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.


Posted in economics, podcasts, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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


Posted in degrowth, environment, international, news | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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:  

Posted in explainers, Greater Manchester, housing, land use | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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

Download pdf version

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.


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

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

xiv Data from note to UK 2050 Pathway Calculator

xvii Davey, B. (2019). Land planning policy at the limits to growth. Feasta Website.

Posted in cities, Greater Manchester, Greater Manchester City Region | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Greater Manchester must heed Heathrow judgement on airport expansion

GM-CAN’s Response to the Decision on Heathrow’s Proposed Third Runway

We, the members of Greater Manchester Climate Action Network (GM-CAN1) welcome the news that Heathrow’s plan to build a third runway has been ruled unlawful. This ruling is a reminder to planners that the country’s commitments to reduce carbon dioxide emissions must be taken into account when considering development proposals, and it should be a warning to airport owners that they have a responsibility to everyone to align their plans with the scientific evidence on climate change. Airports can no longer ignore their immense contribution to the global climate crisis.

No nation, government or organisation which takes climate change seriously should consider increasing the capacity of an airport. Potential economic benefits, based on speculative assessments, are simply not grounds to authorise expansion of large, carbon-intensive infrastructure. On the contrary, the scientific evidence strongly indicates that a path must be found to radically reduce aviation. We recognise this is a serious challenge for economies and localities that are dependent on aviation, and Manchester is no exception. However, we remind those in leadership positions that there will be no prosperity under conditions of climate collapse.

Manchester Airports Group has “ambitious plans to grow its passenger market from 23 million trips per annum in 2015 to 45 million”2. In the light of the Heathrow ruling, we call on Manchester Airport, Manchester City Council and other shareholders to reconsider any such growth in aviation since it is not compatible with the UK’s legal obligations to become under the Climate Change Act, nor with the Council’s commitment for Manchester to be a zero carbon city by 2038.

Yet here in Greater Manchester, we are set to open a £1 billion airport terminal later this year. We urge our civic leaders and the Manchester Airport Group to consider how this legal ruling, and recent decisions of other councils nationwide to say no to airport expansion indicate a gathering storm for the aviation industry and to take smarter next steps towards a truly low carbon future economy in Greater Manchester.


  1. GM-CAN members are Green Drinks Manchester, Manchester Friends of the Earth, GM SERA, Manchester Extinction Rebellion, Manchester Climate Emergency, Steady State Manchester, Fossil Free Greater Manchester and Frack Free Greater Manchester. This statement was prepared by representatives from some of these groups. It does not necessarily represent the view of every constituent group and all their members but due to the topicality of the issue this statement is thought to coincide with the consensus view among climate campaigners in Greater Manchester.
  2. Greater Manchester 2040 Transport Strategy. Para 202, Page 66.

Posted in Climate Change, Greater Manchester, Manchester, news | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Viable Economy … and Society

Steady State Manchester is pleased to announce the publication of the fully revised Viable Economy pamphlet, now The Viable Economy … and Society.

It will be of interest to anyone 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’s a revision, some 60% longer, of our Viable Economy pamphlet from 2014, thoroughly revised and updated with additional diagrams, explanations, references and with two new sections on Care and Caring and the Built Environment.

We’ll be producing a print edition, free to SSM members, and available at our events and stalls.

Posted in news, Reports, Viable Economy | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Re-focussing the economy in times of climate emergency and economic exclusion

Re-focussing the economy in times of climate emergency and economic exclusion.

Mark H Burton
Based on a talk given to Manchester Labour Backbenchers’ Committee, 6 February, 2020.

Republished at and

   click for a pdf version

In addressing this overall question, I will set out what I see as some of the key challenges, identify the main contenders for resolving them and the problems with them, identify some additional ideas that might help, and then offer some potential polices and interventions at national, regional and city level.

Much of what I’ll say rests on the insights of the field of ecological economics. This sees the economy as embedded in the material world: energy and materials, once extracted, flow through the economy, becoming degraded, until they are ultimately deposited in the planets ecological “sinks” – air, soils, and water bodies. In our work we also draw on insights from other schools, notably feminist, Keynesian and Marxist political economy.

Our focus is on the unsustainability of the present model and of many current versions of “sustainability”. The key problem is economic growth on a finite planet – with critical limits at both the resources and the sinks end of the chain – in addition to the internal contradictions of the (can I say “capitalist”?) economy.

Adding aspirational adjectives to growth, “inclusive”, “green”, “smart” …. doesn’t change the basic reality. John McDonnell was very clear on this when he addressed the IPPR in 2017:

Every 1% added to global GDP over the last century has meant, on average, adding 0.5% to carbon dioxide emissions. As the size of the world economy has grown, so too has the pressure it places on our ecosystems. The consequences of that pressure are now becoming all too apparent.1

Green growth relies on a “decoupling” of economic growth and material flows through the economy. There is no evidence that this is achievable on a permanent basis and at the level required to decarbonise the economy. On the contrary, continued GDP growth makes the job harder, since until the economy (including its global connections) is 100% zero carbon, part of that growth will create increased emissions.

That’s the background but the consequences are difficult. That’s because ceasing growth, in a system dependent on expansion for its own economic viability and to redistribute its surplus, is going to mean severe challenges. It is likely that the present system would eventually collapse (although Japan has done rather well with decades of extremely low GDP growth). However, continuing the material expansion of the economy will also bring eventual collapse due to the increasing cost of energy exploitation and mineral extraction, ecosystem destruction, and pollution, transgressed planetary boundaries of which the carbon dioxide causing the climate emergency is just one very prominent aspect.

Can the necessary refocussing of the economy to keep within planetary limits also address the economic disadvantage and exclusion so endemic in parts of our city? Our work, is centred on the concept of the Viable Economy: ecologically, socially and economically viable. Unless all three are met, things fall apart. Our Viable Economy pamphlet (soon to appear in an expanded second edition) aims to set this out in concise terms, accessible to the interested general reader.

There are some helpful concepts that we can work with, already embraced here, or not far from here. But for each there is a critique that means they need adjusting to comply with the ecological reality.

  1. Community Wealth Building (CWB): adopted by Labour, promoted by the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES), and implemented in a number of authorities. However, while it keeps more wealth local, it doesn’t make fundamental changes to the system, instead reliant on capturing the value produced by the destructive system.

  2. The Foundational Economy: promoted by colleagues at the University of Manchester Business School, and popular in South Wales, builds resilience in the local economy by focussing, as does CWB, on the place-based and not too glamorous bits of the bread and butter economy. But it is non-specific ecologically speaking.

  3. The Circular Economy is a great slogan, suggesting that resources can be recirculated thus reducing the impact on both resource sources and sinks. However, most descriptions of it argue that it promotes growth, while it still faces logistic and physical constraints, so any respite for the ecosystem would be temporary at best.

  4. Radical localisation, which we promote, along with the Transition Towns movement, Stir Magazine, and others, has things in common with CWB and FE and it also tackles the problem of dependence of long and complex supply chains. But it can become isolationist and vulnerable to co-option by the ecological right wing.

  5. Social realm interventions emphasise collective solutions, Universal Basic Services, some version of Universal Basic Income, the commons and public ownership. However, alone they do not tackle the problem of material flows and like the Green New Deal proposals, could increase them.

So these approaches, while sources of insights, need re-working under conditions of impending system disruption and potential collapse. Some of this is happening. For example, it is encouraging to see the Foundational Economy group acknowledging the ecological gap in their thinking, while CLES is working to integrate CWB with the idea of a local GND.

In the associated handout, there are policy proposals and interventions at the national, regional and local level, that should give an idea of what a more adequate approach to the dilemma might be. Elsewhere I have explored these ideas in relation to the competing traditions within the Labour movement.

At the local level the handout offers some outline examples in the fields of mobility, procurement and housing. From these I identified two key principles:

Principle 1: Emphasise use of locally available sources of finance:

For example, local budgets, captured financial flows, investments made by the local economy, revenue from local levies, fees and fines for carbon-intensive discretionary actions. These can be used to exert leverage on other financial flows. This approach contrasts with the dominant emphasis on inward investment which inevitably prioritises a return to take back out of the local economy.

Principle 2: Spend money in ways that while reducing carbon emissions, have co-benefits for health, liveability, and social and economic resilience.

Targets: Lower carbon mobility through increased public transport, active travel. Energy conservation. Local green and social economy. Lower tech solutions.

Co-benefits: urban liveability, health, air quality, reduced accidents, release of tied up money, time, local green and social economy, healthy temperatures, reduced expenditure and debt.

Emergent challenge: rebound emissions chiefly through the release of money towards ecologically higher impact activities and products.

In relation to emissions, specifically, a lot can be done by widening the focus. Carbon budgets for Manchester and Greater Manchester have been rigorously developed by the Tyndall Centre. They cover two dimensions of our the carbon footprint: the direct emissions from the territory of Manchester / Greater Manchester, as estimated from national data (known as “Scope 1”), and the emissions from the power system – basically the electricity and gas grid (“Scope 2”).

It is important that we focus on these. But there are two other kinds of carbon footprint that we need to consider.

  • The emissions attributable to our consumption of goods and services, where the emissions take place beyond Manchester’s borders (“Scope 3”).

  • Financial – based emissions, based on the way money is invested here, for example by our Pension Funds, or the council’s associated enterprises such as the Manchester Airport Group.

Both give significant opportunities otherwise missed. For example, via procurement strategies to reduce supply chain emissions, by driving changes in food consumption, or by retaining equipment for longer; or on the finance side, by redirecting investments in fossil fuel industries and the finance houses that support them, towards the clean and local economy.

We also need to focus more on adaptation, or what I call “shock-proofing”. Things are going to get nasty. Food supply and energy shocks are increasingly likely scenarios. Interestingly, many of the actions to reduce emissions (e.g. local production of energy and food) also help build resilience against the shocks that are caused by rising emissions and by geopolitical instability.

1J. McDonnell, ‘Speech: IPPR conference.’, 14-Nov-2017. [Online]. Available:

Posted in Climate Change, economics, Manchester | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Green New Deal for Greater Manchester? Workshop report.

On 16 December we held a workshop to look at the prospects for a “Green New Deal” tailored to the needs and realities of Greater Manchester.  As is our usual style, the major part of the event was group discussion to explore and develop ideas.  That was preceded by four provocations covering the Labour for a Green New Deal proposals, The Green Party’s Green New Deal for the North West, the work of CLES on Community Wealth Building and Green New Deals, and a Sceptical, Degrowth view on Green Deals.

Read the Report by clicking this link.

We have put together summaries of the provocations with links to further reading, and key points from our discussions.  Some of the ideas will be valuable for our forthcoming work to refresh our Policies for the City Region, ahead of the elections for Metro Mayor and councils in May.  With a climate fudging, English nationalist conservative government in power, the focus of action for climate and social justice in the UK is likely to switch to the municipal and regional level, together with international solidarity campaigning.

Posted in cities, event reports, Greater Manchester City Region, key concepts | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment