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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.