By Sean Meleady

Norwich City Council has backed calls for the government to support a pilot for Universal Basic Income (UBI), which would trial providing a monthly income to all residents of the city, following a recent debate at City Hall. City councillors argued that all residents should receive this fixed monthly amount regardless of employment status, wealth and marital status.

Supporters of UBI argue that it can promote economic growth, gender equality and personal freedom, as well as reducing poverty and medical costs and dealing with the increasing levels of unemployment brought about by automation. Opponents cite concerns about cost, reinforcing traditional gender roles and concerns over worker productivity.

UBI trials have occurred in many countries around the world in recent decades, including Canada, Namibia, India, Sierra Leone and Uganda. Several cities such as Utrecht in the Netherlands and Sao Paulo in Brazil have conducted their own pilots. In 2016 76.9% of voters in Switzerland rejected UBI in a referendum and in 2018 the Finnish government rejected a request to continue a two year trial which involved 2,000 unemployed adults, opting to explore alternative welfare reforms instead.

three other English councils have already passed motions calling for UBI pilots in their cities

Although no local or national governments have adopted a full UBI system into law, there have been similar policies adopted worldwide. For example, last month the Spanish government adopted a minimum income scheme for its poorest families. Similarly Brazil’s Bolsa Família programme gives financial support to families living in poverty, providing they ensure their children attend school and are vaccinated against infectious diseases. In the United States The Permanent Fund of Alaska is a payment given to state residents from oil and gas revenues. However, as it never exceeds $2,100, it isn’t enough to cover the living expenses of most residents.

In Norwich, support for the UBI pilot motion from the majority Labour group on the and the minority Green group on the City Council came after extensive lobbying from UBI Lab Norfolk, a group of activists, academics and campaigners exploring the possibility of implementing UBI across the county.

UBI Lab Norfolk is part of UBI Lab Network, a coalition of 24 different autonomous groups across the UK and worldwide working towards the implementation of Basic Income pilots in their communities. The Norfolk group launched on 17 June with an event featuring Norwich South Labour MP Clive Lewis and University of East Anglia Philosophy Lecturer and former Green MEP for the East of England Catherine Rowett.

In part as a result of work by the Network, three other English councils have already passed motions calling for UBI pilots in their cities: Liverpool in 2018, Sheffield in 2019 and Hull in January this year.

Two motions were put forward to the City Council, by Karen Davis, Labour Councillor for Town Close, and Jamie Osborn, Green councillor for Mancroft. It was Davis’ motion that was discussed and adopted.

At the meeting Cllr Davis highlighted indicators that poverty is on the rise in the city: Norwich Job Centre plus has over 24,500 Universal Credit claimants at present, and the use of food banks in the city has increased during lockdown.

An overview of the UBI Lab Network’s interactive map of UBI survey data. Credit: UBI Lab Network

The motion as adopted calls on Norwich Council to “write to the Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions and Norwich Members of Parliament to request that the Norwich City Council administrative area becomes a pilot area for Universal Basic Income within the next 6 months.” It also requires the Council to request an increase in child benefit payments, of £15 per week, to help address the significant levels of child poverty in the Norwich area.

In collaboration with Compass and Organise, the UBI Lab Network has recently released an interactive map collecting over 20,000 responses to a Work and Pensions Select Committee call for evidence on UBI. This reveals responses from members of the public to the question “What would you do differently if you had Basic Income every month?” The map includes dozens of submissions from Norfolk and Norwich, with responses including paying more tax, looking for another job, training in skills development, traveling, working five days a week instead of seven, and being happier and less stressed.

Cllr Osborn, a co-founder of UBI Lab Norfolk, said: “Universal Credit and now the impact of Covid-19 have hit Norwich hard: more and more people have been saying to me that they fear for the future. A Universal Basic Income would not only provide security, it would mean hope for thousands of people in the city who have been excluded by benefits stigma and sanctions. Norwich is such a vibrant city with a strong arts scene and a community feel, and a UBI would support that. I see a lot of hope in the way that this idea is being taken on.”

in light of increasing levels of poverty in the city […] a new approach is needed

Cllr Davis, said: “Covid has brought the inadequacies of the welfare system to the forefront of people’s minds. For the first time, many people have found themselves unemployed and at the mercy of the DWP. With 5 week minimum waits for Universal Credit payments, rising inequality and a decade of austerity, there is no better time to pilot UBI and stimulate the local economy. We should not be a country reliant on foodbanks and supermarket vouchers to feed our children.”

With the decline of Conservative and Liberal Democrat support in Norwich City Council elections over the last decade, Labour and the Greens have been bitter electoral foes. However, they have reached a shared agreement that in light of increasing levels of poverty in the city, arguably caused by Universal Credit and likely exacerbated by the Covid 19 pandemic and a possible no- deal Brexit, a new approach is needed.

UBI for Norwich residents could create a city with more economic growth, less poverty, better mental health, an even stronger arts scene and greater social cohesion. However, there are concerns, which must be taken seriously, that the large scale implementation of UBI would have a detrimental impact on the role of trade unions and the welfare state – the level of support for the measure amongst economically and socially liberal but anti-union businesses is a potential warning sign. Following this council decision, UBI could arrive in Norwich as soon as within 6 months. We will have to wait and see how these different factors play out for Norwich communities.

Featured image credit: GaryReggae via Wikimedia Commons

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