Whisper it … the downturn’s not all bad

The LGA has done an impressive job in getting the word out that local authorities are doing a good job at helping individuals, communities and businesses cope with the downturn. No argument here. This is localism in practice.

However, I’ve been struck by the number of conversations I’ve had recently with policy-makers and practitioners in local government and sustainable development circles in which people have agreed with me that the downturn provides an opportunity that local authorities should grasp.

It’s a fact of life now that many people are looking to lead more sustainable lives – not for sustainability’s sake, but because they need to cut their cloth. There are people who drive a fair distance to work, who are starting to work from home a bit, and have clocked that it would be better to work closer to home. Ordinary people (“Britain’s hard-working families”, in government-speak) are looking to waste less food. Unemployment means more people spending more time with family and friends, and needing to spend less.

This has impacts. More time at home could mean knowing your neighbours better, feeling safer and happier. Wasting less food often means smaller, more regular, more local shops, with health and social capital benefits. If we are serious about low-carbon living (and an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 is pretty damn serious) then surely placeshapers need to be working out how to make sure that these behaviour changes become embedded in people’s lives. Otherwise, when/if economic recovery comes, we will be expected to return to the atomised, consumerist lifestyles that are leading us to climate disaster.

And to be fair, many of the examples in the LGA publication Global Slowdown: Local Solutions are in the spirit of sustainability and low carbon living. It’s just that the prevailing narrative of the coverage it has received seems to be ‘how can we cope?’, not ‘how can we thrive?’; ‘look how people are suffering’, not ‘look how some behaviour is changing for the better’.

So I hope that the downturn will kickstart initiatives like car-free residential areas. If people are able to feel the benefits of low-carbon living while times are tough, then I hope that they’ll stick with the lifestyle even when they have the resources to not have to.