Manifesto for truly sustainable communities

Raising the standard in ecovillages

Two things caught my eye in the New Statesman over the last week. The first was the emphatic thumbs-down by Sian Berry, UK Green Party speaker, to Gordon Brown’s new ‘ecovillages’ idea – the proposed pilot projects that will inform the design of five new ‘eco-towns’. She imagined they would “end up as sought-after, trendy developments whose residents, in practice, commute miles to work, shop in supermarkets and rarely walk or use the bus”.

The second was the policy advice given by a series of progressive think tanks and individuals to our prime minister in waiting.

Since I live in an ecovillage that goes a long way towards meeting the government’s carbon-reduction targets – we have the lowest footprint of any community in the UK that has been scientifically measured at around one half of the national average – it feels worth exploring why our reality is so different from Sian’s (entirely legitimate) fears and what policy guidance might emerge from our experience.

So, here goes!

Per capita car mileage in the Findhorn ecovillage was found by our ecological footprint study to be just six per cent of the national average. This is primarily because we generate so much employment on site – in the region of 200 jobs – that very little commuting is necessary. In addition, the community runs a fleet of small buses to ferry residents and guests between the two community campuses – that are around five miles apart – and there are many informal car-sharing schemes.

Policy implications? Promote mixed-use planning zones that integrate the residential with the commercial and industrial in a convivial mix, thus reducing the need to commute and provide advice and incentives for car-pooling.

Our ‘Home and heating’ footprint is 21 per cent of the national average – partly because our four wind turbines make us net exporters of electricity and partly because of the highly energy-efficient design of many of the houses. My near neighbour, John Willoner, had a total heating bill of £48 for calendar year 2006.

Policy implications? Encourage small-scale, community-based generation of electricity. This will involve greatly simplifying the regulations, assessments and studies required for small-scale projects that are currently broadly in line with those required for creating large wind farms: our pre-planning costs were in the region of £100,000 – far in excess of the cost of the actual turbines!

A predominantly vegetarian diet based primarily on local and seasonal produce gives us a food footprint 32 per cent of the national average. Policies to promote local procurement of food for schools, hospitals and other local government facilities could do much to promote a low food-mile diet, with extra employment generated in the agricultural sector.

Finally, an important reason why our community economy is relatively strong and able to generate so much employment is that we have our own community currency - Ekos. These, necessarily, keep purchasing power local, since the notes can only be spent in businesses in the community as well as several in the neighbouring village. In this sense, they are ‘un-travellers’ cheques’!

The promotion of community currencies to run parallel to national currencies would do much to regenerate local economies, enabling people to walk or cycle to work and school. As with the wind turbines, significant simplification of the regulations is required: much our largest item of expenditure in launching the Eko was lawyers’ fees.

None of this is rocket science. It is all sufficiently simple that we have been able to manage it with a minimum of official assistance.

Now, it may be said – in fact, all too often it is – that all of this is of little relevance since ecovillages like ours are so different from how most people live. Ours, after all, is a predominantly urban society. However, this is to miss the point. We have chosen to work on a small scale in a rural context since this makes it considerably easier to develop and prove the models. Having done so, the trick is to scale them up.

This is being done nationwide with gusto and imagination. We are seeing a proliferation of CSAs (community-supported agriculture box schemes) linking up cities with neighbouring farmers, urban carpools, community currencies and even, as in Dundee for example, some city-based, community-owned wind farms.

What is lacking is a clear vision and strategy at governmental level. Weaving cities back into the fabric of their bioregions and reviving local economies is both achievable and necessary if we are to meet our carbon-reduction targets. But, there will be commercial interests to face down.

The challenge facing our prime minister in waiting is not that of identifying policies to create truly sustainable communities – these are already out there in abundance – but the political will and imagination to champion and implement them.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.
For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.
IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.
Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.
Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.
Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.
The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.
His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.
He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.
I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.