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Do we really want to go back to normal? Lynsey Hanley asks how we can steer a strategic direction that means we don’t return to old habits that harm our environment and increase inequality.

Do we really want to go back to normal?

In the 1951 Ealing Studios comedy The Man in the White Suit, a brilliant young research chemist threatens to destroy the textiles industry when he invents an indestructible synthetic fabric. The bosses at his mill realise they can’t profit from something that never wears out, while the millworkers foresee a future with no work, no industrial struggle – and no pay. The white-suited man is chased out of town, his dream of an end to drudgery and waste put paid to by the system’s fear of change.

But now it’s official: people want change. In early April, the polling firm Yougov conducted a survey on our attitudes to the lifestyle changes enforced by coronavirus lockdown. It found that ninety one per cent of respondents disagreed with the statement that, following the pandemic, ‘I hope everything will go back to how it was’.

If I ran a government – local or national – or had a business – big or small – I would take this not as a vague wish but as an instruction. We, the people who keep you going, who vote you in, who buy your things, are going to do things differently from now on, and it’s your job to keep up with us, not the other way around.

The last month, in Britain at least, has seen an explosion in virtual communications, showing we don’t need to be travelling constantly on domestic flights and poor-quality privatised rail services in order to hold work meetings. Road traffic has decreased by 60 per cent, making it possible to cycle more safely and take exercise without fear of pollution.

Shops and restaurants in towns and city centres may never re-open, after a decade in which the fate of the British high street has already been agonised over and discussed.  The question is, what can people do instead? What can they do to earn money, and what can they do with their time? The current crisis may give us some answers.

Research by the Foundational Economy Collective – a group of economists and social scientists based at universities in the UK, Italy and Germany – shows how 40 per cent of jobs in Europe are in ‘sheltered’, or foundational, parts of the economy: that is, in housing and planning, health and social care, schools, infrastructure, transport, local government, and food supply and production.

Governments know we can’t do without these things so the systems to keep them going are supported and subsidised. These jobs meet needs, and will never go away: a bedrock of economic stability that innovative local governments have wisely begun to build upon after decades of throwing their lot in with unimaginative developers’ schemes and plans to build endless shops.

If the worldwide response to the coronavirus threat can be treated as a dress rehearsal for the bigger and multiple threats posed by climate change then now we know what can be done.

A fine example is the ‘Preston model’, named after the city in England’s north-west which took the rebuilding of its ex-industrial economy into its own hands after a multi-billion pound shopping centre redevelopment failed to materialise following the 2008 crash. Preston was built on mills – as resistant to innovation as the fictional ‘Birley’ of The Man in the White Suit – and its economy slumped with them. What took their place, in part, was the familiar dystopia of brand names, warehouses, call centres and warehouses.

But it also had a huge foundational economy that had the potential to create extra value for the city, as well as higher incomes for its people, if it was invested in properly by local government where it could. When procuring goods and services, Preston council started to prioritise local suppliers, rather than the cheapest (though sometimes both). Not only did it help money to circulate within the city rather than fly out of it, but it reinforced a sense of common purpose between local government and local businesses – what has come to be known as community wealth building.

The economist Mariana Mazzucato, author of The Entrepreneurial State and The Value of Everything, writes trenchantly on the detrimental effect that 40 years of global money-obsession has had on innovation, ambition and social cohesion. She recently commented on the wave of public recognition for key workers that, “If there are ‘key’ or ‘essential’ workers in the economy, next step is to recognise (the) ‘essential’ part of the economy that needs funding, nurturing and massive rethinking”.

In three of those essential areas – food supply, housing, and local transport – there are existing models of practice that enable both consumers and producers to demand higher standards. In the first area, Morrisons, one of the ‘big four’ supermarket chains, operates a very different supply system to its competitors, owning its own production sites and ensuring higher welfare standards.  In so doing it earned the praise of the Foundational Economy Collective’s founder, Karel Williams, who commented: “Society gains through reduced import dependence, stable employment and the capacity to address animal welfare and climate change.”

In the second, the need to address the poor energy efficiency of Britain’s ageing housing stock has been taken up by Manchester’s Carbon Co-op with a scheme, People Powered Retrofit, that matches local skilled builders with householders wishing to futureproof their homes and minimise fuel costs. Funding from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – precisely the form of state investment in innovation advocated by Mariana Mazzucato – enabled Carbon Co-op to establish People Powered Retrofit as a self-sustaining business.

Thirdly, in the area of sustainable transport, a social enterprise that began in the early 1980s as a community transport service in east London has grown to become the largest social enterprise running transport in the world, enabling 30 million passenger journeys to take place across Britain and the Channel Islands every year.

Hackney Community Transport (HCT) now no longer serves only Hackney – though it is the only social enterprise licensed to run major London bus routes. Through direct consultation with bus users in north London, Jersey, Bristol, and Greater Manchester, it has established successful services which, in the words of HCT’s founder and chief executive Dai Powell, “compete with loneliness and isolation”.

The point is that all these business are growing, at a time of wider contraction, by valuing factors above and beyond money and by securing, not risking, benefits in the long term. These factors have been thrown into sudden relief. For instance, you may have missed the government’s announcement of its Transport Decarbonisation Plan, given that it was published in the first week of the UK-wide lockdown.

In it, the transport minister Grant Shapps determined that the primary forms of local travel in the near future will be active: walking and cycling. Little did he know when he wrote that statement how soon we would all be doing just that. We know that when we are permitted to travel again beyond our front doors, it can’t be by car. Domestic flying – with or without high-speed rail – may never again take hold. Change comes fast when it’s necessary: there’s only so long you can hold it back.

If the worldwide response to the coronavirus threat can be treated as a dress rehearsal for the bigger and multiple threats posed by climate change then now we know what can be done. The temporary revolution in our consumption, production, travel and communication habits can be made permanent, but only if everyone behaves as though the threat is real and the impact on our lives is necessary.

 

Lynsey Hanley writes for The Guardian and is the author of Estates: an Intimate History (2007) and Respectable (2016). 

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