As Greens, we see the primary aims of economic activity to serve human wellbeing and protect the natural world for future generations. Given growing inequality, increases in levels of poverty, and faced with a climate and ecological emergency, it is clear that business-as-usual approaches are failing both people and planet. Greens in power are helping reshape local economies, so they do more good than harm.
The council’s own spending power is a good place to start. Shifting work back ‘in-house’, especially if that’s away from corporations sucking money out of the local economy, is often a way to enhance the social value of that spending. Then procurement contracts, whether for service delivery or capital projects, can be shaped to provide good local jobs, influence firms towards greener practices and reduce the outflow of wealth.
In Stroud, where Greens are part of an alliance with Labour and the Lib Dems, a green procurement policy has been adopted. Stroud uses the Social Value Portal to measure the positive impacts that council contracts have on, for example, cutting carbon emissions, growth of local businesses, increasing local jobs and supporting community projects.
Greening a local economy also requires new investment, and councils are in a unique position to invest. They receive funds from developer contributions to invest in greener infrastructure; they have access to borrowing which allows them to pursue their own capital investment strategy; and they have opportunities to tap into local savings through green bond schemes.
There are plenty of examples of Greens in power using funds to help address the cost of living crisis and climate emergency. In Lancaster, where Greens are the second largest group on the council, ‘Section 106’ developer contributions have been used to help a Community Land Trust purchase land for properly affordable homes, while in Brighton & Hove – where Greens run a minority administration – the council has used its own borrowing powers to ‘onlend’ to community housing projects at rates they couldn’t otherwise achieve. Meanwhile in Lewes, where Green Party Councillor Zoe Nicholson is the leader of the District Council, loans to a community energy company have been awarded, enabling the project to progress through the trickiest stages up to achieving planning permission.
Herefordshire shaped the use of ‘Towns Fund’ money using a community-led approach, choosing projects based on an agreed, ‘greener, fairer, creative, digital’ approach, with an emphasis on skills development. They also took a green approach to the use of Covid Recovery funds. Instead of subsidising free car parking, they provided free weekend buses. And instead of a version of ‘Eat Out to Help Out’, they provided households with £25 to spend in local shops.
Councils also need to understand the social value and community wealth-building potential of their physical assets. For example, Brighton and Hove hold land in the South Downs, and are developing and consulting on an ‘estate plan’ that is intended to support economic vitality alongside biodiversity, a local sustainable food economy and public access to open space.
While in York – where Greens are in coalition with the Lib Dems – the council is in the process of converting a car park to an open events space. Herefordshire bought a shopping centre during the pandemic and now plans to develop space for such things as a café, providing work experience opportunities for disabled people and low-rent facilities for start-up independent retail.
But in the end most of the economy is in the hands of others so councils need to be brave in leading others, whether larger 'anchor' institutions such as the local NHS, or small firms – both leading by example and using any other levers available to shift them towards sustainability. Stroud is one example of a council that has a longstanding strategic partnership with private, voluntary and third sector organisations.
Limited powers; limited funds, but Greens are demonstrating how to make the very best of the levers available to councils to help the transition towards greener and fairer communities.