By Olivia Hanks

Between 2013 and 2019, an era of ‘austerity’, most of us noticed a marked deterioration in the quality of our public spaces and infrastructure – existing roads and pavements not maintained, school buildings getting shabbier, public facilities closing. During that period, Norfolk County Council oversaw at least £725m of funded infrastructure projects. Incredibly, more than £650m of this was for building or widening roads.

This wildly disproportionate spending on roads is gross, wilful neglect of the people and places Norfolk’s councillors are elected to serve – especially when we know air pollution is a factor in 5% of deaths in the county. But this tarmac-mania is also, in part, a sheer lack of imagination; an unwillingness to consider that ‘infrastructure’ or ‘improvements’ might mean anything other than more roads.

We are living in a crucial moment, in Norwich, the UK and globally. We have seen ever more wealth captured by a tiny fraction of the population – the richest 1,000 people in the UK increased their wealth by £274bn from 2013-2018. News of climate disasters is all around us, and global carbon emissions continue to rise. And now we are confronted with a global pandemic and an unprecedented recession. If ever there were a moment to start doing things differently, this is it.

Yet the UK government continues with the pretence that we can all hurry back to ‘normal’, and there’s no sign that it is facing any challenge from Norfolk County Council. The next ten years of planned infrastructure spending includes £277.5m on roads and £54.4m on everything else: one new school, one railway station, utilities upgrades, and ‘sustainable projects’. Back in June, when Liberal Democrat councillors asked the council Cabinet about its plans for post-Covid economic recovery across Norfolk’s districts, the leadership had essentially nothing to say.

We need to use all the financial and policy apparatus at our disposal to meet society’s biggest challenges

The institutions responsible for local economic development planning are understaffed and insufficiently democratic, with decision-making power concentrated in the hands of a few. They are also constrained by central government’s belief that economic development is a matter for the private sector, and by a remit which focuses exclusively on ‘Growth’.

It is Growth which demands that roads be built to ‘create jobs in the construction sector’. It is Growth that requires us to use up ever more of the Earth’s natural wealth, work longer hours, and surrender public spaces and services to the power of private profit. We must leave this obsession behind so we can refocus economic planning and investment towards things that make us happier and healthier.

We need to use all the financial and policy apparatus at our disposal to meet society’s biggest challenges: this is the essence of the Green New Deal (GND), a ten-year plan to decarbonise our economy in a way that also tackles inequalities and improves people’s lives. First proposed by a group of researchers in the UK in 2008, the GND (in altered form) has since gained popularity in the United States, formed the core of the 2019 manifesto of the Green Party of England and Wales and been adopted as Labour policy at the party’s conference last year.

The GND isn’t a ready-made set of policy proposals, though several research organisations are exploring what it might look like. It’s something we have to create together. One of the five principles set out by Green New Deal UK calls for “greater democratic participation, accountability and common ownership” in our economy – and that won’t be achieved by a top-down policy platform.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks on the Green New Deal in February 2019. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The other principles are that a GND must create good jobs, restore habitats and clean up our air and water, and promote global justice by ensuring UK decarbonisation is not based on exploiting the Global South. All this requires leadership from central government, of a kind we are desperately lacking. But we can’t wait for a government that will bring in a GND. We already know green recovery plans are popular across the political spectrum. We need to raise the profile of the GND, so that it becomes electorally impossible for a party of government not to back it. We need to push councils and other local institutions to align their decisions and spending with GND principles, and call for powers that will enable them to do more. And we need to create spaces where citizens can come together to solve local problems and imagine a better future.

This isn’t a pipe dream – much of it is already happening, in bits and pieces around the country and elsewhere in the world. Since the pandemic hit, Transport for London has fast-tracked planned cycle improvements and created low-traffic neighbourhoods to enable more walking and cycling. A study in Sheffield earlier this year found that using just 10% of the city’s green spaces to grow fruit and vegetables could provide ‘five a day’ for 15% of the population – surely an appetising challenge for ambitious residents to take up. Lewes District Council has overhauled its corporate plan to prioritise climate action, affordable housing, and retaining wealth within the community through local investment and procurement. Here in Norwich, the city council has built award-winning new council housing to Passivhaus standard.

There’s so much more we could do in Norwich and Norfolk. I am part of a local group working to establish a new Green New Deal hub in Norwich, an offshoot of Green New Deal UK which will explore what a GND could mean locally. We will be working to raise the profile of the GND, but also developing practical ideas for how Norwich could move away from fossil fuels and become a healthier, greener, more equal place – and building the community power we need to make that happen. As a starting point, we are co-hosting an online event on 12 September, inviting all Norwich people from all backgrounds to come together for a conversation about how we ‘build back better’ after Covid-19. The economy belongs to all of us – and we can and must do so much better than ‘getting back to normal’.

‘How can Norwich Build Back Better?’, hosted by Green New Deal Norwich, The Norwich Radical, Norwich & District Trades Council and Norfolk Network, will take place online on Saturday 12 September from 10.30am-12.15pm. You can register to attend here. To get involved with Green New Deal Norwich, sign up here.

Featured image credit: Ron Mader

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