By Sean Meleady

Environmentalists and green activists in Norwich have been coming together to discuss ways in which the city could address climate breakdown, and how, in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city could ‘build back better’. Green New Deal UK’s Norwich hub is part of a nationwide network of groups hoping to combat climate breakdown. Describing a Green New Deal (GND) as ‘our map for a future worth fighting for’, they have five key goals they hope to achieve within the next decade, which they describe as ‘a fork in the road for humanity’.

The first goal is to decarbonise the UK. Secondly, they demand the creation of millions of secure, well-paid jobs, which will crucially ‘guarantee decent livelihoods for those currently working in high-emission sectors’. The other three aims are to transform the economy, by ensuring the government is accountable to its citizens rather than just corporations, to protect and restore habitats, and to promote global climate justice.

Green New Deal UK argue that, in order to achieve their goals, a large diverse range of public support is needed, along with a ‘critical mass of supportive politicians’. There is a four-part plan to achieve this level of support, based around building a network of GND hubs, demonstrating the level of public support, creating a powerful narrative, and building pressure in parliament. These hubs have a key role in developing support through community outreach activities, supporting local campaigns aimed at the development of a GND on jobs, housing or public transport, and lobbying political representatives.

In September, the Norwich hub organised an online participatory event entitled ‘How can Norwich Build Back Better?’ with The Norwich Radical, Norfolk Network, and the Norwich & District Trades Council. This was intended as an opportunity for participants to discuss the effects of the first COVID-19 national lockdown and how a better future could be built in Norwich, with a particular focus on environmentalism. 

‘The kind of city we want Norwich to be’, according to participants of the ‘How can Norwich Build Back Better?’ event. Credit: Green New Deal UK – Norwich Hub

Participants were put into breakout groups to discuss the positive and negative aspects of the lockdown. Community cohesion, less pollution and the growing support for The Black Lives Matter movement were seen as positives. However the loss of income, stress and mental health issues associated with lockdown were mentioned as negatives, along with a fear that the government could be using the crisis to erode democracy.

Numerous ideas about how Norwich could ‘build back better’ were voiced, focused around transport, biodiversity, community spaces, energy sustainability and local control. Ideas included free public transport, more electric vehicle charging points, a local food strategy, community energy schemes, participatory budgeting and a Norwich Citizens Assembly. 

“I liked the fact there was a national organisation that was coordinating across the country, but that we could get involved locally with people we knew could make a difference.”

Green New Deal Norwich’s Livvy Hanks and Sabine Virani told me they were attracted to the group as it offered a mixture of the national and the local. Virani, who previously worked for former East of England Green MEP, Dr Catherine Rowett, explained, “I liked the fact there was a national organisation that was coordinating across the country, but that we could get involved locally with people we knew could make a difference.”

Hanks added, “You can’t fully implement a Green New Deal locally; ultimately it’s central government that has the money and power to implement it. So to have an exclusively Norwich campaign would have been incredibly limiting.”

More recently, Hanks spoke at an online meeting hosted by UEA Labour Party Society, entitled ‘Red is the New Green’. The other guest speakers were Chris Saltmarsh, who co-founded Labour for a Green New Deal, and Leon Sealey-Huggins, Assistant Professor of Global Sustainable Development at the University of Warwick. A number of key climate issues were discussed, including how a GND could transform the fortunes of the most vulnerable in society, the tactics and strategies of Extinction Rebellion, Keir Starmer’s expected approach to environmentalism, and the alarming possibility of large areas of Norfolk being underwater in the future.

One of the key goals of Green New Deal Norwich is coalition-building — particularly in relation to marginalised groups who sometimes feel that environmentalism isn’t their main priority — whilst they eschew the tactic of direct action, favoured by groups such as Extinction Rebellion (or XR). “What I’ve seen through my decades in the environmental movement is that it’s a very white, middle class and left-leaning space,” Virani explained. “People who are living on the margins of society don’t have time to worry about that as there are more existential issues they are facing every day. There is a luxury element about the environmental movement.”

Last year, Friends of the Earth ranked Labour-led Norwich City Council as the fifteenth best local authority in the country when it came to issues pertaining to climate change. Yet although Labour councillors recently helped a Green Party motion for a Norwich Green New Deal to pass, Hanks considers their record on environmentalism to be mixed:

“I do think it’s a pity sometimes that there isn’t a bit more vision. One really positive example recently in Norwich was the Goldsmith Street development. They built council housing to incredibly high energy efficient and environmental standards. Sometimes a more backward element comes to the fore when the administration didn’t want to back a motion declaring a climate emergency and accused the Greens of wanting climate austerity.”

Goldsmith Street council estate, Norwich. Credit: Evelyn Simak

Virani preferred to criticise Norfolk County Council’s environmental record, arguing this is partly down to the political system rather than a lack of support in rural areas of the county: “You have to be careful in creating a dichotomy between Norwich and the rest of the county. There are pockets of activism in King’s Lynn, North Norfolk has its own XR group and there is a Green New Deal Hub in Great Yarmouth. Unfortunately the county council itself has a very Conservative (with a capital ‘C’) mind-set.”

On Thursday 10th December, the Green New Deal Norwich hub are holding a planning meeting for their Green Jobs for All campaign, aimed at helping Norwich ‘build back better’ in a sustainable way. This will prove a huge task, considering the economic effects of the COVID-19 lockdowns, uncertainty over Brexit, and the low-wage nature of the Norwich labour market. However, with a focus on green jobs and food sustainability, they have already developed a range of ideas for creating a better and fairer city, whilst providing a template for the transformation of society as a whole. 

Featured image credit: Green New Deal UK – Norwich Hub

Livvy Hanks’ opinion piece for The Norwich Radical, entitled ‘Why Norwich Needs A Green New Deal’, can be read here.

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