fully considered position of Steady State Manchester but we will draw on it in writing a policy pamphlet in the weeks to come. We really would like your reactions, suggestions, counter-arguments and refinements. You can use this link or email the address on our contact page.

Download the Working Paper here.

Related interest: a short reading list of critical resources on city-regional and other localised economies.

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Lively cafe conversation

Steady State Manchester (SSM) welcomed many new faces to a lively and exciting  conversation on 20th October: ‘Climate change is an emergency: what do we know about the best way of influencing decision makers?’ It was a hopeful and inspiring evening. Our next café conversation will be on Monday 21st November for SSM members to influence our strategy for 2017.  If you are not a member and would like to come, join now. Continue reading

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STEADYSTATE Part Two: The Local and Regional Context

This is the second part of our interview piece  in Manchester’s Now Then magazine.
Click HERE to read the interview.  Thanks to Ian Pennington at Now Then for inviting us and publishing our thoughts.  NowThen

The first part, on the wider context appeared here: STEADY STATE Part One: The National and International Context

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Manchester’s climate change consultation for 2016-2050

Commentary on “Ahead of the Curve” Manchester’s climate change consultation for 2016-2050

pdf version of this article

This consultation closes on Sunday 16th October. Make your comments on it by clicking HERE.

  • A little context.

Manchester has had a climate change strategy since 2010: Manchester a Certain Future. The city council saw the need for such a strategy in keeping with the UK Climate Change Act of the last Labour government. Initial attempts to construct it lacked ambition and a coalition of campaigners from the environmental movement wrote an alternative strategy, Call to Real Action. While its radical proposals were not adopted, its message about involving the community was, and as a result, the existing strategy has emphasised engagement with non-governmental sectors. Why? Because reducing emissions requires action in all sectors of the economy and society, not just in local government which does not have the levers to make these reductions happen. And because most of the expertise on climate change and strategies for addressing it is outside the council, in campaigning organisations, universities and some business sectors. Despite the attempt to bring other actors in, as annual reviews and the current strategy have admitted, the ambition to cut carbon emissions by 41% by 2020 (from 2005 levels) will be missed. Only a 32% cut seems likely. And the level of engagement from other organisations has also been disappointing.

These disappointing results should be viewed in context. The world in general is also failing miserably on climate change with atmospheric carbon dioxide now above the symbolic threshold of 400ppm, highly unlikely to return, and global average temperatures now at least 1ºC above pre-industrial levels. With positive feedback processes that are being triggered (reduced reflection from polar ice, reduction of ocean ability to absorb CO2 and heat, release of methane from frozen deposits in polar regions, forest and peatland destruction and fires….) we are on the brink of a runaway warming catastrophe and radical action is required now to avert it. So far there is no sign of that happening, despite the much trumpeted Paris agreement that sadly has no credible strategy nor commitments behind it.

Manchester was the first industrial city, founded on the exploitation of coal for industrial production. It has a historic debt to the world as a major emitter of greenhouse gases, something it continues to do today via what despite huge inequality and severe poverty in the city, are extravagant and unthinking patterns of consumption, from international flights to private motoring to the importation of foods and consumer goods, to illuminated advertising hoardings urging us to buy more. So while Manchester can only make a small contribution to the global total, it could show inspired leadership and begin to make reparation for is historical (and to be fair, mostly unwitting) contribution to the climate crisis.

  • What does the new strategy cover?

The new strategy covers the period until 2050. That’s a long time – 34 years, by which time I would be 98 and my grandchildren already middle aged. There is nothing wrong with a long timescale for a vision, but action on cumulating emissions is urgent so the next 5 years is critical.

The strategy covers five areas and the summary is worth quoting in full:

Supporting a sustainable economy and jobs – action on climate change will become an increasingly important part of the city’s sustainable, dynamic

and competitive economy. Manchester-based businesses and universities will be playing a strong and growing role in delivering solutions locally and to cities around the world. The city’s businesses will have access to a rich pool of Carbon Literate local talent, fed by our world-class universities, and our excellent schools and colleges. Businesses, workers and visitors will come from around the world to experience our liveable, resilient, green city.

Supporting healthy communities – Manchester’s residents will be leading increasingly healthy lifestyles that are underpinned by access to high quality parks and green spaces, clean air, healthy local food, safe walking and cycling routes, energy efficient homes and affordable supplies of energy.

Adaptation and resilience to climate change – the city’s businesses and communities will become increasingly resilient to the warmer and wetter winters, hotter and drier summers, and extreme weather that we expect to come with a changing climate.

CO2 reduction – recognising the leadership role and carbon reduction potential of cities, we will reduce our emissions ahead of national and international CO2 reduction targets, setting milestones for 2020, 2030 and 2040, on route to the city being zero carbon by 2050.

Low carbon culture change – climate-positive decision-making and behaviours will become progressively incentivised and embedded within the lifestyles and business operations of the city.

  • What do we think about the strategy?

In what follows we’ll follow the structure of the questionnaire that the strategy is using for its consultation. We don’t respond to every point in detail.

It is important to note that while we will be saying some critical things, we do respect the integrity of those who have worked hard to pull together this strategy, let it be said, in the face of a dominant economic strategy in the city, country and world, that is absolutely toxic for people and planet.

The focus here is on Manchester, but it is the city region that is the more relevant focus and we look forward to the completion of the GMCA climate strategy with which this Manchester one should dovetail.

    • Consultation questions and our answers

      • 1. How important is it for residents in Manchester to take action on climate change?

Somewhat important (the issue is very important but individuals can only do so much: to over-emphasise personal agency is to distract from the systemic factors).

    • 2. How important is it for businesses in Manchester to take action on climate change?

Extremely important (since they account for a large part of the economy and its emissions, directly and indirectly).

    • 3. How important is it for schools, colleges and universities in Manchester to take action on climate change?

Somewhat important (probably limited in immediate impact).

    • 4. The draft strategy sets an ambitious aim for Manchester to be a zero carbon city by 2050. There are 2 main reasons for this. a) To help make the city a better place to live, work and visit, with lower energy bills, better air quality, more green spaces, new jobs, and many other benefits. Do you think it is important for Manchester to act on climate change for this reason?

Extremely important (to be carbon zero, though 2050 is far too late: rapid and immediate cuts are needed).

    • b) To be a leading city for our contribution to global action on climate change. Do you think it is important for Manchester to act on climate change for this reason?

Somewhat important (very important because of Manchester’s historical responsibility for the carbon-based economy. But let’s not exaggerate the city’s current importance in line with the boosterist mind-set of our city leaders!)

    • 5. Do you think the vision and objectives in section 3 of the draft strategy are the right ones for Manchester

Not ambitious enough

Please explain why you chose that answer.


1) Low carbon economy is fine but it is vital to to state which sectors will need to shrink. Aggregate economic growth will make the task of radical carbon reductions more difficult: you need to set out an indicative reduction strategy for material flows into and out of the economy and translate this into indicative levels and targets by sector. Certain sectors, including private motoring and aviation are particularly damaging and reduce overall quality of life. Just promoting the growth of the green economy on its own is tantamount to denial of the problem. And what about rebound?

The section on improving energy efficiency of all businesses identifies correctly the importance of energy efficiency but fails to indicate the overall levels of energy input reductions that are needed. It is also couched in terms of the overall business growth narrative which is actually the root of the problem: the material size of our economy is too big so we have to find ways to equitably shrink it while maintaining the ability to create and share surplus – it’s not easy, but let’s not delude ourselves that we can expand our way to climate safety.

Appropriate technology is going to be needed but the section has an unfortunate technological, even technocratic optimism, failing to recognise that all our lives and consumption patterns need to change radically to a low energy model.

2) The section on health is vague. How are you / we going to move towards healthier, low carbon, life-styles. How will the dominance of the car, for example, be addressed. What about the health-damaging practices of big business (for example the food industry)? How can Manchester and GM use its place-shaping power and influence to create radical shifts in this area?

3) The section on adaptation is broadly sound. We would add a requirement to add climate shocks and events to the city and region’s disaster risk management planning. Have you engaged police, fire, ambulance and other NHS, army in your plans and consultation?

It would be good to see an options analysis on densification versus a more distributed, model of the city and city region with more local employment/housing/green areas reducing the need to travel within the city region, on a kind of retrofitted garden-city model. The evidence on densification is at best equivocal and nuanced1.

4) Climate science now tells us very clearly that the targets on zero carbon are extremely inadequate2. 2050 is far too late.

Runaway climate change is here already. We need to make massive cuts to emissions and this strategy is mere tinkering. We suggest as a minimum going zero carbon by 2025, and even that is too slow. This requires an energy descent plan as a minimum. We recognise that the power of the city/MACF is limited here, but that does not excuse a timid and fudged target. Rather it defines the work that is needed to bring in the other sectors, and the powers that need to be acquired and assumed.

5) Low carbon culture change: The strategy says “The question is sometimes posed whether low carbon culture change initiatives should be focussed on ‘behaviour change’ activities focussed on citizens, to directly try to influence their behaviour, or on low carbon ‘skills training’ in schools, colleges and the workplace to encourage the development of products and services that offer a low carbon alternative to the norm.”
This misses the point. Both these strategies if pursued alone are individualistic: they ignore the context within which behaviour changes. Culture is not reducible to behaviour. Sure critical understanding and information for citizens is important, but without the structures that require, encourage and support them to make change, then such approaches are little better than victim-blaming.

    • 6. Do you think section 4 of the draft strategy [carbon emissions reduction] covers all the areas where action is needed?


1) The setting conditions identified are broadly OK but the content is too weak. We suggest something a little like the idea of “planning agreements”. The idea is that city leaders sit down with leading firms and organisations in each sector and identify the kinds of indicative limits and targets that I’ve mentioned above. These are then monitored and publicly posted so that there can be a cultural shift to accountability with acclamation and shame as key levers.

And yet again, relying on a growth strategy is inadequate – you need to set clear reduction targets and priorities for the damaging sectors. Yes the airport is a problem that needs more than the worthless international carbon trading offset agreement to force change – which means reduction in aviation and the city’s aviation dependency.

2) Energy. Particularly given the problem you identify of Manchester not having autonomy in its energy mix, you will not be able to rely on energy mix decarbonisation alone to reduce CO2. Therefore you need to set clear energy reduction targets.

There are some good ideas on buildings. It is worth trying to get near passivehaus standards imposed for all new build and considering street by street deeper retrofit schemes for existing housing stock.

There is also scope for promoting low embodied carbon technologies in building and retrofitting – see the work of CAT on this.

Indeed concrete is one of the major CO2 emitters but there are alternatives that need scaling up for many construction tasks.

3) Transport. This section is very disappointing, falling under the sway of the fantasist visions of the city and GMCA. Manchester is a car-orientated city. How will the step change to one without significant numbers of cars be reached? How will car travel be disincentivised: car parking levies as in Nottingham, protected cycle space on all but the smallest roads, as in most Northern European

cities? Bus regulation and the taking back of control under the public sector (the norm in Europe) is required as that will facilitate low energy/low carbon options including some further tramway routes, possibly trolleybuses (for faster and cheaper deployment – cf Salzburg), biogas (already in Metrolink) from landfill and possibly some other sources (caution though on imports and tree-based biomass3 ) for buses (see for example Malmö), and new housing development that designs out the car (cf. Gothenburg, Freiburg etc).

Please do stop pretending the airport is part of the solution. If it is not going to reduce, and is even going to grow, then state where the deeper cuts will be made to compensate. Believe us you won’t be able to do it!

4) Green spaces and waterways. This section needs to work towards proper analysis of the carbon sequestration potential of these areas with quantified options appraisal for alternative planting and restoration plans. This needs balancing with biodiversity and other eco-physical dimensions (nitrogen, phosphorous etc). That’s a big bit of work so you need to propose how it will be done.

5) Food system emissions are very very significant and it’s good you mention them, but more detail is needed.

    • 7. Please list all the things you do to tackle climate change?

This question is unnecessary, suggesting that individuals, by changing their behaviour, can make a significant impact on climate. This is only true to the extent that they can exert leadership and act together, politically.

    • 8. What else would you like to do and what support would you need?

So: Anything that amplifies the above actions.

    • 9. What should we do more of as a city to help tackle climate change?

Some ideas:

Press very hard on Greater Manchester Pension Fund to divest from its fossil fuel assets. 5 year plan starting with no new investments, pulling out of coal, fracking and tar sands, with full divestment over 5 years. Reinvestment will help your green economy plans too.

All councillors and senior managers should be required to complete carbon literacy training and a series of workshops held for the graduates with civil society activists and campaigners for radical carbon reduction.

  1. 10. Please leave any other comments here

We make a lot of critical comments but we hope they are also constructive. This whole area is frustrating given the slow progress and we do recognise that it is not easy being an environmentalist who works with a large bureaucracy, with its own logic. It is good that Manchester does have a CC plan and at least officially makes some of the right noises. We need to push for more ambition in this, adequate to the almost stupefying scale of the challenge facing humanity now.

Mark H Burton

for Steady State Manchester

1 Waters, J. (2016). Accessible Cities. In D. Simon (Ed.), Rethinking sustainable cities: accessible, green and fair. Free download from

2 McKibben, B. (2016). Recalculating the Climate Math | New Republic. Retrieved October 10, 2016, from



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The circular economy: is it the solution to resource depletion and pollution?

opened up circular arrowsThe main promoter of the circular economy (CE) defines it like this:

A circular economy is one that is restorative and regenerative by design, and which aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles1. (Ellen MacArthur Foundation – EMF).

It sees waste products being fed back into the production cycle as resources, reliance on renewable energy and other resources, and overall zero waste. Proponents distinguish it from the dominant economy which is linear: matter is extracted as resources, transformed by production and then ends up in environmental sinks. The CE is meant to be based on three principles:

1) Preserve and enhance natural capital by controlling finite stocks and balancing renewable resource flows. 2) Optimise resource yields by circulating products, components, and materials at the highest utility at all times in both technical and biological cycles. 3) Foster system effectiveness
 by revealing and designing out negative externalities2.

The basic ideas are sound: closing cycles and ceasing to treat the environment as unlimited resource pool and sink for pollution. The problems lie in the extent to which a CE can allow “business otherwise as usual” with little change to our pattern of life, our levels of consumption and the continued expansion of the economy. To illustrate the problem, here are three criticisms of the CE: practical, political and physical.

1) Practical: the implausibility of matching waste products to inputs.

Circular systems also maximise use of end-of-use bio-based materials, extracting valuable bio-chemical feedstocks and cascading them into different, increasingly low-grade applications3.”

To what extent can waste outputs and resource inputs be matched? There is no reason to think that these two things are going to cancel out, resulting in a near zero-waste and low-extraction system. Moreover, different industries are located in different places, so even if outputs could all become inputs, there will be substantial energy inputs needed to close the loop, transferring outputs from one site to be used as inputs in another site. And the outputs are not generally usable as inputs: they will typically need processing, which again requires energy and in many cases other primary resource inputs.

2) Reformism: the CE advocates generally support a growth economy model, promoting what is perhaps a more sophisticated version of the “green growth” fudge. In a recent report from the EMF, the following claim is made about the CE if implemented in Europe:

The modelling for 2030 suggests that the disposable income of European households could be as much as 11 percentage points higher in the circular scenario relative to the current development path, or 7 percentage points more in GDP terms.4

However, as the economist Christian Arnsperger notes5, citing work, commisioned by Veolia, by François Grosse, the benefits of a circular economy only apply under the following conditions:

An annual raw material consumption growth rate below 1%.

A very high recycling rate (more than 60 to 80%) in order to delay significantly the resource depletion rate.

Grosse notes that:

As a whole, the relative impact of cumulative present-day recycling becomes negligible after a few decades in view of global production growth.”

Now it may be objected that Grosse only considers recycling, in this analysis, but this is the most concrete element of the proposed CE,

To illustrate how the CE is wedded to the growth model, consider this quotation, again from the EMF report cited above:

A circular economy could greatly benefit the environment and boost competitiveness and resilience. A circular economy would decouple economic growth from resource use.

As readers of our work will be aware, the decoupling hypothesis has poor support, or at best, economic growth makes it much harder to reduce material throughputs (and hence both resource use and emissions)6.

3) Physical: the CE cannot suspend the laws of thermodynamics.

Ultimately, the goal of endlessly recycling and regenerating the substrate for the industrial system is impossible: materials get dispersed and degraded through their transformation and it becomes infeasible to identify and collect every fragment: think of the tyres on a bus or train brakes which are in the process of being degraded to powder and gas. Or think of the many volatile solvents that are necessary for industrial processes: they too disperse, into the atmosphere over time. Those particles are never going to be reclaimed, and these are just the most obvious aspects of the trend to dissipation of all materials, and of energy too7.

As this passage from a European Academies Science Advisory Council report notes:

Recovery and recycling of materials that have been dispersed through pollution, waste and end-of-life product disposal require energy and resources, which increase in a nonlinear manner as the percentage of recycled material rises (owing to the second law of thermodynamics: entropy causing dispersion). Recovery can never be 100% (Faber et al., 1987). The level of recycling that is appropriate may differ between materials.8

As Christian Arnsperger suggests, to retrieve the idea of circularity requires a second concept, that of sufficiency, of “enough”. Without that, it is at best a way of postponing the inevitable crash, and at worst a way of giving false credibility to the growthist delusion. So the idea of resource cycling loops needs combining with the radical reduction of consumption, long product durability, re-use and repair.

Mark H Burton

3See previous citation.

7For an accessible treatment of physical constraints on the economy see

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Knowing that climate change is an emergency engages some people and encourages others to run a mile

What do we know about best ways of communicating and influencing decision-making about climate change? Both people with responsibilities for this in Greater Manchester and Steady State Manchester supporters are signing up fast for our cafe conversation on Thursday 20th October 6.30- 8.30pm.  Book now to ensure your place if you would like to be there.  Continue reading

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Lots of interest in Universal Basic Income (UBI) but perhaps not its time yet?

Within 10 days of us announcing  a ‘learn in’ about UBI 60 people signed up for it! The learn in was hosted by Steady State Manchester and the Social Change and Community Wellbeing Research Group at MMU  on September 8th . People came from all sorts of organisations  (or from none) and with different background knowledge and personal stakes in something like UBI Nicola Waterworth, @nicwaterworth, a participant, wrote a great blog sharing what she got out of it and see our report for details of what emerged from it. Matthew Taylor from the Royal Society of Arts, who are strong advocates, has made some interesting points about the need to build support before introducing policy if it is to succeed. We are planning further events, so please let us know if you would like to be involved.


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STEADY STATE Part One: The National and International Context

NowThenThis interview piece appears in Manchester’s Now Then magazine.  A second installment, on the Greater Manchester context will appear in the next issue.
Click HERE to read the interview.  Thanks to Ian Pennington at Now Then for inviting us and publishing our thoughts.

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