Is a quiet political revolution getting under way?

As the old order with its class and gender hierarchies gave way, George Monbiot points out that the void filled with junk could have been occupied by a better society, built on mutual support and connectedness, without the stifling stratification of the old order.

The feast to which we were invited is only for the few’

foe logoInstead, as the developed world – saturated with advertising, the handmaiden of market fundamentalism – became reliant on rising consumption to avert economic collapse, he notes that Friends of the Earth has begun to explore how we might reconnect with each other and with the natural world. New models for urban living are based on sharing rather than competitive consumption:

  • the sharing of cars and appliances and tools,
  • of money (through credit unions and micro-finance) and power.
  • community-led decision-making, over transport, planning and, perhaps, rent levels, minimum and maximum wages,
  • municipal budgets and taxation.

Such initiatives, facilitated by the state can bring people together with a sense of shared purpose, ownership and mutual support that centralised decision-making can never provide. But in some areas, non-party political movements are achieving this without that elusive government facilitation

Independents

Peter Macfadyen, Kate Bielby and Mel Usher of Independents for Frome
Peter Macfadyen, Kate Bielby and Mel Usher of Independents for Frome

Today, a neighbour gave the writer a cutting about Frome’s declaration of independence.

This Somerset market town has developed “flatpack democracy”, taking political power at a local level and enabling people to have a greater say in the decisions that affect their lives.”

Independents for Frome took all 17 seats on Frome’s town council, with vote-shares as high as 70%, and support from people who cast their other votes for the main political parties.  

Localism in action

Though local Conservatives were convinced that austerity had to apply even at the most local level, the council has borrowed around £750,000 to invest in buildings and land:

  • green spaces have been spruced up
  • game-changing help has been given to the local credit union
  • he council is involved in a new renewable energy cooperative,
  • and has put money into the setting up of a new “share shop”

In Devon the Buckfastleigh Independents group have followed a similar path. the town’s new deputy mayor, Pam Barrett says the town is ”a working-class town that’s been suffering from a real loss of services.” After fighting – successfully – to keep open a library and swimming pool, she and other residents stood for town council seats that had not been contested for “20 or more years”. One of the catalysts, she says, was a box of 10 copies of the Flatpack Democracy booklet, which was brought in by one of her colleagues. On 7 May, they also took nine of 12 seats, and started running the show.

Flatpack Democracy ideas are being shared with other groups in Devon and Somerset and though people in Alderley Edge, Cheshire were not aware of developments in the West Country, their thinking is much the same: as one newly elected councillor, Mike Dudley-Jones, said: “our basic mantra is that there is no place for mainstream party politics at this level”.

On election day, Conservatives lost all nine of the parish council’s seats to this group – Alderley Edge First – which also took the village’s one seat on Cheshire East council.

Community energy solutions: Plymouth

In 2012 Plymouth’s co-operative city council established a Low Carbon City Team, which helped to identify the city’s potential for community energy solutions and forge partnerships. The council funded pre-development, initial community engagement and business plan development.

plymouth bencom header

In 2013 it joined forces with local residents to form Plymouth Energy Community (PEC) which then set up a second Industrial & Provident community benefit society (Bencom), PEC Renewables, to fund and manage renewable energy installations. PEC has 850 members, 95% of whom are local residents, and the number is rising, with more joining as the current share offer progresses.

Marie-Claire Kidd reports that Plymouth’s energy future is changing. PEC Renewables launched its first share offer in February 2014. It closed after seven weeks, oversubscribed at £602,000, with 144 investor members, around half of them local. This enabled it to install free solar photovoltaics on 18 schools and three community buildings between May and November 2014.

pec investors

The installations, which collectively represent 0.78 megawatts, are now generating half-price electricity for their community building hosts. Surplus electricity is sold to the grid. The bencom also receives income in the form of a government subsidy, via the Feed-in Tariff.

PEC Renewables launched its second community share offer this February, this time with a £950,000 target. It will fund more free solar photovoltaics, and bring the bencom’s community fund to more than £1.2m. It is forecasting a return of up to 6% for members, which rises to 10.5% including tax relief. The offer, which closes on 5 May, has already raised £510,000.

midland house council offices plymouth

Plymouth’s largest solar roof will be installed on Plymouth Life Centre, a diving centre and one of the busiest leisure centres in the country, and there will be solar panels on four more schools, bringing the total to 1.3MW. (Above: panels on Midland House, a Plymouth council office)

Plymouth has 11,500 households in fuel poverty – 10% of its population – and an energy-inefficient housing stock. The city council has produced a plan to reduce emissions from the council estate by 20% by 2015 and reduce citywide emissions by 30% by 2020.

One of its main aims is to help local people to understand their energy options, so it is promoting grant schemes for free cavity and loft insulation and subsidised external wall insulation, offering savings of around £260 per household per year. It has also provided energy tariff advice for over 600 households, offering average savings of £180 per year.

PEC Renewables’ community fund is being used to tackle the challenges of rising energy costs, fuel poverty and climate change. Projects include PEC’s fuel debt advice service, which has helped local residents clear £55,000 of energy bill arrears in the last 10 months, and its energy team, which trains volunteers to provide free home energy advice to at-risk households.

 

To learn about Plymouth’s plans for the future, read Ms Kidd’s article.

Could Brummie bonds fund house building?

john clancyCity councillor John Clancy, who once worked in the venture capital market, explains in a Chamberlain Files article,  [accessed via the Brummie], that  ‘Brummie bonds’ can provide much needed investment and kick-start building by local councils and housing associations across Birmingham.

Some readers will remember that the Brummie Bonds concept was incorporated in the 2003 People’s Pensions Proposal, informally presented to MPs, an MEP and NGOs by a London colleague Colin Hines (co-founder of Localise West Midlands) with co-authors, accountant Richard Murphy (now of Tax Justice fame) and MP Alan Simpson. Read on here.

In October 2004, David Bell’s article on the subject in the Post: Buy a share in Brum pointed out that bond issues are used to raise finance by federal states in Germany and many other local authorities around the world, but although English councils have powers to issue bonds none are believed to have used them.

John Clancy’s vision is of a 40-ward investment strategy. An access-all-areas Brummie Bond investment issue is needed and he records that the Labour Party’s policy announcement last weekend on the Future Homes Fund is effectively the revival of the concept of housing bonds itself:

  • Anyone saving for a house deposit can put it in an ISA to which the Government would contribute 20%. The Labour Party is proposing that those funds would be earmarked for new house building. The banks would be directed to invest these assets into housing bonds.
  • Local councils and housing associations would issue bonds into which the UK’s banks would be required to invest. This would keep investment by UK citizens in the UK and, effectively, into local and regional investment.
  • If local developers are sitting on a land bank where planning permission for housing is already given, then the “use it or lose it” principle would have to apply. If there is capital ready and willing to buy and build from housing bonds, then so be it. Positive, active creative capital will need to push out dormant, destructive, delayed capital.

There is now a growing consensus that investing in UK housing is the best investment strategy for the health and wealth of the funds. They provide healthy returns on a risk adjusted basis to the pension funds.

A recent analysis by TradeRisks.com recommends hard-nosed investors (especially pension funds) to go into social housing bonds rather than corporate bonds, and that now is the best time to do so. Sixteen of the biggest 60 Housing Associations have now issued own-name public housing bonds. It’s time for local councils to do the same.

Government has relaxed the rules on investment and recognised the key part that local government pension schemes have to play in regeneration, infrastructure and ‘green’ investments. Cllr Clancy says that if any local government pension fund has not laid out its 30% housing and infrastructure asset investment strategy, we should ask why it has not done so. He ends:

It’s time for Bonds: Brummie Bonds.

Let’s build.

Syriza MPs help to promote the social economy by donating 10-20% of their wage

anca voinea co-opIn a Co-operative News article, Anca Voinea notes that  Syriza has highlighted the importance of reviving the co-op movement, seeing it as a distinct economic model that would be part of their movement for a broader social and solidarity economy.

Syriza had shown interest in the movement over the last two years and is preparing for new legislation to support co-operative principles, promote co-operative education, transfer of companies to the workers and establish co-operatives of similar standards to those in Latin America and France.

syriza2

 

When incoming prime minister Alexis Tsipras (above) presented his agenda to parliament, he made a commitment to growing the social economy, including co-ops. Syriza has now launched a public consultation to gather opinions about the promotion of the social economy.

VioMe in Thessaloniki went bankrupt and the workers, who had not been paid for over a year, occupied the building to prevent the owner from taking away the machinery and products in stock. The factory is now in public administration and the workers are fighting a legal battle for ownership of the enterprise. They are also calling for a change in the legal framework to allow workers to take over enterprises. Mr Tsipras promised to support this effort with legal reforms. He has also spoken about the importance of co-operative banks as a vehicle for development.

Reading about this venture reminded the writer about an Argentinian workers’ initiative recorded here.

greek solidarity header

An online platform, Solidarity4all, first mooted by the late Tony Benn, showcases different examples of informal co-operation, from social pharmacies to grocery stores or free lessons, including newly formed co-ops. Syriza has helped the Solidarity4All initiative, with each MP donating 10-20% of their wage to promote the social economy. People have taken matters into their own hands through grassroots activism and local collective action. The many and varied social solidarity initiatives include social pharmacies, social medical clinics, social kitchens, social groceries, Okmarkets without middlemen, a social collective of mental health professionals, social solidarity drop in centres, time banks (sharing skills and time), olive oil producers sharing olive oil, the ‘potato movement’ where farmers trade direct with consumers cutting out the supermarkets. Read more about Solidarity4All here.

A new citywide currency keeping money earned in city in the local economy

karen andy reeve pound

Above: Karen Leach from Localise West Midlands and Andy Reeve from Impact Hub Birmingham who have produced a currency note exclusive to Birmingham – see http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/birmingham-could-next-city-launch-8810436.

They are planning to follow the model of the existing Bristol Pound, which is currently used by 782 firms and generates £1 million of business each year.

Karen Leach, coordinator at Localise West Midlands, said: “What normally happens is money leaves the area all the time because you spend money in an organisation that isn’t locally based and locally owned. Money is constantly sucked out like water down a big plughole from the local economy. That’s what we’re trying to stop.”

Since its creation more than two years ago, the Bristol Pound has become the UK’s largest rival to Sterling and the first city-wide currency. Brixton, Stroud, Totnes and Exeter have also introduced the scheme – and it is hoped the Birmingham Pound will repeat their success with independent businesses.

bristol poundThe Bristol Pound, a non-profit organisation, is regulated by the Bristol Credit Union and has received backing from Bristol City Council which has discussed plans to pay staff in the currency. Around a quarter of current Bristol Pound transactions are made using paper notes in £1, £5, £10 and £20 denominations while the rest are made electronically by mobile phone text messages or online. Read more here: Bristol Mayor chooses to be paid in Bristol Pounds.

Consultations on developing the idea will be made by a campaign group of local credit unions, trade organisations and businesses following an initial meeting last week.

Co-operatives: raising and developing the weakest part of our local communities and civil society?

The roots of the co-operative movement in Italy go back to 19th century workers’ associations, with credit services, agricultural and building co-ops forming an important part of the overall economy. There are more than 20, 000 cooperatives, including housing and banking movements, with over 3 million members.

In 2011 Jeffrey Hollander asserted that the success of worker cooperative models in Italy and Spain presents US & UK with a compelling model for building a new, sustainable economy: 

italian co-ops text pics

An alternative to the “throw-away culture created by the powers that control the economic and financial policies of the globalized world”

Reuters reports that Pope Francis, speaking to members of the Confederation of Italian Co-operatives, condemned economic systems that “suffocate hope” and a globalised culture that treated its employees as disposable. New models and methods are needed that offer an alternative to the “throw-away culture created by the powers that control the economic and financial policies of the globalized world.”

He adds:

“Co-operatives should continue to be the motor that raises and develops the weakest part of our local communities and civil society”

The Pope said that the establishment of more co-operatives could help to solve crises of unemployment among young people and offer women jobs with a work-life balance that enabled them to care for their families.

Finally he called for money to be ‘at the service of life, managed in the right way by real co-operatives where capital does not command men but men command capital.

Community energy: co-operative, citizen-centred, decentralised

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Although a couple of weeks ago the government agreed to ban all fracking in protected areas, they are now reported as saying this may ‘unduly constrain the industry’ and fracking will be allowed to take place under National Parks and other protected areas if the wells start outside their boundaries. The passing of the government’s bill was welcomed by Ken Cronin, the chief executive of trade body, UK Onshore Oil and Gas. MP Caroline Lucas, on the other hand, said:What a mockery this is making of legitimate public concerns on fracking, and indeed of the democratic process.”

On 27th January, the government’s Community Energy Strategy report praised the way “communities are coming together to take more control of the energy they use”.

balcombe residents

There are a growing number of community energy organisations in the UK, giving communities more control over production and provision and opportunities to alleviate fuel poverty and increase local employment.

Co-operatives UK, Community Energy England, The Co-operative Energy, Social Enterprise UK, 10:10 and Regen SW have united to call for fair treatment for energy co-ops: a sensible approach to share capital and an optional asset lock for co-ops. They have produced a briefing setting out the main actions required to get community energy back on track. Click here to read the briefing in full.

repower balcombe header

REPOWERBalcombe is the latest initiative: a pro-community and pro-renewables co-operative social enterprise run for the good of the local community. Recognising that Cuadrilla’s drilling back in 2013 divided opinion in the community, they aspire to move on and unite around something positive – clean energy.

In 2015 they aim to raise funds for around 300kw of solar PV, the equivalent of 10% of Balcombe’s current electricity usage – or enough to power 60 of the village’s 760 homes. REPOWERBalcombe will sell investment in the form of shares to the community.

grange farm balcombe solar69 panels were installed on Grange Farm at the end of January

Their first site to sign up was the third-generation family-run Grange Farm on Crawley Down, who will host 18kW of solar panels on their cowshed in exchange for 33% discounted energy for the next 25 years. Local co-op members provided £27,300 for these panels. They are now raising funds to install solar panels on the rooftops of three schools.

As the briefing says:

“The UK needs to move from an economy based on fossil fuels, towards one based on renewable energy; from a market dominated by a handful of suppliers, to one where thousands of communities meet their energy needs locally.

“We need an approach to ownership and innovation that is more co-operative, citizen-centred and decentralised. One that enables people to work together to generate, distribute and supply their own sustainable energy. One that taps the emergence of new crowdfunding mechanisms that have the ability to leverage large sums of money into clean energy investment, and at the same time bolster energy-democracy and the social economy.”

Models for doing this already exist across Europe, where co-operatives and social enterprises deliver clean, low-carbon energy, offer local employment opportunities, community development funds and fuel poverty alleviation.

Useful links:

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/shale-gas

http://www.thenews.coop/93323/news/co-operatives/getting-the-uks-community-energy-sector-back-on-track/

http://www.repowerbalcombe.com/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-sussex-31027128

http://www.energyshare.com/pages/8304/

LWM co-founder: rebuild and rediversify economies

euro memo group header

Last September, Colin Hines, co-founder of LWM, gave the final address (link to pdf here) at the 20th Conference on Alternative Economic Policy in Europe, at the Sapienza University in Rome (Department of Statistics), organised by the EuroMemo Group and jointly hosted with Economia Civile. His conclusion:

“A successful campaign to turn Treaty of Rome into a “treaty of home” would allow countries to cooperate to take back control of their borders for progressive goals, such as reducing inequality and rebuilding flourishing, sustainable local economies. This in turn could result in increased political support for a reformed Europe which actually gives citizens hope by providing economic, social and environmental policies which tackle the majority’s present fears for the future, rather than making them worse”.

Localise Birmingham? A lead from India

The sheer size of the city was brought home to the writer who accidentally travelled the 49’s circuitous bus route which crossed many city wards. With the exception of glossy Longbridge – a ‘revolution in regeneration’ – it was clear that there was a great deal to be done in several rather neglected and dismal wards, but that the indebted and over-stretched city council is fully occupied by city centre development.

 

A local blog’s August recommendation:

bvt logo

Combine Dr Dick Atkinson’s concept* of returning the city’s administration to its original villages with Localise West Midlands’ data in their full Mainstreaming Community Economic Development report.

atkinson urban village

Then enlist the highly experienced and successful Bournville Village Trust to oversee and guide the setting up of ten such village trusts. With appropriate capital and income – not just a Neighbourhood Community Budget – this would leave the council to co-ordinate services such as refuse collection and transport.

narendra modi (2)The Times of India reports that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has led the way by adopting one Indian village after initiating a village development campaign: “Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana”.

In a pleasing example of cross-party co-operation – opposition leaders, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi have followed suit . . .

devinder 6 ndtvThis has some relevance to the proposed urban villages – and Delhi’s Devinder Sharma adds to our designers’ preoccupation with aesthetics and logistics, the link with the ‘rural hinterland’:

“A smart village will not only bring internet connection into the rural hinterland but also provide support to sustainable agriculture practices. A smart village will automatically link local production with local procurement and local distribution”.

 

*Dick Atkinson: ‘The Common Sense of Community’ (Demos, White Dove Press, 1994 pp13-14)

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Globalisation – the open trading system – is fragmenting

Philip Stephens, an associate editor, in the Financial Times: Globalisation – the open trading system – is fragmenting; it needs an enforcer – a hegemon, a concert of powers or global governance arrangements”.

Evidence: the collapse of the Doha, the demise of global free-trade agreements, and the emergence of regional coalitions and deals. The emerging economies are building south-south relationships and the Brics nations are setting up their own financial institutions.

Colin Hines, co-founder of LWM goes further – and deeper. He advocates the rebuilding and rediversifying of economies by limiting the entry of finance, goods and people from other countries, ensuring local provision of goods, finance and services and weaning themselves off export dependence. Depending on the context, ‘local’ goods would come from the nearest source, the region, the nation state or even a regional grouping of nation states – eg oranges from EU/Spain.

Domestic businesses and funding sources would then meet the needs of the majority in society in all countries. The prospect of such increasing economic security for the majority could gain widespread political support ranging from those on the left, the centre and the greens through to small ‘c’ conservatives.

In 2008, just before the economic collapse, as GND convenor, he presented a mechanism which would have enabled the Green New Deal to prosper. ‘Green Quantitative Easing’ would have made every building in the country energy efficient, and built hundreds of thousands of new, affordable and energy-efficient homes. A massive boost would have been given to economic activity, providing jobs on a living wage in every community in the UK, whilst reducing its environmental impact.

Later this month he will be speaking in Italy at a conference of left economists to float the progressive protectionism agenda and criticise the left, centre and greens for their support of open borders, leaving the extreme right in an ever more powerful position.