From Counter Coin to Counter Community

SSM collective member Mike Riddell has been involved for some time in a grassroots project seeking to implement transformative change in Staffordshire, which ties to Steady State Manchester’s vision for a more viable economy. He and his colleague Brian Leyland are excited to share the latest developments.

We are pleased to announce that we have changed our name from CounterCoin to Counter Community. This new name better reflects what we do: operating in local communities to help stakeholders (from voluntary organisations and the public sector to businesses, social enterprises, and individuals) , measure, record, reward and celebrate everything they do to improve their community’s wellbeing. The reward element, which was represented by the Coin is still a major pillar in our work, but sits alongside and complements our other activities. As part of our work, we are developing a digital platform that will enable us to build a network of stakeholders who wish to come together to improve the wellbeing of communities. Our conclusion from this was that a new name was necessary and that is how ‘Counter Community’ was born, which is who we are today!

In the remainder of this blog, we offer a bit more detail about Counter Community, point to several trends driving our work, and set out our main objectives as an organisation in response to those trends.

What is Counter Community and how does it operate?

Counter Community is a rapidly expanding membership network & digital platform that enables voluntary organisations, charities, social enterprises, local businesses, and individuals to work together to create positive social, environmental and economic change and thereby boost both the local community and economy. It is currently funded by The National Lottery.

It is our belief that the real positive change referred to in the last paragraph is a prerequisite if our communities are to survive and indeed thrive. As an example, many community groups and social enterprises need to diversify their income streams to become less reliant on the state. They need to look, for example, at the possibility of developing closer links with the private sector, which could provide support not only by way of knowledge sharing or but also by direct funding linked to pre agreed reporting of outcomes which result directly from this funding. Businesses on the other hand need to recognise that social enterprises and voluntary organisations play a crucial role in the welfare of the community as a whole and that a thriving and successful community is integral to their own objectives of generating long term sustainable profit. There are three trends that support this shift in focus.

Trends driving Counter Community

The first is a culture shift away from individualism to collectivism. Already faced with widening inequality, climate change and a post industrial world in which they feel they have no part to play, for many there is now the spectre of mass-unemployment as a result of COVID-19. As a consequence people of all ages are beginning to re-imagine what we want the future of our society to be. Each of us as individuals will have a role to play, but it all starts with a willingness to share and contribute to the collective good – a shared experience of collective action.

The second trend is that there is an increasing recognition that the term social value is ill defined and also means different things to different people. What is required is the re-imagining and re-defining of social value in a manner which does not come top-down from the Government, but comes from the communities that understand their social needs and are capable of delivering real social value regardless of whether it fits within the Government’s narrow and rigid boundaries.

And the third and final trend is that the funding model for the delivery of essential local services needs to change. There is general acceptance that the current process is long winded and cumbersome, benefiting the larger organisations at the expense of the smaller ones, which are very often those which are playing a critical role in community cohesion and growth. The introduction of Social Impact Bonds, whereby the return to the investor is measured not in financial terms but by reference to pre agreed criteria linked to social needs was a welcome move in the right direction but these have not taken off as anticipated. What is needed is a streamlined, more efficient funding model along these lines that brings together businesses and voluntary organisations in a manner that is more suited to the objects and operating model of each of them.

Counter Community’s Objectives

Counter Community’s aspiration is to be the leading provider of digital tools and member services that enable organisations and individuals to connect, contribute and measure the impact they make helping improve society and protect the planet.

At the heart of the new business model is the collection of data and the development of a methodology which enables it to be used as a golden thread to pull together three primary objectives in response to the trends noted above.

These are:

  • to support the rebuild of community.

  • to define clearly not only what social value is, but also how it is measured and reported.

  • And finally to support new models of frontline funding.

We are aiming to share more details about Counter Community in the coming weeks, including a blog that will explore each of the trends mentioned above in a little more detail and another that will present an overview of the digital solution we are developing.

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Could the Covid-19 pandemic be a portal to a Viable Society and Economy?

Could the Covid-19 pandemic be a portal to a Viable Society and Economy?

Mark H Burton 1

Download it as a pdf file instead.

Much has already been written about the prospects for the future of economic, social and ecological justice as a result of the experience of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. There is a danger in launching forth with analysis, scenarios and proposals when there are still many uncertainties and the full picture is still unfolding. However, given that the reality that we have to understand if we want a better world has shifted in some ways, then it is necessary to take up the challenge of making sense of things and suggesting some ways forward2.

To suggest a way forward we need to understand the short and long term dynamics.

The pandemic is a catalyst, or accelerator for systemic processes already under way. A capitalist system requires continued expansive accumulation for its survival3. This system is challenged by its internal contradictions, a key one of which is the long term fall in the average rate of profit, and by external constraints, a key one being the rising cost of energy and materials extraction. But capitalism is highly adaptive, it’s a survivor, and it resolves these problem by continuing to expand ruthlessly, opening up new markets, and new sources of resources, and by reducing the cost of labour by exploiting new labour markets and increasing productivity through technological innovation. It also puts in place a series of countervailing measures, or “fixes” such as the renewed cycle of financialisation, privatisation of common goods and assaults on labour, of the neoliberal period.

The treadmill of expansion destroys more and more of the ecosystem and commodifies more and more of life.  The fixes lead to economic instability and toxic inequality. Together, these external limits and internal contradictions mean that it is a system whose days are numbered. We don’t know what will come next and it will be a big struggle to prevent its collapse causing untold harm and misery, and even the collapse of our societies. But that struggle is also worth being part of because there could, just maybe, be a different kind of ending, one that, despite everything mean a better way of life: a prosperous descent to a simpler way4.

The new recession

The pandemic, itself a result of the interaction of previously separated species and ecosystems5, has led to a sudden drop in consumption and the material flows, from extraction to pollution, associated with it. This is a global phenomenon, not just a national one.

Recovery from that shock will be slow: even mainstream analysts such as the US Federal Reserve, Goldman Sachs and the World Trade Organisation6 point to an L-shaped recovery taking years. Even before the pandemic, economic activity in much of the world was slowing down7. The impact of measures to limit the impact of the pandemic (lockdowns and other restriction) mean a slowing of production globally with many firms, often indebted already, likely to go out of business.

The impact on city regions

All the sources of income for city economies are threatened. Cities like Manchester have relied on capturing income from sectors like (mostly speculative) construction, aviation, retail and logistics, and private motoring.

A range of other businesses, cafés, restaurants, leisure resources, car parks…., depend on the expenditure made possible by those sectors.

We have already seen vast cuts in central government funding to local government and its substitution by retained business rates (scheduled to increase from 50% to 75% with a parallel cut in government grant)8 So councils themselves, increasingly yoked to the business sector, will be highly threatened by this new recession. Given the enormous financial injections from central government to mitigate the economic impacts, it seems likely that there will, despite protestations to the contrary, be a new hurricane of austerity in an attempt to reduce the government debt.

Pensions are largely paid by stock market dividends, now propped up by massive QE yet in some cases cut (Shell, the biggest investment of the Greater Manchester Pension Fund) or even withdrawn (Lloyds Bank group). For local government this could also mean a problem to come since for the large local government pension funds, it is the councils that would have to make up any shortfall.

All this casts into jeopardy the model of inward investment to generate economic activity (despite the return to the investor of profits and rents), some of it to be captured locally and some (if we are lucky or believe the rhetoric) to trickle-down. New investment injections and the volume of transactions in the economy will both be hit hard so there will be little to capture and recirculate.

So what now? Bootstrapping the Viable Society

The opportunity, the exit, is to use the relatively resilient sectors, elements of the Foundational Economy (FE)9, supported by key place-based organisations and basic population provisioning, as the key to transform the city-region and make it less vulnerable to the ecosystem shock events that are likely to hit us with increasing frequency, particularly if the present system continues. This approach builds on the Community Wealth Building Approach (CWB)10 which is gaining ground in the UK and beyond.

Key elements will be,

  • A polycentric spatial model, where most resources and facilities people need are available within easy reach (cf. the 20 minute neighbourhood model)11. A move in this direction, hesitatingly emerging into the mainstream12, seems almost inevitable anyway given the constraints on workplace, leisure resource and public transport occupancy due to the need to maintain physical distance between people to reduce viral transmission13. The increase in home working in many neighbourhoods during the crisis is likely to continue in some form, exposing the need for home-working business, support and networking spaces. There is likely to be an appetite for this given the experience of reduced car usage and increased active travel, including record bicycle sales during crisis.

  • Prioritisation of the sectors responsible for most emissions – via a set of sector-specific “green deals” (covering, for example, domestic warmth; logistics of provisioning, focussing first on final mile deliveries; consumer durables and repair; food; community energy – See Appendix). This must be offered in ways that show it to be both realistic and fair for people working in those sectors.

  • Establishment of transformational partnerships with industry and public – quasi public actors – e.g. 1) A warmth offer (see appendix) combining housing insulation, boiler replacement, sale of a temperature guarantee rather than energy alone, would link councils, social housing providers, energy companies, builders and insulation specialists.  Or 2) Local manufacture of PPE and other health equipment, which would link NHS and social care providers, local firms already producing such materials, and other firms that could re-purpose their plant for such products.

  • Creation of alternative community-based economic development and nurturance initiatives, for both organisations and citizens. An example could be linking small local traders to neighbourhood residents’ groups in a variant of the circles of support idea. They would work together on survival plans for valued local businesses that face financial difficulties, identifying shared priorities and business strategies and potentially helping with capital in return for a shift to a co-ownership or mutual model14.

  • Community / regional / green / mutual financial institutions. This is a well developed idea but so far with little development so far in this part of the country despite the local legacy of the co-operative movement and the existence of adoptable models, already implemented elsewhere in the country15. A wider institutional network16 could also evolve, particularly in response to future economic and financial shocks.

  • Blended formal / informal and cooperative social care17 – e.g. alternatives building on established alternative models like Local Area Coordination18, Circles of Support19 and Housing First20. Local mutual aid groups have burgeoned during the crisis21, filling the gaps and supplementing what civil society, the public sector and local authorities were able to do. In may places these groups will have strengthened people’s sense of belonging and community spirit, opening the way for greater participation across the board.

These options begin to restructure the economy away from rent-seeking footloose capital, favouring instead right-sized profits, commitment to place and non-capitalist entrepreneurial forms22.

None of this will happen without concerted citizen action. There are three spheres for this. 1) The sphere of UK national politics is likely to be rather infertile ground for the next 4-5 years given the Tory landslide. However, there will be a need for a largely defensive politics of resistance since the ruling class is highly likely to use the crisis as an opportunity to entrench its power to exploit and dominate23. 2) At a regional level and council level, there are more opportunities to open up new approaches. The new metropolitan mayors and their administrations have shown some appetite for the refocussing and strengthening, while greening, regional economies. This has been thoroughly compromised, however, by the persistent adherence to orthodox boosterism and agglomeration economics (where bigger is better), predicated on economic growth24. The task here is to encourage the more localist, ecological and people-focussed tendency and to campaign against continuing business as usual. This applies to local councils as well as the regional level. 3) There is, however, a real danger in over-emphasising the formal structures of political representation. Yet most of the economy and social life exists and is governed outside of the formal political system. That is also a clue to where the levers for transformation are. Citizens, working collectively, can create new economic vehicles and forms, constructing in their patches, the foundations for the Viable Economy and Society25. We can use their collective power as consumers to force shifts in the economic structures, essentially withdrawing our consent to the destructive forms and structures, the something like the “crash on demand” suggested by the permacultural thinker, David Holmgren26.

Ultimately this steers us towards a resilient model of stewardship and sufficiency – living better with less – and a relative de-linking from the globalised capitalist economic system, its circuits of accumulation, its vulnerable supply chains and its ecological depredation. A Viable Economy … and Society27.

Appendix: Sectoral Green Deals

Sectoral Green Deals would aim to do three things:

1) Significantly reduce material and energy use while maintaining provisioning of human needs and reasonable wants.

2) Ensure28 the livelihoods of a significant number of local people and their families.

3) Largely use locally available capital and revenue while increasing the potential for citizen participation, mutuality and democratic governance.

Together such deals could help transform the relationship between economic activity, society and the ecosystem.

Possible examples:

1) A warmth offer.

This could be done very pragmatically but adequate to the scale of the challenge, through the establishment of a partnership between one or more energy utility companies, housing providers, councils, specialist heating firms, insulation retrofit providers and experts on domestic heat conservation and emission reduction.  The partnership would establish a domestic “heat and light offer”.  Contracts would be to maintain space heating in a finite number of rooms at the level of say 18.5 deg C, for X hours in the winter months.  This would be done a) in the conventional way, by supply of energy, and b) by supply of firstly insulation refits, going for the low hanging fruit first. That would mean the energy company supplied less energy, so saving on its wholesale costs and ultimately releasing money back into the carbon reduction scheme.  c) with this, there needs to be a rolling programme of boiler replacement – starting with the most inefficient and going straight to non-gas alternatives (air source heat pumps and electric heating).  The scheme would need investment, and a clear financial model/vehicle probably in the form of a rotating loan fund, recharged by a share of energy savings and possibly a levy on asset price increases. It could be multiply primed by say energy company investments, grant funding and local investment, particularly from the Pension Fund.

2) Restructuring final mile deliveries

This would involve investment in cargo bikes / cargo e-bikes and more local storage. Delivery runs would be combined, reducing costs for distributors and reducing traffic in neighbourhoods. It could be developed by bringing together currently precariously employed “gig” delivery workers, local shops, already used by the big firms for “click and collect” and safe-place arrangements, milk delivery firms which already have fleets of low emission delivery vehicles and which have been expanding their operations due to concerns over disposable packaging, supermarket domination, and so on. The result would be a super-local distribution service the first choice of households and distributors. Were there moves to de-privatise mail deliveries, this could be a suitable …. vehicle.

3) Consumer durables

This could involve the establishment of a chain of repair shops, backed by technical and engineering expertise, 3D printing and the use of procurement power to increase the availability of repairable items, for example those like the modular fairphone. Local government involvement would be via its responsibilities for domestic waste collection, being incentivised to reduce waste, including difficult to recycle electronic waste, and able to vary the contract with its contractors beyond recycling and incineration to include salvage, repurposing and repair. It would be essential to work with the growing number of repair cafés, men-in-sheds and similar ventures with a view to upskilling citizens in basic and intermediate repair and repurposing, which would be a strategy for both waste-reduction and economic resilience.

4) Food

A green deal on food would establish a network of urban market gardens and orchards, using untilled domestic and public land. Some could be on a temporary basis, and other plots made available by the public sector on a long lease basis. Mowing would be reduced. The emphasis would be on high value vegetable and salad crops with some fruit but with the option of rapidly increasing the production of staples, for example if food supply chains were threatened. There could be links to retailers with a buy local preference or section and this could be fostered with a “buy local” campaign. There would be multiple benefits in terms of health, resilience, emissions and waste reduction, and livelihoods.

5) Local food waste and biomass management

Not all food waste would be eliminated. At present, where it is collected it goes to large composting sites. This material, together with selected biomass (e.g. lawn and hedge clippings, weeds) could be managed locally on a block or street basis via small scale biogas digesters. A by-product is nutrient rich fertilising sludge for gardens. Since such biogas is almost carbon-neutral, it could be used as a supplementary fuel, for example for selected vehicles or domestic cooking. This would reduce the load on the electricity grid as steps are taken to replace the use of natural gas. It would also reduce the need for heavy lorries to collect materials from suburban neighbourhoods.

All these examples would need detailed appraisal and business cases constructed before they could be implemented. They would require investment in the building of delivery organisations, whether cooperatives, collectives or firms with the ability to bring together the multiple stakeholders involved. They are offered here to indicate what sector-specific green deals could look like. Readers are sure to have other, and no doubt better ideas.

Endnote

Some rights reserved. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

1
For rights notice see Endnote.

2 This piece has been developed from remarks made in the debate organised by the Manchester alternative media outlet, The Meteor, on 14 May ,2020. I am grateful to The Meteor and Conrad Bower for the invitation to take part, and to the other participants, particularly for their insights. You can watch a recording of the event at https://www.themeteor.org/2020/05/16/the-covid-19-crisis-offers-opportunities-to-create-a-better-world-can-we-seize-them/

3 I explore this in relation to the money system and the limits to growth here: https://steadystatemanchester.net/2018/02/23/we-need-to-end-growth-dependency-but-how/ Marx laid down the foundations for this understanding, which was extended globally by thinkers including Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Samir Amin and Enrique Dussel, among others.

4 Odum, H. T. O. and E. C., & Odum, E. C. (2001). A prosperous way down: Principles and policies. Univ. Press of Colorado.
Trainer, T., & Alexander, S. (2019). The simpler way: Envisioning a sustainable society in an age of limits. Real World Economic Review, 87, 247–260.

10 https://cles.org.uk/what-is-community-wealth-building/
Both the Foundational Economy group and CLES, promoters of the FE and CWB respectively, have become significantly greener in orientation since we initially reviewed their work in search for an alternative portfolio of policy ideas. https://steadystatemanchester.files.wordpress.com/2016/11/so-what-would-you-do-v2-0.pdf

12 See the draft local plan objectives here, although they are negated by other priorities in the document, including the airport as “growth hub”: https://web.archive.org/web/20200517171622/https://manchester-consult.objective.co.uk/events/35233/5581804_accessible.pdf

13 More radical variants are also possible, and arguably, highly relevant to the high risk of societal collapse. For example, see Samuel Alexander’s work, e.g. https://theconversation.com/the-suburbs-are-the-spiritual-home-of-overconsumption-but-they-also-hold-the-key-to-a-better-future-108496

14 I am grateful to Carolyn Kagan, Chair of Chorlton Voice and a Steady State Manchester collective member for this idea.

15 For example, the Bank in Box model http://www.bankinthebox.co.uk/

16 Likely to be critical to the success of separate financial and quasi-financial innovations: https://steadystatemanchester.net/2018/05/01/the-viable-economy-and-viable-finance/

17 Coote, A. (2014). People, planet, power: Towards a new social settlement. New Economics Foundation. http://b.3cdn.net/nefoundation/eafb0135c69d8a9152_yum6bt9zh.pdf

22 On this concept see Robin Blackburn (1991) Fin de Siècle: Socialism after the Crash. New Left Review I/185 Jan/Feb 1991

23 A point made strongly by both Christine Berry and Neil McInroy in their contributions to the Meteor debate.

24 The same observations apply to the devolved national administrations in Scotland and Wales, and in some ways to Northern Ireland.

25 What we call “prefigurative action”.

27 See Steady State Manchester (2020) The Viable Economy … and Society https://steadystatemanchester.net/2020/02/14/the-viable-economy-and-society/

28 Or at least contribute to them.

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Our response to Manchester’s Local Plan consultation

Here is our detailed response to Manchester’s Local Plan consultation.

Click here to read the detailed response from Steady State Manchester.

Update: 1 May Click here for the supplementary addendum to our response – We’d previously commented on the Core Strategy objectives, missing the proposed local plan objectives.  We’ve also added some commentary on the consultation process (our mistake being in part due to the confusing way the materials are presented).

As noted in the post below, this is not in any sense a “local plan”, any more than the council’s use of the term “neighbourhood” to refer to the large districts of the city, corresponds to the usual use of the term.  However, Local Plan is what the National Planning Policy Framework calls it.  This is a response to the high level issues paper, the first stage in rewriting the plan.  We find a lot wrong with it (and some good things too) and make a lot of suggestions for the planners in our 25 page response which benefited from the earlier skeleton response we produced with three other campaign groups.  Note: April 30th.   Please note – regarding Qs 4 and 6, we responded to the Core Strategy objectives and not the update of these for the local plan. To the extent that the newer set responds to our concerns, we welcome this.  However, many of our points remain valid.

You can make your own response by 5pm 1 May, to the planners, most easily by sending an email to them, endorsing our response.  Or, use the consultation site to make your own response.

Click here to read the detailed response from Steady State Manchester.

And meanwhile….

Readers will also be interested to read the Open Letter we signed with 8 other community and campaigning groups, led by Greater Manchester Housing Action, urging the council to restore the minimally democratic Planning Committee, suspended under Covid19 quarantine arrangements.  As the letter explains, this reduction to an Executive group of three is unnecessary (other councils are using a variety of virtual methods for their committees).  It can only fuel suspicions that decisions are going to be made with insufficient scrutiny.

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A week left to comment on Manchester’s local plan. How to.

Here is the link to a Skeleton response to Manchester Local Plan Issues Consultation 2020
It has been produced by members of Climate Emergency Manchester, Rising Up! Manchester Families, Greater Manchester Housing Action and Steady State Manchester. It does not necessarily reflect the view of all those organisations.
It is offered to local campaigners as a basis for their own response.
We suggest two ways of using it. Quick and slow!
1) You could simply endorse it and include the link in an email to the council’s consultation site.
Or, better, you could
2) Make your own response, drawing on our skeleton. While it’s called a skeleton, it is pretty comprehensive but you will likely have additional things to add and you might not agree with everything there. So please feel free to use it as you see best.
The document has full details of how to respond and a link to the council’s consultation document.
Here’s that link again: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1aJudjCnSvkrYrg0DSDfls5LxrJuZCwRGe3LRXw_oHwE/edit?usp=sharing
The (extended) deadline for responses is ….. 17.00 on Friday 1st May.
Good luck!
Please also share this with your contacts.

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In conversation

Our good friends at Manchester Green New Deal interviewed SSM collective member, Mark Burton for their podcast series.Mcr Green New Deal Podcast logo

It is a lengthy discussion exploring the Limits to Growth and the Degrowth movement as well as reflections on the relationships between Degrowth, Steady State Economics, capitalism and socialism.  Avid readers will know that we have some serious reservations about the Green New Deals and these are explored, together with the problems of “Green Growth” and “Sustainable Development”.

It is a great credit to the Manchester GND people that they are very open to these challenging ideas.  That attitude can only help us all arrive at an ecologically, economically and socially feasible variant of the Green New Deal as a credible response to the deep crises that humanity is in.

To hear it, go to this link on the Manchester Green New Deal podcast site.  You’ll also find  some suggestions for further reading.

 

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A Message about Coronavirus

Dear Supporters,

Amidst the countless articles, blogs, and tweets about the coronavirus, we want to convey a short message from the Steady State Manchester collective to our members and wider readership.

The spread of this pernicious coronavirus and the associated COVID-19 disease means that, in the very near future, Greater Manchester, England and the UK will face, in all likelihood, a protracted period of severely limited movement, a crippling health crisis of our NHS, and a deep recession. As this profoundly uncertain and unsettling future approaches, we at Steady State Manchester stand in solidarity with those across the country – and around the world – who will be affected by this pandemic. Our sympathy is with those who have been – and will be – affected, particularly in places beyond the media’s city-centric and Western-centric gaze.

At present, members of our collective are now largely confined to our homes, and we held our last meeting via videoconference. We also plan to hold our AGM via videoconference, so please keep an eye out for an email announcement with further information in the coming weeks.

As more information emerges – often reluctantly – from the government, the sheer scale of disruption to our everyday life is beginning to come into view. Let us be clear: this is not what we at Steady State Manchester advocate for when we call for changes like degrowth, postgrowth or a steady state economy. Such socio-ecological transformations should be a collective choice, not driven by necessity. Still, what this coronavirus means for a more viable economy and society are only beginning to come into view. In the near future, we plan to address some of these impacts, implications and possible ways forward in our discussions, communications and advocacy. Stay tuned.

In Solidarity,

the Steady State Manchester Collective

 

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Imagining an alternative future for Greater Manchester

By Mark Burton and Carolyn Kagan

reposted from Greater Manchester Housing Action website, 11 March, 2020

Manchester from a green setting in the north

For some years now, Greater Manchester has been trying to agree a grand plan for land use: the Spatial Framework. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), and other bodies, including Manchester City Council, have promoted a model based on highly specialised zones, for retail, commerce, warehousing and logistics, housing and amenity, the whole dependent on moving people and goods around quickly via roads, motorways and public transport links, all assuming high levels of “economic growth”. Opposition has focused on the housing models and on the erosion of green space, in the green belt and elsewhere. We know what we are against, but do we know what we could have instead?  

An alternative model. 

In an attempt to bridge this apparent gap we recently ran a workshop. 25 people came, including campaigners on environment and urban living. Some were professionally involved in these questions and all were interested and/or active citizens. We introduced practical work with some provocations about how other cities and towns are “doing things differently”. We then set two challenging tasks. The first was to draw pictures of an ideal city region in 2038, focussing variously on mobility, green and blue spaces, energy reduction, resilience to climactic shock, housing and population change, and work. The second task was to write a ‘letter from the future’ explaining how this future had been achieved. 

These tasks generated lively discussion and a great deal of material. We took this away and produced a composite “letter from the future” that both describes a credible future city region in 2038, and how we got there. 

Key ideas include: 

The polycentric city region. 

This draws on two main sources. Firstly some of the ideas of the garden city movement, combining the best of town and country to create healthy communities with opportunities to grow food, strong cultural, recreational and shopping facilities in walkable, vibrant, sociable neighbourhoods, varied local jobs within easy travelling distance of people’s homes. Secondly, the more recent concept of the twenty minute neighbourhood, as developed in Portland and adopted in Melbourne.  It’s a simple idea, neighbourhoods in which we can all get the goods and services we need within a twenty minute walk of our house. 

A more localised economy. 

We have long argued, and continue to, that we should rebalance the economy by providing for more of our needs, as feasible, locally, rather than depending on carbon-intense and potentially vulnerable globalised supply chains. This would also include more locally sourced food, energy and money for needed investment 

The bioregional idea. 

The boundaries around the idea of Greater Manchester and conurbations called ‘City regions’  are arbitrary and not inevitable. If we are interested in blurring the boundaries between town and country, and in creating a more sustainable and localised economy, then it makes sense to include the hinterland of the conurbation – the ‘eco-region’. This is, in essence, what the bioregional concept is about.   

Zero carbon. 

Our alternative model envisages a lower-energy and zero-emissions Greater Manchester, where private motoring and aviation are greatly minimised, domestic heating is emission-free, and so on, and we indicate the kinds of differences in everyday life that zero carbon entails. 

It is not primarily about housing, although we do mention an increase in social housing, the leading role of social housing providers in decarbonisation, and  the increasingly likely population displacements both locally and from further afield. We suggest an increase in sharing between households, a key strategy for living better with lower consumption of materials and energy, and also a way of reducing material poverty.  However, the overall design of settlements has profound implications for housing provision, and in particular we question the current emphasis on building high rise flats in the urban core, in any case likely to become unviable as the bubble of speculative finance for construction collapses. 

The change process. 

Our letter also suggests how Greater Manchester was able to fundamentally change its economic and social model. We suggest a coming together of factors, including current moves towards carbon reduction, emerging moves to displace car travel with active travel and public transport, and some of the alternative perspectives already present. These are catalysed by the gathering climate crisis, with severe impacts here, and by changes at governmental level, here and nationally, partly in response to that challenge and to the broader social, political and economic crisis. Some ways in which different sectors could work together are explored, for example on decarbonising domestic heating and guaranteeing homes that are warm enough but not too hot. 

This is just one plausible future and one path to it. More dystopian futures are at least as likely but by working and struggling together, we can achieve something much better for our region. For that to happen, we need to have a broadly shared idea of what we actually want, and our work is a contribution to developing that alternative. We’d be interested to know what you think.

 

You can read our Letter from 2038 here: https://steadystatemanchester.net/2020/03/02/peoples-spatial-framework-a-letter-from-the-future/  

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People’s Spatial Framework: A Letter from the Future

People’s Spatial Framework: A Letter from the Futurei.

Dear Greater Mancunians,

The lovely, liveable, City of Greater Manchester

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We are writing to you from 2035, and are delighted to tell you that Greater Manchester has been transformed into a liveable countryside city. It has met its carbon targets ahead of the 2038 deadline set back in 2019ii, although the climate has changed greatly and still gives cause for concern as a result of he build up of emissions during what we now call the “consume and dispose period”.

So, what are our lives like now? The City and towns have been transformed and nearly all the everyday functions and events happen in our neighbourhoods. This means we don’t have much need for travel, but when we do, to visit friends and relations, the buses are frequent, reliable and free, and those roads that still exist are full of bikes, trikes and people walking and children playing: there are very few cars about, those that are, do not emit the polluting emissions of yesterday, and the great majority of small motorised passenger vehicles are to enable disabled people to get around and provide collective transport – a bit like the community transport you are familiar with. If we have to travel to other places a long way away, we go by train – fares are cheap and there are plenty of stops so we can get to the stations easily. We’ve all got used to travelling relatively slowly. We look back wryly at the idea, which never came to fruition, of getting to London in an hour, although the railways have been improved greatly with new lines built. A lot of the former roads have been transformed to green and blue-ways, sometimes with community allotments in them but often just beautiful places to be. We live in close contact with nature, not in what could be seen as “the big car park” of the past. Front gardens are a treat to see – where there used to be parked cars there are now thickets and rockeries and sometimes ponds.

City and town centres are places we go to, just to be or to meet people. They are such lovely places they are a joy to be in. Nearly everyone knows their neighbours these days and there are frequent community bring-and-share collective meals. These cut down on energy use as well as encourage us to socialise.

We are using far less energy altogether. Our household appliances have become much more efficient, and in some places, neighbours are sharing fridges and cookers, all of which have been converted to electricity. Appliances do cost more than they used to but they last longer and anyway, people have less interest in acquiring “must have items” to demonstrate their status with unnecessary, vanity items. But the source of our electricity has changed too. We have a district energy centre in every neighbourhood: this is a hub of renewable energy which differs according to the conditions in each area. In some areas hydro power contributes, in others it is mostly solar or wind and there is some strictly limited use of biomass. All of our houses have been well draught-proofed and we have nearly all changed our window dressings to insulate betteriii. Most houses have their water heated by solar thermal panels and everyone is careful not to waste hot water. Older and private rented homes are fully retrofitted, leading to almost zero energy bills.

You wouldn’t recognise our high streets or what used to be out-of-town retail parks. Many of the old retail units have been transformed into work spaces, so many people work very close to home, always with revitalising gardens nearby (and very few of us work longer than 5 hour days). A lot of the businesses around are workers’ cooperatives, and we are pleased to say there are repair and share shops in every neighbourhood. Most neighbourhoods have two or three small workshops and there has been a resurgence in the use of traditional crafts, often using the abundant woodland products from the Red Rose Forest. However, there are many workshops using and maintaining modern technology, in energy-frugal ways.

Most of our food comes from within 50 miles of the city and much of it is from local suppliers who we have met and got to know through the weekly farmers’ markets. Instead of large monoculture uses of farm land, farmers grow smaller amounts of a greater range of crops – they know what we need and when. Some neighbourhoods have fish ponds, the best of them integrated with other water and waste management systems. You will know about supermarkets – they now include food preparation workshops, and we long ago got used to taking our own bags and jars to fill with produce. They, too, have developed great links with local farmers and food companies, so you will find different things in different places, which is lovely. People still eat some meat but it mostly comes from rabbits, squirrels (still a bit of a pest) and backyard pigs. There has even been a revival of the former practice of building dove cotes to harvest pigeons, popularised as “dove-chicken”.

Each neighbourhood is surrounded by woodland and green spaces and have become, in effect, urban hamlets. The cities and towns have begun to shrinksomewhat as many people have moved to more rural areas, and those have been revitalised as more people have moved in. They now have community services and facilities in every village as well as decent rural bus services. The former retail centres in the city and towns have been drastically re-modelled. As work has become more local, many of the large office blocks have been turned into good quality social housing and the surrounding areas made into parks. Part of Deansgate in the centre of Manchester is a large boating lake – rather like the one in the Palace of Versailles. Some of the former office buildings have become exhibition hubs – taking exhibitions and collections out to the neighbourhoods rather than expecting people to travel in to the centres to see them. Other poorly built ones that took far too much energy to run have been demolished and scavenged for materials. Controversially, some of the traditional Cottonopolis legacy buildings which cannot be made carbon neutral are also being recycled: reclamation technology and the certifying of re-used materials have made great strides in recent years, largely to avoid the carbon emissions from steel and concrete production.

Lastly, we should tell you that there are lots of people living here from all over the world. They came as climate refugees but enrich all of our neighbourhoods enormously. Many came, out of necessity, by plane, and the airport is now a large welcoming place, where incomers can get to know something about the different neighbourhoods, meet local people and decide where it is they would like to live. The airport supports only a few essential flights (emergency response, for example). Let us tell you, the places we live in are now so enjoyable, we hardly even think of overseas holidays any more!

How we got here.

You’ll be wondering how it turned out like this and it is a little difficult to reconstruct the history, but we’ll try.

The 20s were a time of turmoil when it seemed like the country was at a crossroads. Many people, from distinct sections of the population, felt betrayed by the governing class and for some, nationalism and xenophobia seemed attractive. However, the traditions of standing with one another and working together were also strong and they won the day. Somehow, common cause was made between those seeking a fairer and more equal society and those who wanted more local control over decision-making. This was helped along by the new government that came into power in 2024, a surprise win for a coalition of parties that united on a reforming platform of climate action, increased equality and deepening democracy. The outgoing Tory government had grudgingly adopted some stronger climate policies, faced as they were with the gathering storm of the climate emergency which was having devastating consequences. The new government’s Devolution Act of 2026 was actually a new national constitution with a Parliament for the North West and strategic councils based largely on eco-regions: ours was, at first, rather unprettily called Manchester Upper Mersey catchment. This meant that there was an increasing focus on making the best uses of all the region’s resources, with an emphasis on energy conservation and waste reduction. A public competition resulted in a much better name that people could identify with: “Greater Manchester Towns and Country”.

The re-election of the Greater Manchester Mayor in 2020. and the coming to prominence of a new generation of leaders at Manchester City Council, led to an increased seriousness in both tackling the ecological and climate crisis with a realisation that to do this and to respond to the intractable social and economic problems of the region required a break from the old, globalisation focussed,inward investment, boosterist, economic model. Perhaps Steady State Manchester’s work on an alternative economic and social model (as in the 2020 publication, The Viable Economy … and Societyiv) had some influence. The examples of radical municipalist administrations elsewherev were also important, as was the progressive greening of some of the more innovative and progressive think tanks and consultancies such as CLES and IPPR North.

Before its replacement by the eco-regional strategic council, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority took the brave step of completely rewriting the Spatial Framework documentvi (under sustained pressure from campaigners) using the concept of the 20 minute, polycentric city, which had already been gaining traction in places such as Melbourne, Portland, Barcelona and Parisvii. This meant an end to the hubristic plans for “growth corridors and hubs”. Perhaps the crises in global supply chains were a key influence in this change in direction. The unforeseen economic impacts of the coronovirus pandemic and the impact of the Middle East conflicts on oil supplies (the Second Oil Shock, harking back to that of the 1970s) had led to shortages in a variety of things from foodstuffs to petrol to car parts and electronic equipment. The global recession that came in its wake also meant an increased emphasis on what Steady State Manchester had been calling for since 2012, “endogenous development” or the use of local wealth and resources to power needed, and selective, economic developmentviii, as well as the maintenance of an economy that was more localised and which increasingly prevented wealth leaching out as corporate profits for companies headquartered and owned elsewhere. However, something closer to home also necessitated radical change. After many months of continued flooding from the Irwell, Medlock and Irk, swathes of the city and suburbs became uninhabitable. The destruction from flooding resulted in many living in emergency accommodation for many months, and a surge in homelessness. The entire social support infrastructure barely escaped wholesale collapse and there was considerable civil unrest. It was looking like Manchester society was going back to conditions not seen since the nineteenth century.

Leaders, demonstrating a welcome new humility, worked with citizens and other organisations, public and private, to turn the crisis into an opportunity to hasten a new trajectory towards the locally robust, polycentric eco-region that we can now appreciate.

The establishment, in 2019, of the Greater Manchester Co-operative Commissionix (previously called for in SSM’s 2016 Policies for the City Regionx) catalysed the development of co-operatives, large and small, which became over the coming two decades the dominant sector in the eco-regional economy.

The supply chain disruptions, together with the collapse first of more large retail chains and then some of the internet trading giants, led to a reconfiguring of the way the city provided for its needs. Public, private, and community-based initiatives sprang up for local food production and supply: the economics of doing this had changed markedly as energy costs meant supplies from further afield became more costly and wages in the horticultural sector became more competitive (though prices increased). Sections of the population began working part time in formal jobs and spending part of the working week in local food production for themselves and families and/or for local markets. The land reforms enacted nationally by the coalition government in 2027 undoubtedly helped. They combined a land value tax for large holdings together with the step by step public ownership of land under the new regional land trusts: just as in many indigenous societies, individuals were not allowed to own the freehold for landxi. Nobody was displaced or dispossessed as a result of this as the granting of long leases or usufruct agreements replaced freehold. This had the advantage of stopping land-banking and speculation dead, while democratising and increasing access to productive land. This helped catalyse the horticultural revolution across the eco-region. The government’s controversial but groundbreaking adoption of a Universal Basic Land Rightxii (2032) was another factor. It meant people had a stake in the land, whether directly through a land holding, or indirectly via a share in a land-based enterprise.

Manchester had always been good at building innovative partnerships. Now the focus of these was ecological and social transformation. An early example was the partnership brokered by the city council and the GM Combined Authority with the alliance of social housing providers and, initially, two large energy companies and an association of building contractors. The core of this was the “18 degree warmth offer”. Rather than paying for electricity and gas, the householder paid for guaranteed minimum standard of warmth in two or three rooms between October and April. This was provided by the Warmth Partnership which combined traditional energy supply together with insulation and local generation measures (high quality insulation and heat recycling, low tech insulating curtains and draft proofing, and solar panels for water heating and/or electricity generation). A key part of the programme was boiler replacement. Starting with the older more inefficient gas boilers, over a period of 12 years, all the gas boilers were replaced by a combination of heat pumps, green gas boilers (in certain neighbourhoods where the gas supply was greened with biogas from composting and hydrogen produced by electrolysis from surplus electricity), district heating, and back up electric heating for those houses near passivhaus insulation standard. The programme was so successful, that once teething problems in the financial model were sorted out, it was adopted across Greater Manchester, not just for social housing but for private tenants and owner occupiers alike. It helped to have an investment from the Greater Manchester Pension Fundxiii, which sold first its coal mining holdings (2020) and then over the next five years its remaining fossil fuel holdings, much of them invested in local renewable energy and public transport. Eighteen degrees was the minimum standard: people, unless they had special needs for additional warmth, were discouraged from overheating their accommodation because of the reverse tariff for additional energy purchase (the more you bought, the steeper the cost). The 18 degree standard also meant an end to damp and cold homes: it was a win-win all round. As the model spread across the country, there was a change from a large number of overheated houses and a smaller number of cold houses to a situation where average internal temperatures fell from above the 2007 average of 17.5 back to the 1990 figure of 16xiv. However, almost all houses had two to three rooms at the comfortable temperature (wearing warm clothing in winter) of just over 18 degrees.

As the polycentric development model took off, commuting reduced. In any case the impact of the oil crisis and the stalling of electric vehicle manufacturer and distribution made this inevitable. Of course many people still commuted, using the new, regulated bus system which increasingly linked up with trams, collective taxis, rail, and active travel options. The reduction in motor car ownership (helped by the growth of car pools, car hire and car share schemes) meant that roads could be narrowed, car parks repurposed as squares, playgrounds and market-places, and the streets de-cluttered and greened. The scrappage of many cars led to the growth of a local recycling industry with climate refugees from the global South teaching locals many skills and techniques. A surprising spin off was the resurgence of blacksmithing and other metalwork crafts and trades. We must say, though, that in all of this, disabled and older people had a very loud voice, so motorised transport for those who needed it remained, but mostly in collective form.

Re-use, recycling and refurbishment became the norm, conducted by a burgeoning of sole proprietor and co-operative enterprises, as well as community based initiatives including repair cafés, needlework and woodcraft groups, and maker centres. It isn’t a medieval craft economy though, since the judicious use of appropriate technologyxv is valued. However, the emphasis has changed to making equipment, including electronic equipment, last for years and years – some computers from 2020 and before are still in use, running open-source softwarexvi – there isn’t much incentive to replace perfectly serviceable equipment since the demise of Microsoft, Apple and Google and the rapid rise of the international Open Tech Co-op Federation.

Flash flooding and rain run-off problems, a feature that the hard townscapes inherited from the Consume and Dispose Period, exacerbated with the changing climate, were resolved by innovative water management schemes. This led to an increase in urban wetlands with reed beds for water purification, fish production and general amenity. It also helped stabilise temperatures which, with the diminishing of the North Atlantic currents, a result of Greenland’s ice melting, meant colder winters, but also heat waves as a result of the general increase in global average temperatures. The best designs used the reflectivity of water in winter to direct sunlight into the south aspects of buildings.

From 2020 onwards there was a groundswell of interest in trying to confront both social inequality and environmental justice. The widespread carbon literacy programmes were adapted to include economic, and alternative economic literacy. This meant that by 2025, it was the norm for people to discuss alternative ways of living and of organising in their neighbourhoods. This was supported by the development of Neighbourhood Development Plans, now within the revised National Planning Framework which includes a presumption against developmentxvii. Most councillors adapted well to their new roles of community animators. You will have heard that the youth climate strikes continued with huge amounts of popular support. The increased involvement of everyone in discussions and thinking about the issues facing us put pressure on the politicians and the companies to act and to implement some of the changes outlined above. We’d say from about 2023 the mobilisation of large sectors of knowledgeable people, taking action in their own households and neighbourhoods, but also via frequent lobbying and pressure on the power-holders, made a really huge difference. It took the 3 years from 2020 to 2023 to increase knowledge and understanding and for the majority of people to say ‘ Enough!’, and that’s the word that came to be used as a shorthand for the new economic and social settlement.

So, to finish off

Looking back, it seems remarkable that so many things came together so that we were able to transform our city and region so well. It took an enormous amount of work, organisation, and a big dose of creativity but, although ecological, social and economic problems still challenge us, there really is no comparison with the sorry state we were in back in 2020. What’s more, nearly everyone feels they are part of this collective project. Yes we grumble and argue but that’s because we are still trying to make things even better.

Notes.

It isn’t usual for a letter to have footnotes, but we though readers might like to have some background to some of the ideas.

i This piece draws upon letters drafted by participants during Steady State Manchester’s People’s Spatial Framework workshop, 23 January, 2020 https://steadystatemanchester.net/2019/12/10/event-a-peoples-spatial-framework-january-23/

We are grateful to Mike Duddy for comments made on an earlier draft.

A similar exercise by the Australian permaculturist, David Holgren, was something of a model for this exercise and his ideas, although for a very different context, are also worth reviewing. See https://holmgren.com.au/a-history-from-the-future/

xiv Data from note to UK 2050 Pathway Calculator http://2050.hellings.webfactional.com/assets/onepage/29.pdf

xvii Davey, B. (2019). Land planning policy at the limits to growth. Feasta Website. http://www.feasta.org/2019/05/30/land-planning-policy-at-the-limits-to-growth/

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