This month we organised one of our biggest ever events on a subject Birmingham Friends of the Earth are not normally known for talking about – economics.
We decided that it was vital to put on a big event to raise awareness of the impact economic policy has on the environment and to counter the chancellor's pronouncements on growth and economic development.
I may not be an economist myself, but I have read enough about the world we live in to know that the ideas of limitless economic growth as desirable and better transport links for business people to jet around bringing investment in are not just fanciful, but dangerous. The policies that the council are following, and their approach to regeneration and economic development, will not only harm efforts to hit our climate change targets, but could leave our city in a very vulnerable position if they do not re-think.
The chancellor and many mainstream politicians like to pit environmental protection and economic success as somehow opposing interests that cannot both be pursued at once, but this is, of course, complete rubbish!
Not only are they compatible, but they are intrinsically linked as many mainstream economists will tell you, however little this is reported in the media. The long-term value to our economy of ensuring that we have a stable climate, healthy eco-systems, sustainable use of resources and a healthy population in body and mind is higher than any amount of economic growth could ever contribute.
Our “City of the Future” event on March 20th aimed to look beyond the traditional views and four expert speakers put forward three ideas each to go into a manifesto for a better economy for Birmingham. We wanted this to provide an antidote to the current mood where everyone talks of austerity, cuts, recession and unemployment. It was also useful ahead of the awful budget delivered by the chancellor, which has locked us into a high carbon future of escalating energy prices, investment in roads and airports to remind people of what should be a priority.
Nobody in the media has really been talking about a way out of the financial mess we're in by doing something different from the current economic approach, or changing the way we measure what is good for the economy and people. We thought that was where the real gap exists and the turnout on the night proved there is indeed a lot if interest in hearing these ideas.
We did not want this event to be an exercise in lecturing to people, so we invited four different speakers to propose ideas to be discussed and also managed to get Alun Thorne, editor of the Birmingham Post, chairing for us. Our four expert speakers were Julia Slay from the New Economics Foundation, David Powell from the economics team at Friends of the Earth, Oliver Bettis from the Centre for the Advancement of a Steady State Economy and Dr Helen Borland from Aston University.
After they made their opening pitches, we had a panel of representatives from local organisations cross examining them, so Jay Birdi was there from youth charity Envision, Dr Simon Slater from Sustainability West Midlands (who co-sponsored the event), Jamie Morgan of Arup represented the business community and Kate Cooper of the New Optimists was there for the scientific community.
The audience then got the chance to make their points and ask more questions of our experts, as well as being asked to vote for the ideas they thought were best to go into our manifesto for a City of the Future. We also asked the audience to give us their suggestions for other ideas to go into it by writing on butterfly-shaped post-it notes stuck onto a city-scape, which we will write up in due course.
We will try to write up more details from the event in due course, but here is a brief summary of what the speakers were proposing and some links to look up further information:
Julia Slay (New Economics Foundation)
Reforming public services to introduce co-production as the default way of doing things. This means involving and valuing people as all having a valuable role to play, but not shrinking the state and asking people to run things instead (as in the Big Society)
A green new deal for young people – this would build on the good work Birmingham has already done with Birmingham Energy Savers, but focus more on building the skills of young people and creating careers for them within the renewable energy sector.
Invest in prevention rather than cure – this would mean trying to tackle the causes of problems before they happen rather than picking up the consequences when they do. This can apply to health, crime, pollution and waste issues.
Oliver Bettis (Centre for the Advancement of a Steady State Economy)
Trading wealth for leisure – this means that those who are comfortably off do not need to be working so many hours, so they could reduce them down towards 21 hours, giving them more time to spend the money they have on leisure activities and meaning more people would have jobs. Birmingham could encourage this.
Encourage cooperative foundations and low profitability companies – if these are based in communities and work for the good of their area, rather than far-off shareholders, the city will benefit more.
Introduce a local currency to ensure that money moves around within the local economy more. This has been proven to stimulate economic activity in small firms and does not replace the pound, but works alongside it.
Dr Helen Borland (Aston Business School)
To build an ecologically sustainable as well as economically and socially sustainable economy for the West Midlands - base it on the triple top line, which means that ecological stability has to be the starting point for any business. The idea of mimicking nature in the way we produce things should be central.
Introduce a policy of requiring companies to use closed loop cycles eliminating waste from manufacturing processes.
Introduce more training for people in sustainability-focussed jobs. If we skill up our young people to be ahead of the game, that will encourage businesses to locate here.
David Powell (Friends of the Earth)
Ecological limits – Birmingham doesn't just cut carbon, but actually goes further than that by reducing its water, mineral and land footprints, which will all bring economic benefits if the city has more efficient resource use and is prepared for scarcity.
Breathable, accessible planning built around public transport, walking & cycling, with cars pushed out of the city centre by congestion charging.
Exceeding national carbon reduction targets - aim for zero carbon by 2035 by creating many more jobs insulating homes, creating better resource recovery systems, zero carbon transport and manufacturing.
As you can see, these ideas differ from the chancellor's budget quite a lot. Please get in touch with us if you would like to be involved with helping to produce our manifesto for a better economy for the future of Birmingham.