We must articulate and publicise viable alternatives.

In the last few days I’ve been moved to write two responses to public statements that each in their way exemplify the bankruptcy of dominant understandings of the challenges facing our society and economy.

The first was from Richard Leese, the knight who is Labour leader of Manchester City Council. I’ve followed his career for many years, first meeting him when as a then junior councillor and community worker he was a very helpful and supportive member of a steering group for a project I managed to support intellectually disabled young people into mainstream youth activities. I believe him to be a genuine advocate for Manchester’s people, truly concerned about the challenges that beset us from poverty and violence to climate change. That is why it was so disappointing yet sadly predictable to read his ‘Leader’s Blog’ where he tells us about the wonderful ‘Airport City’ that will bring Chinese investment to Manchester and thereby, we are led to suppose, bring prosperity based on jobs to the population here.

I posted the following comment – here with some relevant weblinks added.

It is difficult to know where to start with this (deliberately provocative?) post. I don’t for a moment doubt the commitment to improving the well-being and prosperity of Manchester and its people, but this is the wrong path. The first problem is that the GMS is a fundamentally flawed strategy on its own terms. It seeks to position Manchester in an international ‘beauty contest’ for investment, trying to win a game of global competition that it can’t (and indeed shouldn’t since do we really have the ethic of being winners in a zero sum game – we should be more internationalist than that and aim for a world without losers). The evidence that Manchester can’t win is clear enough – the region is slipping ever further behind London and the South East – even if that slippage is less than for even less favoured regions like Wales and the North East. The airport city / HS2 nexus is not going to change this but risks supporting the continuation of that parasitic service economy that has not significantly trickled down to the city’s most deprived populations and neighbourhoods. Moreover the implied dependence on China is itself dubious since that economy is not guaranteed to continue its spectacular growth, based as it is largely on collusion with debt-fueled consumption in the USA.
To be fair, it is not easy to imagine a viable alternative, and to do this in a way that approaches the scale of change needed (rather than remaining marginal development in the alternative, green and social enterprise sectors) , but that is the serious conceptual and practical work we need to do in Manchester, focusing on the day to day economy that’s left after decades of neoliberal de-industrialisation, growing those sustainable (ecologically, socially and economically) sectors and reducing the parasitic (and ecologically dangerous) sectors. That would include properly planned investment in rail infrastructure, by the way. That’s the project Steady State Manchester embarked on last year – but there is a long way to go yet.
Other commentators will no doubt expand on the obvious fact that the Faustian pact with aviation will do nothing to meet Manchester’s challenging carbon emissions reduction targets, and will indeed make the hill to be climbed far steeper.
In sum, the airport city is, on social, economic and ecological grounds, the wrong way to develop our economy and we would expect better from a leadership that took social justice and climate risks seriously.

As I point out, the task of imagining, let alone realising a viable alternative approach is a big challenge. The dominant approach that Richard exemplifies in his blog and through leadership of the city was forged in the context of defeat of left social democracy by thatcher in the 1980s. At that point the city leadership realised that they had to make the best of a bad job rather than waiting for Labour to return to power, and hence the Manchester model of partnership building with the capitalist firms that have dominated the Manchester skyline. This was an enhanced trickle-down approach: secure inward investment from capital to stimulate local economic activity which will then lead to jobs for local people. The problem was that not a lot trickled down to Manchester’s most deprived people – the city still has some of the most deprived localities in Britain. Jobs did arrive, and remember that this was in the context of an economy deliberately de-industrialised by the monetary policy of Thatcherite neoliberalism. But those jobs were often part time, insecure, poorly paid – pretty inevitable in an economy that was simultaneously subject both to the trends in capitalist organisation (bifurcated workforce comprising the highly skilled well-paid managerial and elite technical minority and the poorly paid, menial and insecure majority) and the peculiar distortion of the British economy in favour of non-productive parasitic sectors of finance and retail (compare the economies of Sweden, Germany and even France). The strategy of focussing on prestige infrastructure projects and high technology is not likely to change that reality sigificantly as the our colleagues at CRESC make clear in their Manifesto for the Foundational Economy. Moreover, as noted above and in more detail in our report In Place of Growth: Practical steps to a Manchester where people thrive without harming the planet, and elsewhere, the goal of unselective, aggregate growth in the scale of the economy will carry us to certain destruction since there is no escaping that increasing economic throughput increases material throughput and hence increases the various contaminations of which greenhouse gases, leading to climate change, is the most salient.

What we all have to work hard at is clearly identifying a programme that aligns the agenda of social justice with that of ecological safety. That means an entirely different kind of economic regeneration from that embodied in the ‘airport city’. It is one that doesn’t involve continually increasing the amount of traffic taking people into and out of Manchester, or anywhere else. It is one that invests in the more mundane activities that sustain everyday life with its ecological, social and economic transactions – what I have in mind here is a green version of the Foundational Economy, one that, for example, transforms the very large food processing industry to shorten supply chains, reduce emissions and energy use, bringing in public accountability while improving job experience. Re-localising more basic food production in the UK (ending the folly of exporting peat from Ireland to grow potatoes in Egypt for Manchester supermarkets is just one extreme evil of the present system) would mean healthier food, reduced emissions and more local jobs, and this doesn’t mean some unrealisable dream of total self-sufficiency, but nor does it mean accepting the scandalous misuse of, for example, the fertile soil of the Cheshire plain. And that is just one example. Manchester is actually doing some of the right things: using pension funds to build affordable housing, retrofitting social housing with solar panels and insulation, but there needs to be far more of this kind of thing, so these real economic developments, together with those taking place at the initiative of non-council sectors, become the heart of the model rather than the fringe.

The second piece that moved me to respond was a letter in the Guardian from a group of senior academics advocating for investment in nuclear power. They trotted out the argument that it is needed because renewables cannot meet the requirements of the country given their variable output. By starting from this partial truth they then argue that nuclear power is the answer since this would provide a background base-load power. But as they should know as academics, with an eye for evidence, that this ignores the best evidence about what renewables could deliver and what the demand is likely to be. That evidence, using 10 years of hour by hour weather data for the UK was used to inform the latest version of Zero Carbon Britain, something everyone who purports to comment on energy policy should read. The point is that the occasional gaps between output and demand require ‘dispatchable’, responsive energy capacity, that can be met through a limited amount of storage (for example via pumped water systems) and quickly responding gas powered generators, not fed by fracking but by synthetic gas from biomass and hydrolysis (hydrogen produced when there is a surplus of renewable power). Here is the text of my letter:

Professor Freer et al., (Guardian letters 26 November – [I can’t find it on their website]) assert that renewables cannot provide the reliable power the country needs day in day out. One might have expected a group of senior academics to base their arguments on the evidence. That from CAT – see http://zerocarbonbritain.com/ – based on fine-grain analysis of weather data over 10 years indicates that their assertion is false. In a system based on renewables the troughs in supply imply dispatchable energy rather than base-load power. The constant power offered by nuclear “is not helpful in balancing a variable energy supply” but leads to overproduction of power, while the for responsive back up could be met via modest provision of synthetic gas and storage.  I suggest all commentators familiarise themselves with the Zero Carbon Britain report.

The Guardian did not publish my letter but it is vital that ignorant punditry is answered as part of a campaign to map and establish a viable economy – viable in ecological, social and economic terms. This requires all of those of us who understand these issues to make our positions public, to confront the exhausted but hegemonic thinking and practice that we see day in and day out across the political spectrum.

In the last few days I’ve been moved to write two responses to public statements that each in their way exemplify the bankruptcy of dominant understandings of the challenges facing our society and economy.

The first was from Richard Leese, the knight who is Labour leader of Manchester City Council. I’ve followed his career for many years, first meeting him when as a then junior councillor and community worker he was a very helpful and supportive member of a steering group for a project I managed to support intellectually disabled young people into mainstream youth activities. I believe him to be a genuine advocate for Manchester’s people, truly concerned about the challenges that beset us from poverty and violence to climate change. That is why it was so disappointing yet sadly predictable to read his ‘Leader’s Blog’ where he tells us about the wonderful ‘Airport City’ that will bring Chinese investment to Manchester and thereby, we are led to suppose, bring prosperity based on jobs to the population here.

I posted the following comment – here with some relevant weblinks added.

It is difficult to know where to start with this (deliberately provocative?) post. I don’t for a moment doubt the commitment to improving the well-being and prosperity of Manchester and its people, but this is the wrong path. The first problem is that the GMS is a fundamentally flawed strategy on its own terms. It seeks to position Manchester in an international ‘beauty contest’ for investment, trying to win a game of global competition that it can’t (and indeed shouldn’t since do we really have the ethic of being winners in a zero sum game – we should be more internationalist than that and aim for a world without losers). The evidence that Manchester can’t win is clear enough – the region is slipping ever further behind London and the South East – even if that slippage is less than for even less favoured regions like Wales and the North East. The airport city / HS2 nexus is not going to change this but risks supporting the continuation of that parasitic service economy that has not significantly trickled down to the city’s most deprived populations and neighbourhoods. Moreover the implied dependence on China is itself dubious since that economy is not guaranteed to continue its spectacular growth, based as it is largely on collusion with debt-fueled consumption in the USA.

To be fair, it is not easy to imagine a viable alternative, and to do this in a way that approaches the scale of change needed (rather than remaining marginal development in the alternative, green and social enterprise sectors) , but that is the serious conceptual and practical work we need to do in Manchester, focusing on the day to day economy that’s left after decades of neoliberal de-industrialisation, growing those sustainable (ecologically, socially and economically) sectors and reducing the parasitic (and ecologically dangerous) sectors. That would include properly planned investment in rail infrastructure, by the way. That’s the project Steady State Manchester embarked on last year – but there is a long way to go yet.

Other commentators will no doubt expand on the obvious fact that the Faustian pact with aviation will do nothing to meet Manchester’s challenging carbon emissions reduction targets, and will indeed make the hill to be climbed far steeper.

In sum, the airport city is, on social, economic and ecological grounds, the wrong way to develop our economy and we would expect better from a leadership that took social justice and climate risks seriously.

As I point out, the task of imagining, let alone realising a viable alternative approach is a big challenge. The dominant approach that Richard exemplifies in his blog and through leadership of the city was forged in the context of defeat of left social democracy by thatcher in the 1980s. At that point the city leadership realised that they had to make the best of a bad job rather than waiting for Labour to return to power, and hence the Manchester model of partnership building with the capitalist firms that have dominated the Manchester skyline. This was an enhanced trickle-down approach: secure inward investment from capital to stimulate local economic activity which will then lead to jobs for local people. The problem was that not a lot trickled down to Manchester’s most deprived people – the city still has some of the most deprived localities in Britain. Jobs did arrive, and remember that this was in the context of an economy deliberately de-industrialised by the monetary policy of Thatcherite neoliberalism. But those jobs were often part time, insecure, poorly paid – pretty inevitable in an economy that was simultaneously subject both to the trends in capitalist organisation (bifurcated workforce comprising the highly skilled well-paid managerial and elite technical minority and the poorly paid, menial and insecure majority) and the peculiar distortion of the British economy in favour of non-productive parasitic sectors of finance and retail (compare the economies of Sweden, Germany and even France). The strategy of focussing on prestige infrastructure projects and high technology is not likely to change that reality sigificantly as the our colleagues at CRESC make clear in their Manifesto for the Foundational Economy. Moreover, as noted above and in more detail in our report In Place of Growth: Practical steps to a Manchester where people thrive without harming the planet, and elsewhere, the goal of unselective, aggregate growth in the scale of the economy will carry us to certain destruction since there is no escaping that increasing economic throughput increases material throughput and hence increases the various contaminations of which greenhouse gases, leading to climate change, is the most salient.

What we all have to work hard at is clearly identifying a programme that aligns the agenda of social justice with that of ecological safety. That means an entirely different kind of economic regeneration from that embodied in the ‘airport city’. It is one that doesn’t involve continually increasing the amount of traffic taking people into and out of Manchester, or anywhere else. It is one that invests in the more mundane activities that sustain everyday life with its ecological, social and economic transactions – what I have in mind here is a green version of the Foundational Economy, one that, for example, transforms the very large food processing industry to shorten supply chains, reduce emissions and energy use, bringing in public accountability while improving job experience. Re-localising more basic food production in the UK (ending the folly of exporting peat from Ireland to grow potatoes in Egypt for Manchester supermarkets is just one extreme evil of the present system) would mean healthier food, reduced emissions and more local jobs, and this doesn’t mean some unrealisable dream of total self-sufficiency, but nor does it mean accepting the scandalous misuse of, for example, the fertile soil of the Cheshire plain. And that is just one example. Manchester is actually doing some of the right things: using pension funds to build affordable housing, retrofitting social housing with solar panels and insulation, but there needs to be far more of this kind of thing, so these real economic developments, together with those taking place at the initiative of non-council sectors, become the heart of the model rather than the fringe.

The second piece that moved me to respond was a letter in the Guardian from a group of senior academics advocating for investment in nuclear power. They trotted out the argument that it is needed because renewables cannot meet the requirements of the country given their variable output. By starting from this partial truth they then argue that nuclear power is the answer since this would provide a background base-load power. But as they should know as academics, with an eye for evidence, that this ignores the best evidence about what renewables could deliver and what the demand is likely to be. That evidence, using 10 years of hour by hour weather data for the UK was used to inform the latest version of Zero Carbon Britain, something everyone who purports to comment on energy policy should read. The point is that the occasional gaps between output and demand require ‘dispatchable’, responsive energy capacity, that can be met through a limited amount of storage (for example via pumped water systems) and quickly responding gas powered generators, not fed by fracking but by synthetic gas from biomass and hydrolysis (hydrogen produced when there is a surplus of renewable power). Here is the text of my letter:

Professor Freer et al., (Guardian letters 26 November) assert that renewables cannot provide the reliable power the country needs day in day out. One might have expected a group of senior academics to base their arguments on the evidence. That from CAT – see http://zerocarbonbritain.com/ – based on fine-grain analysis of weather data over 10 years indicates that their assertion is false. In a system based on renewables the troughs in supply imply dispatchable energy rather than base-load power. The constant power offered by nuclear “is not helpful in balancing a variable energy supply” but leads to overproduction of power, while the for responsive back up could be met via modest provision of synthetic gas and storage.  I suggest all commentators familiarise themselves with the Zero Carbon Britain report.

The Guardian did not publish my letter but it is vital that ignorant punditry is answered as part of a campaign to map and establish a viable economy – viable in ecological, social and economic terms. This requires all of those of us who understand these issues to make our positions public, to confront the exhausted but hegemonic thinking and practice that we see day in and day out across the political spectrum.

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