Category Archives: Transition Culture

Interview: Nick Sherwood on Herefordshire’s Economic Evaluation

The Herefordshire Economic Evaluation was published recently, the second such study, following the Totnes & District Local Economic Blueprint.  Brixton's is expected during the next few weeks.  They set out, for the first time, a powerful economic case for community resilience as a form of economic development.  I spoke to Nick Sherwood, who co-ordinated the Herefordshire study.  You can either listen to the somewhat shaky Skype recording here, or read the transcript below.  I started by asking him to introduce himself:

My name is Nick Sherwood, - I'm a long-term resident of Herefordshire which is on the Welsh border in the UK. I've lived here for over 30 years and for the last 20 or so I've been working in the environmental field, initially in sustainable waste management, then in carbon management. I've been involved with the Transition movement since 2008, helping to set up firstly Transition Hereford which was the 83rd official Transition initiative and more recently the Herefordshire in Transition Alliance which brings together a number of environmental groups around Herefordshire.

You've just completed the second of the economic blueprints as has happened in Totnes and is about to happen in Brixton. Your one wasn't called a blueprint, it was called an Evaluation. Could you give us a bit of background as to how the process that you ran differed from the process that took place in Totnes and also why you chose to call it an Evaluation rather than a Blueprint?

I think it's no secret that while Totnes is perhaps not unique it has a very particular profile in terms of development, so it's hardly a surprise that things would look a bit different in Herefordshire from in Totnes. In fact, the two economies are of different kinds of scale. The Herefordshire economy is roughly twice the size of the South Hams District economy. And it's a unitary authority which means we've only a county council, no district councils, whereas South Devon is a tertiary authority. So there are quite a few differences, which means that our starting points would be different, and the way a project evolves has a lot to do with where you start.

I'm not aware that anybody other than in Totnes has used the word 'blueprint'. Certainly when Fiona Ward and I started on this journey in 2011 I was aware that she was using the term blueprint. I made a conscious decision then - one I still stand by - to not use that term.

This was because we did not already have the involvement of a stakeholder group and I was concerned that if I announced I was working on a blueprint – bearing in mind that I'm not an economist, and of course this is economic work – that I might quickly run into instinctive resistance from people who would say "well who are you to present us with a blueprint?"

So instead of using 'blueprint', as we were already running a REconomy project here, I decided to call the work in Herefordshire the TEEconomy project - which stands for Transition Enterprise Economy. I hoped this would create more interest. If you look at the reports you'll find that they are also titled Herefordshire Economic Evaluation.

I believe that is a title that will be generic to all the projects: the Economic Evaluation projects. I don't think the fact that in Totnes it was called a blueprint and we called it something different is particularly important.

The Totnes one, as you said, started out with a stakeholder group and then developed. You've taken a different approach, creating a report and then trying to build a stakeholder group around the evaluation. Could you give us a bit more of a sense of that?

That was not the intention, but it was the way things worked out. As I said, we already had a REconomy programme going in Herefordshire. Where does this story start? With the formation of Transition Hereford perhaps, or with the formation of the Herefordshire in Transition Alliance.

To cut out the gestational period, we can probably best start with the birth of Herefordshire REconomy in early 2011, which by the time TEEconomy began had already attracted a decent amount of support but not, it has to be said, a stakeholder group. However, we had an interesting cross-section of people involved, including elected council officials, council officers, private sector, public sector, Green Party activists, environmental activists and so forth. There were, therefore, the beginnings of a stakeholder group.

Herefordshire food expenditure

We also have a particular characteristic in Herefordshire which I don't believe is paralleled in Totnes, in the form of a long-established environmental charity - or social enterprise as it's become - called the Bulmer Foundation, whose remit is to foster the growth of sustainability in Herefordshire. So the expectation was that we would in time be able to draw together from this group of people already in the REconomy project a core group who might well become stakeholders.

The Bulmer Foundation for example was involved with the Herefordshire Food Partnership, which had been developing county food strategy for some years, so it looked entirely possible that we would be able to build on these beginnings and run the project in a similar way to Totnes, using a stakeholder group. That is not the way it turned out and I would point to one or two reasons why this evolved in the way that it did.

First of all, having announced the launch of the TEEconomy research - or Economic Evaluation project - at the REconomy launch event in June 2011, I set about establishing good one-to-one relationships with all the key people who would be feeding information into the process: officers from the local authority who have a lot of research strengths, also people in the aforementioned Bulmer Foundation and other key people around the area. From these I started to build what I thought would grow into a stakeholder group.

What happened early on in that process was that the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) roughly speaking threw a lot of pound notes in the air and presumably watched with interest (or possibly glee) as people who are normally sensible started running around the place picking up the money, so to speak. Everyone was united in feeling that this was not a satisfactory process. What it did in relation to TEEconomy was to take away the attention of the people I had begun to engage, whose focus was now on bidding for and then fulfilling in a very short time scale the DECC LEAF projects.

That left me with few options other than to try to work in a parallel fashion and in a complementary way to this other work going on, which was what I then set out to do. However it had the effect of pulling the rug out from under the intention to put together a stakeholder group, because there were so many other demands on people's time.

That was at the very beginning of 2012, and the meeting which launched the final Herefordshire reports was in May 2013, so you can see that was quite a long period of time and there's a story behind that too. We held a very successful meeting in July 2012 when Fiona came to Hereford as part of her road trip around the UK – she was handling the work down in Totnes and was overall in charge of the Economic Evaluation projects.

This was at a point when I had done a lot of work on the food report but for the reason above had not made headway with either of the other reports. We succeeded in bringing together a cross-section of movers and shakers from the whole of the Herefordshire to hear Fiona present where she had got to in Totnes with the Economic Evaluation work, and I presented where we had got to in Herefordshire.

At this meeting we had, for example, senior people from the Chamber of Commerce, the Chair of the Business Board, people from large housing associations, the council's Cabinet member for Planning and Environment, senior local authority officers in economic development, alongside others from the environmental activist community, Green Party councillors and so forth. The audience was a genuine social cross-section and they were all very interested and stuck around for the entire duration.

Coming to the recent launch meeting in May, we didn't attract such a good cross-section, which was a disappointment. On the other hand, from those present there was a high degree of interest and congratulations and positive enthusiasm for the work that had been done. Fiona and I collaborated in presenting principally the work from Herefordshire, and Fiona referred to the work in Totnes as well. So what we're waiting to see at this point is whether that degree of positive reception and enthusiasm is capable of translating itself into a group that will take on board the results of all this work and put it to good use.

How easy did you find it to find all the data that you needed – creating a blueprint like this is a very data-heavy process. How easy did you find it to track all that down?

There were three different aspects to the research: to look into the renewable energy potential of Herefordshire, to look into the food growing and distribution potential of Herefordshire, and to look into the housing retrofit potential for Herefordshire, assessing the benefit of each to the local economy.

There's an enormous amount of data out there, but the problem is you can't always get what you want and sometimes what you think you've got turns out to be deeply flawed. Just because an expensive consultancy has produced a data-rich report doesn't mean you should rely on it, and in fact we found that out the hard way in a couple of respects. For example, we had what purported to be a good report on renewable energy commissioned by the local authority.

However we relied in part on one particular piece of information in that report which further down the road we discovered was completely wrong, meaning we had to go back and rework a lot of our figures. And again, there was a report which would have fed a lot of useful information into the housing retrofit part of the work but was just terribly flawed. It had some useful stuff but was really quite hopeless in other respects.

I got a lot of information from my contacts in the Research Unit at the local authority which was very helpful, and also from officers involved in sustainability and in delivering household energy efficiency work. One might say that the problem was almost too much information: literally if you had to read through all that I accumulated you would never have got anything else done. The challenge is to decide what is relevant and what is useful and to then extract from that answers to the questions that you've posed - which means you have to be clear about what questions you're trying to answer.

An early indication of how interesting and useful this work could be was when I asked a question of a knowledgeable person at the Bulmer Foundation: "How much do we know about what is spent in the county on purchasing food and drink?" – I expected the answer to be that this was a well-developed area of work, as the food strategy group has been working on this for some years, connected to the local authority. But instead the answer was – nobody knew. So that told me, helpfully, that the work we were doing was needed, but also told me that I was starting from somewhere near the ground floor.

So you really do need to be pretty good with the old Excel spreadsheet if you want to do this work. You have to be pretty good with numbers and formulae and all that sort of thing, because really there is no substitute for looking into whatever reports you can find locally and also whatever you can get from the Office for National Statistics, at national or regional level as well as local. Then, you are going to have to do a lot of grinding with those numbers on your own to make them helpful for what you're trying to come up with locally.

That is a considerable task. Fortunately I've done this kind of work when I was in waste management and am no stranger to Excel. It really does carry a lot of challenges and you need to be disciplined in the way you handle it or it becomes a quagmire in which you can sink.

What would you say are the key findings that came out of this and what was its usefulness? Was there anything that surprised you about what's come out of it?

I'm in no doubt about the usefulness - I've already pointed to the fact that what we're doing fills a missing gap. Lots of people talk about wanting to grow a sustainable local economy. People who are mainstream businesspeople would perhaps use very similar language. Everybody's interested in sustainability but what we did was to begin to put pound signs to some of the statements that were commonplace. It's all very well saying we know there's a lot of potential to grow some kind of renewable energy in Herefordshire, but just how much would that be worth and how much would it cost to build it? We now have figures. They are ball park figures admittedly - they probably stand to be sharpened up and perhaps even challenged, but at least we have begun the process of putting figures onto what this could be worth.

Pound signs on the front of figures is a language that helps people to think in a language of economic decision making. Without those pound signs you might say it's possibly fruitless and likely to go round in circles. So we've contributed to mainstream discussion and I think we've also contributed usefully to what you might call the New Economics approach. Here we've got a grounded piece of work in a real situation that is quite focused and local, and hopefully people will be able to use this as a stepping stone towards doing similar things in other local areas.

Once a few places have done this then we can get together and compare notes, and we'll start to build up a picture of what a grass-roots view of the national economy looks like - what the potential is if you connect up places like Herefordshire, Totnes, Brixton and hopefully another dozen places to come on stream in the next couple of years. Then we'll start to get a very different viewpoint from that which Chambers of Commerce and business boards tend to have.

It was pretty shocking, the thing about 71-83% of all household expenditure going through 5 supermarkets in Herefordshire...

Some of this, of course, people know instinctively. People instinctively know that they and their neighbours are in and out of supermarkets all the time. We've been able to come up with some information that's really interesting, in that putting a number to this enables them to say – wow, did you realise just how much...?

Just to use your example, this is the sort of information that I hope will cut through to the professionals, to the officers in the council who are responsible for economic strategy, and also to ordinary people on the street. Hopefully all will be interested to know that we spend half a billion pounds a year on food and drink in Herefordshire - that is a staggering amount of money - and then to tell them that three-fifths of that money is leaving the local economy straight away bringing marginal benefit to people who are living here; and to then move on to saying – look at the difference between spending a pound in a supermarket and spending a pound in a locally-owned store on local produce; and to follow that through by introducing the language of 'local multiplier' or of 'Plugging the Leaks' as the New Economics Foundation might say it. Understand, that if you spend a pound on carrots in a supermarket or spend a pound on carrots in a local independent store, these have two dramatically different effects on the future of your children.

I hope that we've equipped an argument that will actually help change people's behaviour: their buying habits and the way that they think about what they're doing when they go into a supermarket, or how they think about the additional expense of buying locally produced organic carrots in a locally owned store.

And of course at the moment the whole push from central government for economic growth and then the push through the local enterprise partnerships and so on, really seems to be focusing predominantly on trying to grow that 83% of the economy, not the 16% that you identify as being the local spend and indeed sees that 16% local spend as being backward, out of date, uncompetitive, standing in the way of growth rather than supporting it. How do you think that this report can contribute to these discussions?

Yes, the local authority economic strategy has I think less than one quarter of one page about the growth of new local enterprises. It's simply not developed. They acknowledge it but they don't seem to want to develop that in any full way. Less than 200 metres away from where I'm sitting, there is a massive new construction going up which is supposed to be the economic salvation of Herefordshire - it includes a Waitrose, a Debenhams, a multiplex cinema.

This is the old model of economic growth going up right next to where I did a lot of the research for this project. And only a couple of miles away we've got an enterprise zone which again is supposed to be part of this economic salvation. The most public feature of that development is planned to be a Georgian aircraft manufacturer coming to build aircraft components in Herefordshire, while so little resource is going to pave the way for the growth of locally-owned businesses. We are here right on the front line of that unsustainable old-model growth versus new alternative visions of the economy.

Our reports are supposed to strengthen the hand of people in the mainstream, some of whom are very sympathetic to what we're talking about and hopefully will pick up the tools that we're offering. And also to equip those people who are perhaps outside the mainstream but knocking on the door, creating new local enterprises and arguing vociferously against the importation of yet more supermarkets into Herefordshire. There are active proposals for these : the Waitrose I've just mentioned, and also for a massive Sainsburys in a small market town. This is being actively fought over at present and hopefully our work will enable a sensible debate and common ground to be discovered between people who on the face of it are opposing factions.

How replicable do you get a sense, having done this evaluation process, does it feel? What would a Transition initiative need to be able to think about doing a good job of this in their place?

Would it be possible to do this work without funding, I wonder? We had funding which in my case was absolutely essential. There's no way I could have done this scale of work unpaid, and actually in this kind of work the question of credibility is important. What you're trying to do is come up with a report that will stand its ground alongside all the reports that have been commissioned by the local authority or other national agencies.

There needs to be a certain depth and quality to that work, which it's hard to believe could be delivered on a voluntary basis. But then I don't want to set the bar too high. Anybody could start the process of doing this simply by establishing a relationship with the relevant research officers in their local authority and beginning to ask – what can you tell me about food, or energy. A lot of the answers may be "sorry, don't know", but those answers give you confirmation that what you're on the track of is worth doing. Then you could follow the path that I and Totnes have outlined.

I put quite a lot of time into developing extensive references to accompany these reports. there are separate stand-alone documents that give all the links anybody could want to the source material I used. Hopefully that will save people a lot of time, that you can drill straight through into the particular spreadsheets available from the Office for National Statistics that will give you, wherever you are in the UK, the sort of information you need. When you get there, you will need what I would consider to be pretty expert skills at handling data.

I think that there is a role here for one or more people – I think two heads are certainly better than one and a small group of people working on this would be even better than one or two heads – and you may need funding in there. You need a core group of people. You could call it a stakeholder group but that suggests something a bit bigger to me. I think you probably need a committed group of three or four people and one person who spends quite a lot of time and skills following the path that my and Fiona's work have piloted.

I think it's going to be very different in different areas, depending on what's available and how much help you can get from the agencies that hold the data, and from people involved in the Transition movement.

Lastly, what happens next? Where are you hoping that this will lead to n how do you get there from here now that you've completed this incredible piece of work?

The key thing is, who's going to pick it up? I'm willing to be a part of what happens next but my role in terms of pathfinding is now over - therefore what I'm going to do is work with local REconomy groups. For those who've already got some kind of REconomy group in their area, that is clearly a big part of the answer to 'what next'.

Beyond that, this morning I replied to an interesting email sent to me by an agency that supported some of the work we did in this project. It explores the link between what happens locally and the LEPs, the Local Enterprise Partnerships. I think that is where we're heading, to be part of a larger voluntary-sector initiative challenging mainstream economics. I count all environmental groups as belonging to what you might call either voluntary sector or civil society. Acting together, we need to really force our presence into the Local Enterprise Partnerships. This interesting document suggests that there are more levers than we realised on which we can pull to do that.

We want to be sitting at what has become the top table in terms of economic funding and strategy in most regions, which is the Local Enterprise Partnerships. The REconomy group that we've got here in Herefordshire is still several steps away from having that kind of status or credibility. We need to use the Economic Evaluation work which I believe has strength in its argument and strength in its data, and also has strength in that we've done something nobody else has really done.

We need to use this as a bargaining chip or leverage to say – look, REconomy is actually needed as part of the economic dialogue. It is needed as part of the solution to the problems that everybody knows we are facing in this country. That means it needs to be a part of the strategic policy-making structures in our region. That's where I'm headed, together with the REconomy group locally.

I would suggest that people need to be pointing efforts into the strategic structures, but how you do that will vary widely depending on the resources you've already got. If you haven't got something like a REconomy group, then I think you need to start to build that. Some REconomy groups are loaded towards the practical setting up of enterprises, which is also essential knowledge.

In Herefordshire it was always a characteristic that we were much stronger on the strategic side. Perhaps what I'm saying here simply reflects the historic development of the environmental movement in Herefordshire, and that I think we're now ready to push forward into making those further steps. People in other places may view this quite differently.


An interview with Lord Adair Turner

I met Lord Adair Turner (I'll let him introduce himself in a minute) in his office near Hyde Park on a beautiful morning in June.  I was fascinated to get his sense of where we find ourselves in relation to climate change, and in terms of the government-led responses to it.  Call it depressing ("I don't think we're going to stay below 2°C") or call it realistic, our time discussing these issues was fascinating.  You can either listen to the podcast or read the transcript below. I started by asking him to introduce himself.

I'm Adair Turner, at the moment I'm writing a book about the trouble with finance but I have been chairman of the Financial Services Authority till the end of March and before that I was also chairman of the UK's Climate Change committee, which is responsible for recommending to government our greenhouse gas emission reduction targets and also recommending how we achieve those targets. I was the first chairman of that from 2008 to 2012.

Lord Stern recently stated he felt things in relation to climate change were far more serious than he had recognised when he wrote the Stern Report and if he were writing it now he's do it very differently. What's your sense of where we are in relation to climate change?

I think we need to say the following things: first, it is obviously the case, and the sceptics about climate change focus on this, that the average global temperature, land surface temperature, having increased far faster than the models suggested in the '80s and '90s has over the last 10 years been at some sort of plateau.

I think it's incredibly important that those of us who believe very strongly that climate change is occurring are open to looking at the data and seeing what it tells us. But I don't think it does change the point of view as to the long term trajectory. There are these oscillations over time. What is strange in some ways is that that fact, that there has been a stalling of the rate of increase of the average measured temperature for these 10 years is combined by other things which actually suggest change occurring at a faster pace, for instance the decline over the last 10 years in the coverage of Arctic summer ice is running clearly far faster than anybody anticipated 10 years ago.

I think in the science, I'm not sure that much has changed. I don't think the balance overall has changed. I don't think we are sitting there saying we know that climate change, global warming, is going to occur faster but equally I don't think it's going to occur slower than we originally predicted given any given level of carbon emissions. I think what has changed is that bluntly, a lot of our optimistic beliefs that by 2016 we would reach a peak in global carbon and greenhouse gas emissions and then start a reduction are looking extraordinarily optimistic.

The amazing continued economic success of China since Nick wrote his report has been at one level a great positive for the Chinese people and I think we have to recognise that, but it has been incredibly carbon-intensive, it's been very heavy industry-intensive.  I think we're now looking at a set of forecasts of the pace of global carbon emissions growth, which makes the achievement of the sort of reductions that Nick was talking about in his report by 2050 very difficult but still very important to achieve.

So I think we are at the point where the focus really has to turn back to what is it that we need to do to actually get the greenhouse gas emissions on a downward path?

The environmental philanthropist Jeremy Grantham recently said "capitalism does millions of things better than the alternatives, it balances supply and demand in an elegant way that central planning has never come close to. However it's totally inequipped to deal with a small handful of issues. Unfortunately they are the issues that are absolutely central to our long-term wellbeing and even survival." Do you think that capitalism and getting climate change really under control are compatible?

I think that capitalism, the market economy, is remarkable system for delivering growth and increases in prosperity, which over a certain range of income is a very important thing to do. I also think that beyond some level of average income, and maybe it's roughly where the rich developed world got to 20 or 30 years ago, further improvements in average GDP per capita are not the most important thing. But I still believe that even in that environment where that is less important, the market economy still has a lot of contribution to make and a planned economy actually addresses a lot of environmental issues worse than a market economy. The Soviet Union was a planned economy and was a complete disaster from an environmental point of view!

Where I would agree with Jeremy Grantham is that when we face what economists call these very large externalities, these things which the private sector, an individual, will not take into account because they're caught in a "well, why should I take it into account if nobody else isn't" type trap. We need to manage capitalism. So to me it's not are we going to have a capitalist and market economy or not. I see no real alternative to that, and don't think there is political support for that. I think the alternatives are less advantageous. It has always been the case that there are some aspects of capitalism that need to be managed.

I am, in the book I'm now writing, struggling with one of those aspects which is the financial system, which needs managing more than the market for restaurants. The market for restaurants works pretty well – if you want good restaurants, just let a thousand entrepreneurial flowers bloom, some will work, some won't, consumers will decide what they like etcetera. The market for finance works pretty badly. It careers off in all sorts of crazy directions and needs to be managed.

I think where Jeremy Grantham is right is that the challenges of climate change in particular are one where we need to not rely on capitalism and the market economy to solve the problems but manage it and constrain it and place it within public policy so that it can help solve them. We've got to make the market economy help solve the problems of climate change rather than ever assuming that it will, completely left to itself.

Is it possible, in the time that we have, to decouple economic growth from carbon emissions?

That's a very interesting point. My overall point to you is that when you get beyond a certain standard of living, economic growth is not the most important end. It is also my point of view that if you allow economic freedom – and I think economic freedom is a value in itself, which is a point that Amartya Sen makes, that the freedom to decide where to work, what to do, who to contract with, what to consume, that is a freedom of value irrespective of whether or not that freedom produces economic growth.

If you have that freedom I suspect we will still have something which will be called growth and will still produce an increase in the thing which we measure in GDP per capita, remembering that GDP per capita is an extraordinarily arbitrary invention. It is what it is and you should never understand it as being anything other than the set of definitions that drive it.

But I suspect that there are very different paths, each of which would produce some growth in GDP per capita, some of which are compatible with containing climate change and some are not. I don't think people should get hung up on "I want to produce a path where GDP per capita no longer increases". I think one should want to produce a path where we are certain that we are dealing with challenges like climate change. I think that path will probably still, as it happens, produce an increase in measured GDP because people will be doing things that show up in measured GDP because other people value them. But I don't think that's the most important thing to concentrate on.

I did an interview a while ago with Kevin Anderson at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change. His analysis was that the developed world needs to be cutting emissions by 10% a year starting now and that that is fundamentally incompatible with growth.  

I think if we need to cut it 10% a year starting now, bluntly I think we have a huge problem. I think in the climate change committee we thought that the rich developed world, UK, is quite capable of cutting at 4% per annum, could achieve a reduction of 80% below 1990 levels by 2050, and could do that in way which will politically work.

I fear that if it is really right that we have to cut at 10% per annum, we may fail in this endeavour. Now that would be terrible and would be harmful for future generations. I think there's a pace beyond which your fundamental problem is your installed capital stock. We have a whole lot of cars out there on the road that people do not feel they can afford to change except about once every 7 years.

However fast you improve the efficiency of cars, that 7-year cycle creates a limit to how fast you will get down grams per kilometre because you have a person who has bought a 200 grams per kilometre car and even if you can convince them this was a crazy thing to do, they're sitting on that and they can't afford a new one. So I hope he's wrong. I hope he's wrong because if we really do need to go that fast, which is faster than other people have suggested, I think we're going to find it incredibly difficult politically to get the support to achieve that.

You've moved within the corridors of power in your role on the Climate Change Committee. From the outside it looks as though tackling climate change has taken a back seat to economic growth. Owen Patterson on Any Questions on Friday said climate temperature has not changed for 17 years and was very dismissive – our environment minister essentially doesn't believe in climate change!What's your sense of that? Can we expect any leadership on climate change from government or where is that going to come from?

I think it's going to be difficult to get leadership. It's still the case that when the Climate Change Committee back in 2011 proposed the budget for the mid 2020s, there was a dispute in government but we won, and there was a commitment to a very stretching target which is now legally embedded. So you can still say of this government that in things like the overall targets, they have still stuck to it.

I think what is the case is that there is – you are absolutely right, we have an Environment Secretary now who is a sceptic about this. I think he's completely wrong but he is a sceptic on it and from that quote you just gave is guilty of picking a particular fact which supports his case and not another fact which would support the alternative case such as the extraordinary reduction in the Arctic summer ice.

We also have a difficulty which is partly a difficulty of a perverse success. The fact is that UK greenhouse gas emissions are running below the targets of the Climate Change Act for the simple fact that the financial system managed to cook up a whacking great recession. Now this is the worst possible way to achieve, I think, a reduction in emissions but it does enable some people in government to say "well hang on, what are you talking about? We've set these targets and we're going down faster than these targets".

As the Climate Change Committee has pointed out, the danger is that if your emissions simply go down because you have a recession, you're not achieving the long-term transformation of the economy, and as the economy recovers, we will be back to the problems as before.

So I think it's a mixed bag. I think that the overall story is that climate change in the UK, after having reached a sort of apogy of political support at the time of the passing of the Climate Change Act which got a quite formidable and extraordinary degree of cross-party support, that it has moved on to the back burner. But I think that's why it's important to keep up relentless pressure on particular aspects of policy which are important for the long term.

We recently passed 400 parts per million for the first time. As someone who's been involved in all of this, how did that affect you?

As I said earlier, I think the difficulty for those of us who believe this is a huge problem that we've got to deal with, is that we're simultaneously looking at two facts. One, the slowdown, which I think the best science suggests is entirely cyclical, the increase in global temperatures, and that enables the sceptics to say – haven't you overstated it, even if it's occurring, isn't it occurring slower than we thought.

But Two, the growth in emissions and concentrations is just marching on a continual upward path. The 400 parts per million measurement has been reached as rapidly as any of the forecasts in the IPCC reports suggested. The idea that we have the capacity to stop this occurring at 450 ppm I think is looking extraordinarily optimistic, and that is depressing. It's depressing.

If Kevin Anderson were right, and staying below 2°C is incompatible with economic growth as we have known it, what for you might a post-growth economy look like?

Can I say I don't think we're going to stay below 2°C. The Climate Change Committee always had the point of view that that was extremely difficult to achieve. We focused very strongly, and I fear that the world simply has to accept that it is highly likely by the end of this century we will warm by 2°C. We therefore need an adaptation strategy as well as a mitigation strategy.

How do you see the balance between those two?

Well, I think the mitigation strategy on climate change has got to make absolutely sure that we do not hit catastrophic levels of climate change. I think there's a reasonable interpretation of the evidence that an increase of 2°C is bad news, variable news across the world, but includes balance of positives as well as negatives, and with an enormous amount of effort is manageable. An increase of 4°C takes us into territory where really extreme events have occurred and it could be potentially catastrophic.

We therefore defined, on the Climate Change Committee, that one of the crucial aims of public policy should not be to get fixated with – can we be certain that it won't go above 2°C, because I think to be certain that it won't go over 2°C you've probably got to go on a trajectory where your mean expectation is 1º or even less than that. You really have to do extraordinary things to the nature of modern life to be certain of it, for 2°C to be, as it were, off the edge of the probability distribution. We said the most crucial thing is, you should keep the chance of going above 4°C less than 1%.

So that is a different attitude and I do think we need an adaptation approach as well. The other thing I need to say about 2°C and I think this is difficult, is I don't know what it will do to North-West Europe but it's probably manageable in North-West Europe. We know of course in the UK the whole of global warming might make us colder. The fact is our regional climate models aren't good enough to forecast exactly what will occur. I think in temperate maritime environments like the UK it is unlikely that 2% global warming will cause a catastrophe. I think in the North Indian plain or the Sahel even 2°C can do horrendous things to human life but I think we may be in an environment where they're unstoppable.

Do you have a sense of if there was an economy that was a post-growth economy, what that might look like?

Not necessarily post-growth, but post-carbon. The crucial thing is, we've got to completely de-carbonise electricity. There are then some highly controversial things in that. The Climate Change Committee did express support for nuclear as well as wind.  We took the point of view that this was a sufficiently important challenge and we have to throw everything at it. We identified that it's impossible to imagine a modern economy which has anything like the lifestyle we presently have, and we've got to discuss whether you've got to change lifestyle a bit, but something like the lifestyle we have, unless we completely de-carbonise electricity.

We think it's possible to completely de-carbonise electricity. By the mid 21st century we could be producing our electricity not at an average grams per kw/h of 500 but at an average grams per kw/h of 20. I think in the long term the key technology is solar PV. One of the great and encouraging things of the last 5 years is the dramatic reductions of solar PV prices. Maybe that's coming in so fast that it might even squeeze out the need to go big in nuclear en route to that, which we always thought of as a transitional technology.

I think by a combination of solar PV, of wind, of tidal, of nuclear, some combination of these, we can de-carbonise electricity. Once you can de-carbonise electricity, we can have the individual car. I don't think we need to get rid of the car economy. I wish we had smaller, more locally environmentally friendly cars, I think it would be a tragedy if we electrified a car fleet and electrified a whole load of SUVs. But my worries about that are almost as much about the ludicrous effect of those on noise, on urban environment, on urban transition.

So my vision would be urban environments, great city environments, which have been very significantly not automobile based, probably small, private electric transport things which you hire on the street. I think the future of the Boris bike is also the Boris electric bike and the Boris micro electric vehicle. These are technologies which can actually work. I think it will make the urban environment far nicer! Once we get petrol and diesel fumes out of London, I hope I live until 2050, I'll be 95 by then, I would love to see a London with hardly any petrol cars in it.

It would just be a nicer place to be, a nicer place to walk, a nicer place to sit at streetside cafes, a nicer place to sleep at night, with more attractive, cleaner air. We can electrify surface transport. We can electrify our entire railway system. We can electrify or radically improve the efficiency of the insulation of our houses. We can deliver the manufactured goods that we like having, like consumer goods, in radically more efficient manufacturing sites and we can power them with low-carbon electricity.

So once you've defined that, and this may disappoint some at the more radical end of greenery, you haven't fundamentally changed people's lives. Hopefully you can encourage them to do sensible things like get out of whacking great silly SUVs but they've still got personal transport mobility.

I think there are some things which are very difficult. The one I find most difficult is air flights. Air flights are a wonderful thing, they're one of the wonderful things of growth, the ability of young people to go from one end of the world to another. Some people only use it to lie on the beach but other people do use it to meet other people and see different cultures. 

The way in which air flights have become available for ordinary people, for average income people and no longer just for the rich, I think that's a fantastic development. But we have a huge problem here. Because whereas we can I think make low-carbon electricity drive an awful lot of the rest of the modern economy, we're never going to get a plane off the ground with a battery because we just can't compete with the enormous energy density of fossil fuels.

The intriguing thing about the internal combustion engine is that it's an unbelievable inefficient engine attached to an unbelievable dense energy source. Whereas the problem with an electric engine is it's a beautifully efficient engine which at the moment is powered by a horribly undense energy source. To me that's one of the great challenges in business and R& D, the battery. If we can have more energy-dense batteries then we've solved this problem, but I think we're going to find it very difficult to get batteries energy-dense enough to take a plane of the ground.

That's the bit that I find really tricky and ethically the most difficult.  If I think of my own carbon footprint... I've cut it to bits in everything except flights because I know how to cut it to bits in everything except flights. I have very fuel efficient cars, I cycle around town, I buy local food, I don't over heat the house, I have solar hot-water panels, all of that's doable. But as part of my business I fly a lot and that's a pretty big carbon footprint.

In the Portas Review that came out recently, they said that 97% of all food and groceries are now sold through just 8 supermarket outlets. But we know that the 3%, the local independent economy delivers more jobs per pound spent, commits to more civic engagement, makes more money in the local economy, but the government push for economic growth seems to be all about growing the 97% rather than growing the 3%. Is this right?

This is where you get back to the economic growth issue. My point of view on economic growth is that we should not be planning to stop it, but we should be planning to stop worrying about it. I think it's highly likely that even if we have a low-carbon, environmentally sustainable way of life combined with economic freedom we will produce improvements in productivity which end up being measured in GDP per capita as growth.

But I attach almost no importance to whether, over the next 30 years, the average rate of UK growth is 1.7% per capita per annum or 1.5%. I think it will make almost no difference to people's happiness, people's welfare etc. And that is why I think we have allowed ourselves to become fixated with these ideas of increasing growth and we then end up saying "in order to have growth we have to achieve the productivity improvements that are achievable through superstores etc".

I think we should simply say "no". If local communities through local political processes say – we would rather have the vibrancy of a local town centre, the job intensity of local jobs, a local supply, a sense of community which comes out of a relationship between local shops and local suppliers, I don't think it should be for national government to say no you can't do that. I think that's a decision that local people should make, and I think they should make that not terrified by stories about the need for growth. Now, I think the bigger problem, when you get that local argument, then becomes twofold.

You will have some local people who just want the cheap food. Let's be clear, that development of the superstores, the somewhat anonymous out-of-town superstores, has been driven in part by I think a mistaken national fixation with minute differences in national productivity growth, and we have the ability to put a stop to that. But you've still got the problem of even once you localise the decisions, some people want their cheap food and it's quite difficult to say no to them.

Now I hope we will have an environment where there is an increasing focus on quality and on quality of experience, but I think one of the things that goes against that is the rise of inequality. In an environment of increasing inequality and the bombardment of people with messages about what the materialist life can give, people are not surprisingly fixated with how far up that spectrum of an unequal distribution of income they can crawl, and therefore want the capacity to have cheap food so they can spend money on all the other things that advertising is telling them that they need to have. I think the continual rise of inequality is quite corrosive of our ability to pursue shared collective objectives.

At the moment when you have communities that have a majority who say – we don't want a supermarket opening in their local high street-or-out of town, at the moment the planning system is unable to distinguish between an independent shop and a chain shop. Do you think that it could be possible to make that kind of distinction or is that just not feasible?

The answer is I don't know. I haven't thought about that detail of the balance between chain're now talking about not a superstore versus small stores in the high street but the stores in the high street being independent versus the stores in the high street being chains. It's quite interesting. If you look in London at the high mark of the upmarket end of the Marylebone high streets, where you have an intelligent, dominant landlord – and intelligent, dominant landlords have the right to accept as tenants whoever they like – they, in order to create an environment where people want to go shopping and therefore where the rents back to them are high, actually do have a strategy of not allowing it to be entirely dominated by the chain stores but having a mix of different types of store which creates an environment where people want to go.

That is a very high end, high income, high price environment and I don't know whether that applies, when you're dealing with a country town high street, but that's the landlord making a decision, whether the local authority should have the right to make... I fundamentally think they should have the right to make the decision.

I think there is a general point of view, one general thing about Britain is that we have an incredibly centralised political structure. We became that over the years. It was cross party. All of the parties talked about localism and all of them slowly degraded local decision making. We both ended up with most local government finance coming from national government, a huge step in that direction was the result of moving towards the idiotic poll tax. In order to get out of that, one of the things that national government had to do was increase yet more the extent to which it provided the money and it provides the money, it thinks it has the right to set the decisions.

I don't know how we roll that back. I think across much of Europe where there are areas which have been more effective at maintaining a sense of a local identity and a local vibrant community, it is often embedded in local political power structures: the commune, the mayor of the small town in France, Germany's decentralised systems. We're a very centralised political system and it would be good to roll it back but extremely difficult.

Jay Rayner in The Observer recently said that we should import apples from New Zealand because the carbon emissions of doing so would be less for a New Zealand apples and lamb and they have a better climate and landscape for it*. How do you view that from a climate perspective? You were talking before about local food...

I think we've got to be fact based about this. And I think people then have to make decisions which are their own trade-off on the most important things. If it is the case that everything combined, both the transport and the nature of the production back in New Zealand, that New Zealand lamb and apples do turn out to be low-carbon, I think it's important that people know that and people have a right to that trade off. I'm sure there are many many other vegetables and food products where that will not be the case, where the nature of the transportation costs will favour the local, and therefore I tend to favour local food because my gut feeling is probably that it's lower carbon.

If somebody could convince me that New Zealand apples were low carbon – and if I liked the apples, and if they were organic and therefore supporting biodiversity – I might buy them. I don't think we should get absolutely fixated on one or other dimension of these things. I think on the other hand, flown-in raspberries from across the world in January don't tick any boxes, and we know that.

My last question was that you've spent years surrounded by climate change and reading all the reports and the science and everything. What keeps you going? Do you think this is a solvable problem?

Well I'm a little bit out of it now because I've been dominated by the financial system for the last year. But when I was doing the Climate Change Committee until last year and I used to spend about 2 days a month on it, I would always come home at the end of it saying what an enjoyable day I had had, compared with struggling with the problems of the financial system. I think I'd make the following distinction.

On the one hand, climate change is far more worrying, but also far more understandable. What happened in the financial system is a completely self-inflicted wound. There's no reason why this crisis had to occur, it wasn't imposed on us through war etc.  Climate change is a real external constraint. Human beings have wanted to grow, wanted to get more prosperous. Nobody knew this when we started on that path 200 years ago. The achievements of industrial capitalism are fantastic but unfortunately it turns out that one of the things it relies on which is digging fossil fuels out of the ground, is going to do some nasty things. So it is externally imposed but at least we don't feel – oh my God we've done this to ourselves, it's a real problem.

It's a real problem that has to be overcome. It's intellectually fascinating and the complexity of it is intellectually fascinating and it is solvable. We are capable of having low carbon lifestyles which preserve that which is important about the achievements of the extraordinary transformation of the last 200 years. So whenever it's frustrating how difficult it is, at least one is kept going by the fact that it is doable.

Editor's note: Jay contacted me after this interview was posted to state that my question had misrepresented his question.  He wrote: "Actually I didn't just say that we should get all our apples from there. The point was that while there are reasons for buying local, sustainability is not necessarily one of them. The New Zealand produce report was the best way of pointing up this fact. This was an extract from a book, in which I go into much greater detail and actually argue for enhanced regionalism over localism. There are very good reasons for supporting British produce over kiwi".  My apologies for any confusion caused.  


Now arriving on Platform 1 … a new economy!

Regular readers may know that I spend rather a lot of time on train stations. I travel the length and breadth of the UK using this marvellous form of public transport, and one of my great bugbears is that whichever station you arrive at, they all feature the same food outlets. Pumpkin. Upper Crust. Costa. Cafe Nero/Ritazza/whatever. Etcetera et-boring-cetera.  Whether you're in Glasgow, Norwich, Liverpool or Southampton, there they all are. Although on a few of the larger stations there are now a couple of more interesting franchises doing fresh food and organic stuff, it's generally the same, bleak, miserable, clone-town selection wherever you go. Exactly the same baguette in Dundee as you'd get in Derby as you'd get in Darlington.  Yawn.

I think we can do a lot better than that.  Indeed, I think we need to do a lot better than that.  Here's what I would love to see. I'd like to step off the train at Bradford station and be greeted by fantastic food that reflects the culture and cuisine of Bradford. Local small food businesses offering their wares in a riot of different smells and innovations. Or to go to Bristol and find food and drink available that reflect the city's history and its bold approach to its future, that reflect the diversity and creativity of the city's diverse communities.

A train station should be a city's key showcase to the visiting world, its opportunity to show off what it is that is distinctive about it. It should showcase the best of locally produced meat, fruit and veg. They say the best way to someone's heart is through their stomach (although I'm sure a few surgeons might disagree with that), and your experience visiting a station should allow you to fall in love with a place.

Brown and Green

Some of the businesses on the station concourse could be pop-up shops, let on a 6 month lease, that allows a new enterprise to set itself set up, build a profile, and then move on elsewhere. Produce could come in on the train, and go out again on the train.  Wouldn't that make visiting different places an altogether different experience? When I visited Crystal Palace last week, the cafe on their station, Brown and Green, is an independent cafe (see above). It was a lovely place, with locally made cakes and other produce. If it can happen there, why not everywhere?  So I'd like to offer you a great business idea. You can have this one for free, but if it makes you millions, do remember where you got it and cut me in.  I was in Edinburgh a couple of days after visiting Crystal Palace, for the Sir Patrick Geddes Commemorative Lecture, and during the talk I had my little rant about the absence of the local on the nation's station concourses. Afterwards, a gentleman came up to me with one of the most brilliant ideas I have ever heard (unless of course now you are all going to crush my enthusiasm by pointing some blindingly obvious flaw that renders the whole idea impossible).

The way it works, he told me, is that there are companies who rent the space from the company that owns the station, and then they tender out all the outlets to the individual businesses. Why doesn't Transition Network, he suggested, set up and do the same, and tender for the contract to let spaces on stations? It could take on the lease based around an entirely new concept of a window onto a city's food culture, based on flavour and entrepreneurialism. While Transition Network isn't the appropriate organisation to do this, I think it could be amazing. It could spread up and down the rail network. Add in a bit of vertical growing, and we start to think of stations in a completely different way. Station as market garden. Station as market place. Station as restaurant. Station as hub of food innovation. Station as culinary and cultural showcase.

Berlin Central Station

Perhaps I am still traumatised by my recent early morning walk around Berlin Central Station (above), packed with brands and chains and nothing that spoke to me of Berlin, or its food culture, or what it is that distinguishes it from Bonn or Vienna. But I sense a possibility here, a renaissance, a rescuing of millions of people from banality, blandness and baguettes, that would be, at the very least, a public service, if not a hugely successful cultural and economic shift.

As I was finishing this post, I visited Sheffield for the second Transition Thursday, or, just to make it a bit more complicated, the first Transition Thursday that was actually a Thursday (the first one was a Tuesday).  Sheffield station is, on first inspection, just like all the others you'll find up and down the land.  There's the ubiquitous Pumpkin...


... an Upper Crust, a Cafe Ritazza, an M&S ....

Sheffield station

... and a Whistle Stop and a Burger King ...

Sheffield station 2

But wait, there is a Reason to be Cheerful here.  What's this at the end of Platform 1? 

Sheffield Tap (outside)

It's the former the former Edwardian Refreshment Room & Dining Rooms, recently lovingly renovated and reopened as the Sheffield Tap, a pub and 4-barrel craft brewery.  The brewery equipment is in the pub, right next to the tables and chairs ...

Brewery set up

All of the beer brewed here is served here.  It is part of the fantastic craft brewing revolution taking place all across this area of the north of England.  It's on the station.  Speaking to people in Sheffield they tell me that people now go to the station, not to catch a train, but to visit the brewery/pub.  It's a taste, quite literally, of what's possible. 

Imagine if we could roll this notion out to every station across the land, it'd be amazing. Perhaps you could pick up the gentleman from Edinburgh's idea and transform the life of countless places and of those visiting them. You read it here first folks. Don't forget me when you make your first million. And make sure you invite me to the first opening.  


Knitting your own MRI scanner. Or not

John Paul Flintoff's article about Transition and The Power of Just Doing Stuff that appeared in the Guardian two weeks ago seemed to hit the right note, and has been popping up all over the place. It also led to the book being the bestseller in the Guardian book shop, outselling Iain Banks and Paul Morley! It generated a lot of interest on Twitter, most of it positive. As is so often the case though, the usual sceptics and cynics waded in, deliberately misinterpreting what Transition is about and then criticising it for being something it was never meant to be in the first place. A couple of them missed the point to such an entertaining scale that I really felt it was worth some kind of a response.

My favourite tweet read "Could a hospital that buys four tonnes of lettuce every year (a reference to a story told in the article) get that locally?" Yes, but maybe not its MRI scanners". He also tweeted "challenge for economic localism, source everything (pharmaceuticals, solar PV cells, Li-ion batteries) not just food, from a 50 mile radius". No, that really isn't the "challenge for economic localism", and the implication that if you can't source all those things locally then you have negated the whole idea of a more localised approach is just silly. It is an interesting misunderstanding though, one I encounter in various settings, the idea that localisation means self-sufficiency, the absence of imports, a turning of the community's collective backs on progress and technology.

Nottingham University Hospital

The logic that because a community couldn't produce its own MRI scanner there is no merit to the idea of some degree of localisation is ridiculous. While we are on the subject of hospitals, I loved the story recently about Nottingham University Hospitals Trust (see above) which now sources 90% of its meat and 90% of its seasonal vegetables from within 30 miles, a £2 million injection into the local economy. It uses the 5,000 meals a day it needs to produce as the opportunity to give the local economy a much-needed shot in the arm. John Hughes (below), the Trust's catering manager, said:

"It's public money. Surely we should be spending it in such a way as to have a positive local economic impact as opposed to lining the pockets of shareholders".

John Hughes

Indeed. But what if Hughes' bosses in Nottingham were also to apply the same thinking to other aspects of what they do? Let us imagine that, so emboldened were they by the success of this scheme that they decided to also look at the hospital as being power station, to use its roofs and other spaces to generate energy for the grid, using what it can during the hours when power is being generated. It could invite its neighbouring community to invest in and be part of it too. It could rethink its grounds maintenance, letting the ground maintenance contract to a market gardener instead of a lawnmowing company, or retrain its staff, with the brief to maximise production from the site.

This would create the possibility for patients to do horticultural therapy, introduce them to fresh fruit and vegetables and how they are grown for possibly the first time in their lives. It could lead to a more biodiverse and therapeutic place in which for people to recuperate (a kind of actual reality, rather than virtual reality, version of the approach the army is using to use nature to help burns patients). It would generate and income and show a real commitment to healthy living.

It could pull the fast food outlets and fizzy drinks dispensers out of the ground floor and offer franchises to local food entrepreneurs to give people a real taste of healthy, local food. When the hospital needs to build new buildings, it could design them so that they can be built using local materials, and contract to a company that can do that. These materials (strawbale, clay, lime, timber) create very healthy spaces, and choosing these materials can lead to other new local economic impacts. Clay plastering as occupational therapy? Why not? In all of these approaches I see only wins, no losses. And what then if the same approach were to be taken up by all the other large institutions in a place, as well as by the wider community too? This is why I talk about Transition, and the idea of community resilience as economic development, as a Big Idea of our times.

To focus on the provenance of the hospital's MRI scanner rather than the potential of a community to invest in and take some degree of charge of its own community misses the point spectacularly. Should a hospital be able to source locally-produced syringes, bandages and drugs? Of course not. It is unlikely that will be able to source locally-made bedding, but it could use a local company to wash them, again contributing to the local economy. It's a shift in mindset, a shift in focus and approach. It helps to put local people back in the driving seat over their economic future.

With the publication of two Economic Evaluations/Blueprints (Herefordshire and Totnes), we now have good data for a market town and for a county in terms of the economic advantages of a concerted push at such an approach (an urban neighbourhood follows shortly). We know that even a 10% shift in spending to the local, independent economy would yield substantial benefits, and that food, energy, retrofitting and care for the elderly are the best places to start. The point is that what the Evaluations/Blueprints do is to powerfully make the case that community resilience is a form of economic development. That's seismic shift.

Maria van der Hoeven of the International Energy Agency said recently when announcing the IEA's World Energy Outlook Special Report, Redrawing the Energy-Climate Map, "the path we are currently on is more likely to result in a temperature increase of between 3.6 °C and 5.3 °C". If we're currently on a path with that as the destination, we need a new path. How on earth could the kind of approach undertaken by Nottingham possibly scale up to become a meaningful contributor to climate change?

The Fife Diet recently reported that, in the light of the Scottish government's failure to meet its carbon targets for a second year running, there should be a much clearer focus on diet.  Their press release began:  

Fife Diet releases it's Carbon Food Report it shows that if everyone in Scotland was on the equivalent of the Fife Diet, we could collectively contribute to 60% of the Scottish Government annual saving target, only by changing the way we eat.

They added:

Fife Diet estimates that our 5,000 members saved 990 tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2012-13.  If everyone in Scotland made similar changes to their food habits, up to a million tonnes of carbon could be saved.

We know that this alone won't be enough, that localisation alone isn't going to be enough. But clearly it is a powerful and untapped piece of the solution.  It sits in a wider context of responses. The back-of-an-envelope calculation I did for The Transition Companion showed that even if every community across the UK were to mobilise all of the money at its disposal, savings, pensions and so on, it would only be able to raise about a quarter of what we need to spend on renewable energy infrastructure in order to meet our targets. But that quarter can do so much in terms of community economic regeneration, job creation, carbon reduction and confidence building.  And it's the bit that WE can do. 

Another Tweeter wrote:

"It (Transition) encourages the idea that local people are somehow more morally valuable than people from further away".

No it really absolutely does not. What it encourages is the idea that trade and economic activity are inseparable from the generation of carbon dioxide. It encourages the idea that a dependence on global trade weakens resilience both in the country taking the imports and the country exporting them. It actually, I would argue, creates healthier relationships between nations.

Indeed the current model of trade, where our supermarket shelves are lined with produce produced by multinational food companies using labour who have often lost their own land and are now dependent, is what already enshrines the idea that "local people are somehow more morally valuable than people from further away" (indeed, doesn't our media do that all the time?)

The self-organising nature of Transition is a great practical expression of the sense that everyone is of equal value. See, for example, the stories of how Transition is being rolled out in Amazon communities, and in South Africa.  This is about building resilience everywhere, not just in a few privileged communities.  

Finally, one of the comments to the Guardian piece said:

"Why don't we just go the whole hog and stop trading with everybody and go self-sufficient. That should solve everything! Then we can all spend the majority of our time growing food, exchanging nick-nacks, buying things off inept (and expensive) locals instead of efficient (and cheap) large companies. Sounds like heaven ! Count me out thank you".

Hopefully I have set out above some arguments as to why this comment completely misses the point. No-one is talking about complete localisation, nor doing away with the idea of competition and efficiency, or knitting MRI scanners.  Different things make sense to localise at different scales. Most settlements could do a great deal more to localise their food supply, their energy generation, how they build and care for their young and their elderly, with many benefits across the community and the local economy.

A lot more could be done across a range of areas, but expensive, highly specialised kit like MRI scanners needs national, if not international, production, as do computers, some medicines and so on. But the hospital in which they are used or installed could sit at the centre of a vibrant web of local economic activity, offering healthy food, home to a variety of enterprises, building soils, enhancing and diversifying the local economy, providing a vibrant and beautiful space for recuperation as well as a less stressful and more nourishing place to work. It's not 'either-or', it's 'both-and'.  And it works, it's already happening, and it has only just begun.  

Video: a day in Crystal Palace

Transition Voices

Here is a short film I made of Tuesday’s events in Crystal Palace which saw The Power of Just Doing Stuff formally launched into the world.    My thanks again to everyone who made it all happen.

Power of Just Doing Stuff launches in Crystal Palace

Transition Voices
 Jonathan Goldberg

Credit: Jonathan Goldberg

The Power of Just Doing Stuff is now officially launched and out in the world!  Following a pre-launch at Saturday’s Schumacher Lectures in Bristol, the book was officially kicked off at an amazing event in Crystal Palace, London.  I am making a short film of the day there which I will post soon, but for now, here’s a short account, some audio and photos from the evening.  I am deeply indebted to John Barrett and Jonathan Goldberg for the great photos here.  I had spent the afternoon visiting some of the many projects Crystal Palace Transition Town (CPTT) have started over their 2 year existence, and meeting members of the group.  The evening event was in the Grain and Grape pub, and was packed.  Here is the talk I gave, with an introduction from Joe Duggan of CPTT.

The heating in the pub was turned on, and the landlord who has only been running the place for a couple of weeks, had no idea how to turn it off, so the book was, quite literally, given a very warm reception indeed, on a London evening that was already very close and muggy.  The evening also featured a talk by Agamemnon Otero from Brixton Energy, short project summaries from various members of CPTT, a Q&A and music from Franck Alba.  Here are some photos of the event.

 John Barrett

Credit: John Barrett

 John Barrett

Credit: John Barrett

 John Barrett

Credit: John Barrett

 John Barrett

Credit: John Barrett

 John Barrett

Credit: John Barrett

 John Barrett

 John Barrett

Credit: John Barrett

 John Barrett

Credit: John Barrett


 John Barrett

 John Barrett

Credit: John Barrett

I am deeply indebted to the remarkable CPTT group for putting on the event, to everyone who came, to the staff at the Grape and Grain who were so accommodating, and to everyone else who made it happen.  We’re not finished yet though!  This event was the first ‘Transition Thursday’ (even though it was a Tuesday).  The next events are:

  • Wednesday 26th June.  Totnes Civic Hall, 8pm (free).  Book launch with music and beer.
  • Thursday 27th June.  Sheffield.  7-9 pm Quaker Meeting House, Sheffield S1 2EW, £5/£3  More info and bookings here.
  • Thursday 4th July: Transitions Downham and Villages, Swaffham and Kings Lynn.  You can find more information here.
  • Thursday 11th July: Worthing, Sussex.  St Paul’s Art Centre, Chapel Road, Worthing.  7pm (doors open 6.30pm).  More info here.  
  • Thursday 18th July: The Stanhope Hall, Horncastle, Lincolnshire.  7pm.
  • Thursday 25th July:  Marsden and Slaithwaite Transition Towns (MASTT) Details are still to be announced.

Come along!  We’ve also been getting some great media coverage, on Triple Pundit, in The Guardian, The Economic Voice, Bristol Evening Post,  BBC Radio Bristol (2 days left to listen), and with more to come.


New video: ‘Launching’ The Power of Just Doing Stuff

Transition Voices

Today is the day of the publication of The Power of Just Doing Stuff.  I’d like to mark this historic occasion by presenting you with this short video of the recent poignant and moving launch event we recently held with the Mayor of Totnes to welcome the book into the world. Please put in Facebook, Twitter, whatever, and share it around.  Do join me between 4 & 5pm (BST) for our Twitter Q&A (#doingstuff).

Tomorrow it’s the Twitter Q&A!

Transition Voices


Tomorrow is the official publication date of The Power of Just Doing Stuff.  We will be treating you tomorrow morning to a video of a sombre, respectful and moving launch event that took place in Totnes a couple of days ago to welcome the book into the world.  Today however I wanted to put a date and time in your diary.  Tomorrow (Friday), between 4 and 5pm BST, I will hosting a Twitter Q&A (which I steadfastly refuse to call a ‘Twitterview” because it’s just too silly).  So do join me, bring your questions, your thoughts, or perhaps you’re one of the people who pre-ordered your copy and may even have read it by then, and you might join us with some feedback and thoughts.  We’ll be using the hashtag #doingstuff.  See you there!

Why even the G8 prefer vibrant, diverse local economies really …

Transition Voices


If there was one picture that captured the times we are living through it is this.  It appeared on the BBC website recently with the following caption:

Kevin McGuire walks his dog past a vacant shop in Belcoo, Northern Ireland.  The empty shop is one of a number that have had graphics placed on the windows to make them look like working shops ahead of the G8 summit which takes place nearby later this month.  

Let’s take that a bit more slowly.  Here is a shop, one of many that has gone out of business due, among other things, to the growth-fixated policies of the G8, situated in a place G8 ministers will be driven past en route to their summit.  Rather than their being able to see how things are actually unfolding in the real world, the division and misery being caused by their approach to the economy, the windows have been plastered with stickers that present it as a fully-stocked, thriving shop.  As singer/comic Mitch Benn put it on BBC Radio 4′s The Now Show on Friday,  ”the last thing you’d want would be for a bunch of people meeting to fix the economy to see how bad the economy’s got”.

The BBC reported the story, giving a bit more information about it:

County Fermanagh’s district council sanctioned the fake retail units as part of a £1m makeover before it hosts the G8 summit. The event takes place on 17 and 18 June at the Lough Erne golf resort near Enniskillen.  The chief executive of Fermanagh District Council has defended the optical illusion.

“It was aimed at undeveloped sites at the entrance to the town and then right throughout the county in terms of the other towns and villages, looking at those vacant properties and really just trying to make them look better and more aesthetically pleasing,” says Brendan Hegarty

Here’s the thing that fascinated me most though.  It’s the kind of shop they chose to portray it as.  They didn’t print up large stickers that would present the shop as being a Tesco Metro, a Sainsbury’s Local, an Aldi perhaps, or even branch of one of the banks that contributed significantly to our getting into this mess in the first place.  They didn’t make one huge sticker, one false façade, that showed a new shopping precinct, glittering with all the usual chain stores that dominate every such precinct.  Or a Travelodge perhaps.  Rather they set out deliberately and in considerable detail to portray the kind of vibrant, local, independent business that has either become extinct, or which survives in spite of, rather than because of, the policies of the G8.  Here’s another one…


The windows are hung with delicious-looking hams, the display features meats and a whole range of delicious local produce, beautifully arranged.  Although the cut-and-paste nature of the graphic design rather gives the game away (the same arrangements of hams appear two or three times), what they are trying to portray here is that most endangered of species, the local, independent butcher.

In the mid-1990s there were 22,000 butchers in the UK, by 2010 there were just 6,553.  The independent butcher is making something of a spirited fightback though, although certainly not aided, in any sense, by the G8.  The butcher that would have occupied that shop no longer exists, most likely because a supermarket opened nearby and completely shifted the balance of the Belcoo economy (any readers from Belcoo who might like to write in and tell us what led to this shop’s demise would be most welcome).

The other day I spoke to Nick Sherwood of REconomy Herefordshire, who has co-ordinated the Herefordshire Economic Evaluation (the second such piece of work, the Totnes one already being published, and Brixton’s coming soon).  Our conversation will be published here soon, but one of the things that really struck me was the following:

We estimate that the top five major supermarkets in Herefordshire account for between 71% – 83% of all household expenditure on ‘brought home’ food and drink, or up to £180m annually. In addition, around £30m per year is spent in the smaller ‘chain’ supermarkets.

Herefordshire-EB-cover-198x300Their conclusion is that the true ‘local spend’ figure, i.e through local, independent businesses in Herefordshire, could be around 16% of the total.  In terms of a national version of that figure, the best I can find is the figure from the Portas Review that states that 8,000 supermarkets now account for over 97% of all UK grocery sales.  Although clearly other smaller supermarkets account for some of the remaining sales, let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that nationally, 3% of what we spend on groceries goes out through local and independent businesses.

I would imagine that everyone seeks an economy that is able to provide jobs, economic activity, stronger and happier communities and community resilience, while also skilfully reducing its carbon emissions on the scale required.  The question of our times though, as far as I’m concerned, is whether that is best achieved by expanding the 97% of our economy currently dominated by huge supermarkets, the kinds of enterprise that the UK government and the G8 see as leading the push for growth, or protecting and enhancing the 3%?

It’s a vital question, because at the moment the push to eradicate the 3% altogether, or at least squeeze it a lot harder, continues apace.  Yet that 3% is better suited to meeting those core needs of ours.  As the recent report by Localise West Midlands on ‘community economic development’ states:

Our research has found strong evidence that local economies with higher levels of SMEs and local ownership perform better in terms of employment growth (especially disadvantaged and peripheral areas), the local multiplier effect, social and economic inclusion, income redistribution, health, civic engagement and well-being than places heavily reliant on inward investment where there are fewer, larger, remotely owned employers.

A study focusing on New Orleans compared 179,000 square feet of retail space that is home to 100 independent businesses to the same-sized space that is home to a single supermarket. The former generated $105 million in sales with $34 million staying in the local economy, while the latter generated $50 million in sales with just $8 million staying locally, and necessitated 300,000 square feet of parking space (see graphic below).


Santander’s ‘Market of Hope’ which I wrote about here last year is a great example of how a city can be fed by looking at large retail spaces in such a way that they boost and support the local independent economy rather than undermine it. When Sir Terry Leahy, CEO of Tesco, was asked whether there was any alternative to supermarkets, replied:

“… queueing at one store than trudging down Watford High Street in the rain to another shop … is this what people actually want to go back to?”

But no, it’s not about “going back”, rather about going forward in a way that meets our needs rather than those of the City of London.  What we now know is that even G8 ministers would rather pass through High Streets populated with small, independent butchers, bakers, grocers, would rather see shop windows overflowing with delicious food,  trusting that the relationship they have built up with the shopkeeper over many years will mean that he/she stocks the best produce they can find.  It feels right.  It’s human scale.  It makes sense.  It’s an economy that is ours, it belongs to local people, to the local economy.  Even G8 ministers would now appear to prefer a shopping experience that actually involves interacting with other human beings rather than wandering anonymously around a superstore and then cashing yourself out at the end.

The core argument of The Power of Just Doing Stuff, published on Friday, is that if we really want to achieve our goals of jobs, economic activity, stronger and happier communities and community resilience, while also skilfully reducing our carbon emissions on the scale required, we’d be better off focusing on growing the 3% rather than the 97%.  It’s a pretty simple idea, and, to me at least, a blindingly obvious one, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

However, the experience is that this fightback has already begun.  The explosion of new bakeries, pop-up shops, community renewable energy projects, craft breweries, independent record shops, complementary currencies and communities acquiring their own assets is already happening around us, but it needs us to get behind it, to put our shoulders, our spending power, our sheer bloody will, to making it 10%, 30% 70%.  If we want a stable climate, reduced energy vulnerability, economic stability, and a healthy human culture, we really have no choice.  As Maria van der Hoeven of the IEA said recently at the launch of a World Energy Outlook Special Report, Redrawing the Energy-Climate Map, ”the path we are currently on is more likely to result in a temperature increase of between 3.6 °C and 5.3 °C”.

Fortunately, it’s a push that is life-enhancing, thrill-generating and in which we discover a resourcefulness, a kindness and a passion in ourselves that we may have forgotten was there.  I’ll leave you with a quote from the book, from Helen Cunningham of DE4 Food, a social enterprise food hub in Derbyshire that grew out of Transition Matlock.  The project grew from helping a local farmer with lambing and has grown into an innovative new business:

“Never in my life did I imagine that I’d be able to bring lambs into the world! It wasn’t a skill I ever expected to have. It was such a different thing from what we were doing in the rest of our lives, and I think from then we’ve all thought “OK, we can learn these new skills, we can learn how to lamb, we can learn how to grow vegetables and learn how to do Excel Profit and Loss sheets and whatever.” I think we all just really wanted to change the way we live, and change our own personal lives and to change things and live different lives ourselves as well as a different life in our community”.

You can pre-order your copy of The Power of Just Doing Stuff here.  

The Power of Just Doing Stuff ships tomorrow!

Transition Voices


Here’s my kitchen table, covered in orders of The Power of Just Doing Stuff ready to be posted tomorrow.  Amazon aren’t shipping them until Friday, the only way you’ll get one sooner is to have your copy amongst the mountain of them that will be heading down to the post office on Tuesday.  You can order your copy here, and doing so today will guarantee that it joins this pile.  Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall says “There’s a buzz around this book, and its message, that gives great grounds for optimism on topics that are often rather doom-laden. Its true power lies in the fact that it’s many smart ideas are already underway”.  As we build up to this weekend’s pre-launch event in Bristol, and the launch next Tuesday in Crystal Palace there will be other content about it posted here this week.