Thursday, 17 May 2012

Leanne's Greenprint for the Valleys

The core message of Leanne Wood's greenprint is self-sufficiency
- something the Valleys desperately need.
(Pic : United Welsh)

I've been meaning to do this for some time, but my break finally allowed me to get around to it. Seeing as Leanne Wood is appearing on Question Time tonight, now's as good a time as any to post it.

Back in March 2011, Plaid Cymru launched a consultation document, authored by Leanne Wood, called "A Greenprint for the Valleys". It wasn't a detailed policy document and is actually pretty short, but it does give you a good idea of what Plaid's economic vision for this part of Wales is.

The Rationale

There are 4 key parts that underpin the Greenprint:

  • The co-operative history in the Valleys
  • Peak Oil & resource shortages – prompting a focus on "sustainable development"
  • Locally-sourced goods and energy (as a result of Peak Oil)
  • A new mutualism – in particular finance

It also points out that there are many examples of good projects already – food co-ops and time banks for instance. However due to a reliance on grant funding, these schemes are unlikely to be sustainable in the long-term due to general cut-backs, or resources being spread too thinly across a wide area like the Valleys.

Time and Money

There are three examples of alternative financial models given :

  • Mutual loans to businesses that "make positive contributions to the community"
  • Local currencies – backed by sterling – that can only be spent in the local economy
  • Time banks – people receive credits for every hour they spend volunteering, that can be spent in the local economy

My criticism would be that, however good these schemes sound, I don't see how it would generate any tangible wealth in GVA terms. It would, at least, increase economic activity and see reinvestment of time and money in areas that badly need it.

That might trump the need for traditional wealth generation in the short to medium term. As confidence in these communities builds, so would the enterprising spirit, combined with with a far more cooperative, team effort. A friendlier capitalism could start here.

What can government do?

The paper suggests several things the Welsh government could do to stimulate this "new economy." Obviously these powers, time-scales and abilities would be enhanced by independence - just thought I'd add that.

  • Tailor public sector contracts to small local businesses – incorporating clauses for apprenticeships, environmental criteria, and making contracts smaller to enable local cooperatives, social enterprises and small businesses to bid for work. A point made in The Collective Entrepreneur.
  • Set "carbon budgets" linked to council tax to provide incentives to local councils to meet green targets. Hopefully this would lead to things like power stations being more spread out and improved recycling rates.
  • A programme to bring heritage and disused buildings back into public use as community facilities (i.e churches, chapels, pubs, schools, abandoned businesses). Set a target for every community of 10,000 to have a "fully accessible community building" running services, courses etc.
  • A legally binding action plan to protect wildlife, countryside and ecosystems.
  • Pilot areas, where measurable environmental aims are set (i.e a percentage of homes to be 0% carbon emitting within an Assembly term) – starting off small, then gradually increasing over time.

Green Infrastructure

It's important that this new "green economy" has the right infrastructure in place to enable it to function.

Renewable energy cooperatives are cited, with the The Green Valleys project in the Brecon Beacons given as the main example. A community-owned hydroelectric scheme is expected to produce 82% of the community's energy needs, will reduce its carbon footprint by 137% and was constructed and maintained entirely by community volunteers - led by a steering group with a "wide range of expertise".

The potential for schemes like this in the Valleys is enormous due to its geography : plenty of publicly owned forestry land, upland areas and fast-flowing rivers.

During the leadership campaign, Leanne Wood also produced a policy paper on renewable and clean energy, which you can read at Syniadau (along with a link to an academic paper from Cardiff University's Dr Calvin Jones).

The Greenprint also proposes:

  • New models of finance, including pooling of borrowing powers, EU funding and credit unions to create an Investment Fund to provide low cost loans towards micro energy generation and energy efficiency.
  • Promotion and support for local currencies (mentioned earlier).
  • A "community land bank", where the Welsh Government can offer long-term leases for food co-ops or energy generation – with a clear assessment of suitable sites.
  • Integrated transport – partially coming to fruition with the recent support for a "South Wales Metro". The re-opening of disused railway tunnels is also mooted, but it's unclear if it's for new rail links or for pedestrians/cycling.
  • A shift in car parking towards town centres by discouraging free parking at out of town sites.

Skills and Participation

An expansion of apprenticeships is highlighted, preferably via the new cooperatives, with the aim of contributing to "long term self-sufficiency". Also the creation of a "Green Construction College" linked to the University for the Heads of the Valleys initiative.

Funding for valley-based universities should be partially dependent on their support and co-operation with the new green economy.

 The Communities First network should be reformed and help coordinate local volunteering teams, putting "like-minded people in touch with each other".

Several examples are given of successful food-related projects that meet these ideals, including :

  • A direct-to-consumer food company in Scotland
  • Todmorden – a town in West Yorkshire that "aims to be self-sufficient in food by 2018"
  • Riverside Community Market in Cardiff, which has established a weekly farmer's market, food co-op and expanded to include new land in Cowbridge.

The creation of a open-to-all "green social network" is seen as a way to maximise participation, with a democratically elected board to oversee and drive projects. The paper says that government would need to be less tribal, more "hands off", open-minded and supportive – acting as an "enabler" instead of a top-down "enforcer".

Is it time for the Welsh Government to "back off"?
(Pic : Click on Wales)

I think this has been the big flaw since devolution in Wales – a top-down, managerial government in Cardiff, that has very narrow goals, and is far too focused on its own pet-projects that it's blind to innovation and "big-picture" thinking. Reforming the civil service (or more its attitude) would help.

Is it viable?

Traditional supply-side economics has let the Valleys down, leaving them look like - in economic and social terms - the victim of an ugly assault. This "greenprint" isn't an economic panacea. I don't see it generating wealth in the traditional sense, but what it could give is priceless – hope and a sense of ownership.

Both things have been taken away by the economy, Cardiff Bay and Westminster over a period that stretches far beyond 1979. If you can increase activity, get people working (even if it's voluntary) and create a new sense of purpose in the Valleys, then it could at least lead to a social recovery, if not an economic one.

What could be both a positive development and a problem is the creation of a two-stream economy in Wales – an economy based on traditional economics in the M4 corridor and the north East and a cooperative one in rural parts of Wales and the Valleys. This could widen the prosperity gap between West Wales & The Valleys and East Wales - while increasing economic activity and giving communities their self-respect back. Is that a trade-off that's worth it? Maybe it's not as simple as that.

While it's important to support those producing new supplies of food, retrofitting homes and building new power schemes, you have to remember all those grey factories and offices that dot the Valleys. They need help and support too - and perhaps - should even be encouraged to join the greenprint.

Eroski is a supermarket subsidiary of Mondragon - a Basque corporation
made up of hundreds of smaller, worker-owned co-operatives.
(Pic : Wikipedia)
It can work, and it can be serious business. It's been proven in the Basque Country. Mondragon Corporation – a federation of 200+ companies and co-operatives, employing some 84,000 people, had a €15billion turnover in 2010. It does everything from making consumer goods, banking, architecture, supermarkets and even has its own university.

That doesn't mean that this is some "utopian" solution to our own problems – Mondragon has enough problems of its own and is not free from criticism, usually from the left (see : Sharryn Kasmir's The Myth of Mondragon). Once a co-op reaches the size of Mondragon, does it "sell out"? Does it lose the sense of "ownership"?

Imagine if the Valleys had a Mondragon?

A banking arm based in Merthyr Tydfil, a manufacturing arm HQ'd at Ebbw Vale, an affiliated university, an energy company HQ'd at Hirwaun, a supermarket chain based in Caerphilly, a fashion chain in the Rhondda, an IT company in Cwmbran and a landmark headquarters north of the M4.

Now that would be something to see, wouldn't it.

1 comment:

  1. Nice blog! For the first time since I can remember, we have realised, and Leanne is leading the way, that we cannot depend on others, or wait for things to change from outside, in order to pull ourselves up. Energising the local communities and giving them hope, as well as novel means of achieving their aspirations is wonderful message, and the one that for me made Leanne the only possible person to take us into the C21st. Neoliberal capitalist economics has failed, and is dying and abject death despite the efforts of Western governments to breathe expensive life into its lifeless corpse.

    We need a new economic model - Big banks have no place in it - and here at least is a first step in the right direction!