The Coronavirus crisis has changed everything. It has reminded us who and what really matters in our lives. It has laid bare the profound weaknesses of an economy which has systematically eroded our collective social immune system. It has taught us that many things we were told were impossible or unrealistic, are possible.
The government can house homeless people, fund the NHS, provide an income for people who aren’t able to work and write off billions in public debt overnight.
It is possible to guarantee everyone’s right to healthy, locally produced food, to lift everyone up with a universal basic income, and give everyone a better future on a liveable planet. All these things are political choices.
We cannot go back to where we were before. Business as usual didn’t work for too many people and was destroying the natural world on which we all depend.
We can and must redesign our economy and society to meet the needs of everyone for food, shelter, care, health, dignity and financial security, irrespective of employment or nationality.
The green steps I have set out here are just some of the ways we start to shape what comes next, into something better. They are the start of a conversation, not the end – taking us in the direction of a future transformed.
FULL REPORT AVAILABLE HERE Green Steps to Better - Caroline Lucas MP May 2020 FINAL.pdf
Step 1: Rescue people & the planet, not climate criminals
The £60 million in bonuses paid out to the family of Easyjet’s founder just weeks before the company secured a £600 million loan from the Treasury, while Richard Branson lobbies for government support from his Caribbean island, tells you everything you need to know about bailouts: the public take the risk, while the private sector take the profit. Of course government needs to intervene when jobs are at risk, but not by handing over a blank cheque that’s promptly pocketed by bosses and shareholders.
If public money is used to bailout a company, there must be basic conditions attached. We might, for example, expect that companies pay their taxes; that public money should be used to support workers, not provide bosses with bonuses. Bonuses and dividends should be out, and a guarantee that people on low wages won’t have their salaries cut should be in. We all pull together in a crisis; it’s time that those in charge did some of the heavy lifting, too. A maximum pay ratio and employee representation on boards would be a good start in making sure that companies are fit for a post-Covid world.
There’s the question too about bailing out polluting companies. With restrictions on travel likely to last for some time, do we want to prop up the existing airline industry, or use the opportunity to transform it? Making sure that companies adopt climate targets in line with the Paris Agreement, with plans to meet them, might mean we emerge through the pandemic with industries fit for the future, rather than ones set to destroy all our futures.
Use this moment to transform our economies and we might begin to see innovative solutions that work for all of us: a complementary transition fund could begin to build the fast, clean, travel network of the future.
Step 2: Food that cultivates green values
Our current food system is riddled with risks, inequalities and fragilities. Some of these are being exposed and exacerbated by the current pandemic. Farmers have been forced to pour milk down the drain or plough crops back into the field, whilst supermarket profits have soared yet an estimated 3 million Britons have gone hungry. Our health system was unprepared for a severe shock, so was our food system.
Everyone’s right to food today must go hand in hand with a shift to a resilient, re-localised and regenerative food and farming system that prioritises public health and sustainability. Just as public health cannot be left to the market, neither can food.
We can already see what that might look like. Everyday there are other stories too – of farmers, communities and businesses doing amazing things to transform their operations and get food to those most in need. These point us towards the first green steps to a better food system. But that won’t happen without government action.
First, Ministers need to heed calls from smaller farmers and food businesses for emergency business support as well as long-term backing. There’s a need for new funding for local food networks too, in both the short and long term, with a focus on supporting the widespread adoption of agro-ecological production as the norm in the UK.
Second, the school food voucher scheme in England must be urgently fixed or ditched. It should include not only all supermarkets or local shops, but markets and community food organisations too. And it should cover the summer holidays. If the centralised scheme doesn’t work, schools and local authorities should have the powers and funds they need to do what’s best in their own areas.
We also need a refocussed Agriculture Bill as well as a National Food Strategy, both of which must incorporate the lessons of the current crisis.
There’s nothing secure about a food system that ignores the links between human, animal and ecological health. Taking a local to global perspective on both sustainability and resilience, top priorities should include a transition to agro-ecological farming and putting the right to food into UK law.
Step 3: A right to affordable clean energy
Leaky homes, more than 10% of households living in fuel poverty and people having to choose between staying warm or putting food on the table.
That is the true picture of household energy use in the UK, and it isn’t good enough.
Working from home, or being laid off, has cut overall energy use but means households will face a steep rise in energy bills – pushing many who are already struggling with energy costs over the edge.
The Government must do more now to guarantee that no-one will be left having to choose between heating or eating. And it must get to grips with energy efficiency with a programme to retrofit all of the UK’s 29 million homes, starting with the most vulnerable households. This would cut energy bills, create thousands of skilled jobs and tackle a major source of our greenhouse gas emissions.
It must tackle the unfairness of energy bills too. Pre-payment meter customers are more likely to be on low incomes yet often pay the most for their energy. The Government should provide emergency top up credits to all pre-payment meter customers. Not loans, leaving customers with debts to pay tomorrow, but grants to give them the security they need today.
Credit customers who are struggling financially must also be protected. The Government should conduct debt write offs for those who have no means to repay.
And as we future-proof our homes let’s do the same for our energy, by ending fossil fuel subsidies and investing in cheap and clean renewable energy.
Let’s build a society where everyone has a right to affordable, clean energy.
Step 4: Safe and affordable housing for all
Over the last 40 years, a series of political choices have encouraged us to treat our homes as little more than financial assets. That’s exacerbated inequality between those who own a home and those who don’t and left the fundamental right to a roof over our head in the hands of a dysfunctional market, with thousands ending up homeless.
Yet, almost overnight, as lockdown measures were imposed, people living on the streets were found accommodation by the Government – something we had previously been told was impossible. It hasn’t been perfect: there have been gaps in provision and failures in support. But no government can now claim that a roof over everyone’s head is an impossible dream.
Everyone deserves a safe, affordable, place to live and we can’t address unfairness and inequality in our society until we start treating our houses as homes. Fundamental change is needed to transform our housing market so that it is fit for the future. As the Government starts to ease some restrictions on movement, let’s also make sure it thinks about where and how we live.
First green steps to better means making sure people who have been housed during the crisis are given secure accommodation beyond it, while also taking steps to increase social housing stock. Rent payments should be frozen for those who need it, with landlords compensated by government if necessary, housing benefit set at the median cost of rent and the five-week wait for support scrapped.
In the longer term, a ‘Living Rent Commission’ is a critical first step towards controlling the sky-high rents faced by people in the private rented sector. As a key part of our recovery plan, a mass programme of zero-carbon council and community housing would increase the number of affordable homes, while creating jobs and building a major national asset.
A safe roof over every head really shouldn’t be too much to ask. Now we know it’s possible, let’s make sure we make it happen.
Step 5: A basic income for all
The principle behind a basic income is simple but transformative: at its root, the idea that everyone has value. That’s why I have long campaigned for it, and was one of over 100 MPs who wrote to the Chancellor to urge him to introduce a Recovery Universal Basic Income in response to the coronavirus crisis. Public support for UBI is growing too - with polls consistently reporting a majority of people in favour.
Hollowed out by a decade of politically motivated austerity, our social security system was already failing far too many. For people who didn’t have enough to live on before the pandemic, their situation is now even worse. Too many people are excluded from the schemes the Government introduced and Universal Credit falls far short of a living wage. The current social security system is too cumbersome and inefficient for what is a fast moving and unpredictable reality. A guaranteed minimum income would provide desperately needed security, especially at this moment of crisis.
The most robust study of UBI to date concluded that it boosts recipients’ mental and financial well-being, as well as modestly improving employment. There are other benefits, too: people have more time to care for family or neighbours, much like the vital work of mutual aid groups across the country in response to Covid-19.
The full economic consequences of coronavirus are still ahead of us, so now is the time to put in place the mechanism that can deliver the security we all need. A minimum guaranteed income should go hand in hand with a genuine living wage – a social security system that lifts us all up, together.
Step 6: Safer streets and cleaner air
Lockdown has meant most of us spending much more time than usual close to home. We are noticing how cars dominate, and how pavements are often not wide enough to maintain social distancing. Less traffic has cut air pollution and reduced injuries and deaths from collisions, while a growing body of research shows that death rates from Covid-19 are higher in polluted areas.
Some councils, including Brighton and Hove, are already re-shaping their cities to benefit walkers and cyclists, re-allocating road space. Manchester closed streets to create new cycling and running lanes over the Easter weekend, Hackney is planning car-free zones to give people space to exercise and Leicester City Council created ‘pop up’ bike lanes to make it easier for key workers to cycle to work.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, has followed this lead and pledged £2bn to double the number of cyclists and walkers by 2025. This new-found enthusiasm is welcome, except that it’s not new money but the fast tracking of previous investment and it’s not enough. To put it in perspective: Manchester’s proposed cycling network alone is likely to cost £1.5billion.
So let’s match this new-found enthusiasm with the resources it needs. When even the AA is predicting a permanent reduction in car use, now is the time to cancel new major road schemes and reallocate the £27bn budget to making safe streets and space for walking, cycling, shopping and play a reality - for everyone, every day.
Let’s take this opportunity to reclaim our streets, for all our good!
Step 7: A right to green space
In the long list of inequalities this virus has exposed, few are so stark as access to outdoor space.
This can be seen at home, where wealth can buy you a substantial garden, while millions are locked down in cramped homes with no outdoor space.
But leave your front door and the situation goes from bad to worse. Take London for example, where 35% of the wealthiest areas are green space, compared to 25% of the most deprived. Then there’s the 2.6 million people in the UK with no publicly accessible green space within walking distance at all.
It’s no surprise, then, that more than half of the public notice a greater appreciation for local parks and nearby countryside during this pandemic. What’s more, almost two thirds want improving green space to be a higher priority after lockdown.
To do this while addressing inequality we need a new right to green space – ensuring that every person in the UK can access green space in less than ten minutes walk from home.
This should be backed up by a range of new measures for green space and nature – an abundance of new pocket parks, rewilding of public land, a national market garden city programme and new ways to protect wildlife-rich brownfield sites.
This virus has taught us the inherent public good of green spaces. Let’s use this lesson to address inequality, restore nature and strengthen our communities.
Step 8: Banks that work for us and our communities
The obstacles faced by those wanting to use the government’s small business loan scheme has laid bare just how badly our current banking system fails us all. Banks were so slow to process loans that the governor of the Bank of England was forced to tell them to that they must “put their backs into” it. These are the banks, remember, that relied on public bailouts for their survival after the financial crisis of 2008-09.
The reality is that Banks in the UK have become so consolidated and so centralised that they now lack the infrastructure and the capacity to serve the needs of local businesses and local communities. Only 3% of banks in the UK are locally controlled, compared to 67% in Germany. In other countries community-based banking plays a key role in promoting strong local economies, local banks are more likely to lend into the real economy, and help reduce ‘capital drain’ to urban centres.
As we move beyond the crisis phase of the pandemic, government should build a resilient and diverse local banking infrastructure that is able to meet the needs of small and medium sized enterprises and is designed to support adaptable strong, local economies. Breaking up the part publicly owned RBS could create a network of local banks in England, with the degree of decentralisation in Wales and Scotland, and Ulster Bank, a matter for their national governments.
Vibrant and resilient local economies need an ecosystem of finance to support them: government could also support the development of regional stakeholder banks, like the newly formed South West mutual, a co-operative bank for the South West. Do that and we might get banks that don’t just like to say yes, but are actually able to do so.
Step 9: It's time for a well-being economy
The Government’s response to Covid-19 has largely prioritised public health and wellbeing over economic growth. That’s the right thing to do. Not only now, but as we move beyond the pandemic.
But Covid-19 has exposed fundamental failings of the current economic model. Many of the most important workers are paid the least; millions of UK citizens experience severe financial insecurity, economic inequality, and food poverty; public services have been left threadbare after 10 years of austerity; local economies have been hollowed out leaving them vulnerable to shocks. On top of this, the climate and biodiversity crises accelerating even faster than feared.
We have known for some time that the pursuit of infinite economic growth on a planet of finite resources will lead to disastrous social and ecological consequences. Yet it remains at the core of how most governments run their economies.
That must now change. With economic forecasts suggesting economic growth will be slow or non-existent anyway, we need a new economic approach that doesn’t depend on a harmful obsession with GDP growth to ensure everyone has the food, housing, health care, community and income they need.
Now’s the time for the Government to choose an economic model that’s better than growth: a wellbeing economy that’s designed to directly prioritise what matters the most: public health, community resilience, equality and inclusion, affordable housing, renewable energy and environmental regeneration.
The movement to ditch GDP growth as an economic objective and replace it with wellbeing indicators is blossoming. The Wellbeing Economy Governments (WEGo) initiative is one example. Another is the City of Amsterdam’s decision to adopt Doughnut Economics to guide decision-making through and beyond the pandemic. The case for dethroning growth is overwhelming, as recent UK reports and EU studies have shown, and as the All Party Group on Limits to Growth has been championing in parliament.
Even more tellingly, a recent opinion poll indicates the majority of people want the Government to pursue health and wellbeing, ahead of economic growth.
The fate of humans and nature is intertwined and requires us to urgently change course. As a recent warning from leading scientists explained:
“As with the climate and biodiversity crises, recent pandemics are a direct consequence of human activity – particularly our global financial and economic systems, based on a limited paradigm that prizes economic growth at any cost. We have a small window of opportunity, in overcoming the challenges of the current crisis, to avoid sowing the seeds of future ones.”
The Government needs to follow the science and adopt a wellbeing economy approach to guide both its immediate crisis response and green recovery plans. The Treasury should collaborate with other governments already taking steps in the right direction, and announce a formal inquiry into weaning the UK economy off growth dependency as an immediate step.
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