Can we skew the market in favour of the Valleys?

Leanne Wood says the people of the old industrial heartland need to come together to plan a greener future

The Valleys’ greatest resource is its people. Since the first settlements people have banded together, working on the premise that the collective effort can be the force of real change. This has especially been the case when communities have come under threat, as the hundredth anniversary of the Tonypandy riots reminds us.

Before the comprehensive welfare state people pooled their money, skills and labour to create institutions for all. Schools, hospitals, libraries, miner’s institutes and welfare halls were all built co-operatively, by communities for communities. Can we contribute collectively today, to build the community institutions needed to ensure our communities are resilient to the harmful effects of long term unemployment, peak-oil, insecure food and energy supplies and climate change?

Food and fuel prices are already beyond the means of many on low incomes, with steep rises predicted in the future. Major changes are on their way affecting the criteria for claiming out-of-work benefits, so we need to plan now if we are to prevent people from being plunged into deep poverty.

Can we skew the market with collective demand for locally sourced renewable energy, home energy efficiency measures and community institutions? Can the growth of new co-operatives be encouraged and supported by government to do the work necessary to meet that demand, creating opportunities at the same time?

Everyone can do something.  Everyone can improve their skills.  Can we train people to teach the skills needed for a new green economy?

There is no need to re-invent the wheel. There are already a plethora of projects and networks throughout Wales. Some are bringing different generations together. Others are creating low-cost renewable energy and food or running mentoring schemes to match younger learners with those with skills and experience. We have projects providing training opportunities for young people as well as cultural, sporting or artistic activities, all using already available resources. If we can find a way to bring these networks together, so that best practice and common interest is shared, we have the potential to turn around our economic misfortunes.

Case study: Green Valley, Brecon Beacons

The Green Valleys is aiming to make the Brecon Beacons region a net exporter of energy by developing Community renewable energy schemes and supporting communities to reduce their carbon emissions. All revenue from community-owned installations will be reinvested in community-based carbon reduction projects such as electric bike sharing or community woodlands that provide managed wood fuel. One forthcoming community-owned hydro electric installation will generate 82 per cent of the electricity needed by its community. Combined with five privately-owned installations that the Green Valleys initiative is also developing, it will reduce the community’s carbon footprint by 137 per cent.

Harnessing local skills and expertise has been an essential part of the project. The Green Valleys team is now working with statutory organisations in Wales to help other communities develop the skills and expertise needed to run similar projects. Project manager Grenville Ham says:

“Our regional steering group is made up of volunteers with a wide range of skills and knowledge, covering areas from ecology to engineering and accountancy. We believe there’s enormous potential to replicate our model in other communities, but to be successful, these projects have to be owned and led from within the community.”

Government cannot impose co-operation from above but it can remove the barriers and help facilitate the conditions under which co-operatives and community networks can grow and thrive.

The Welsh Government could help to create demand by:

  • Ensuring public sector contracts are tailor-made for small local businesses by incorporating clauses to provide local training/apprenticeship opportunities, introducing greenhouse gas emissions reductions in addition to the ‘best value’ criteria and ‘unbundling’ contracts to make them small enough to favour local firms.
  • Setting localised carbon budgets linked to council tax to ensure each community has a responsibility to meet green targets, with local tax incentives for those who meet them and financial penalties for those who do not. Public bodies subject to carbon budgets should help drive local procurement.
  • A ‘Building Community Buildings’ programme to transform disused buildings into fully sustainable community facilities which can provide services like money-advice or childcare, information about green technology, adult education and whatever else the community needs. A target could be set for each settlement of around 10,000 people to have a fully accessible community building running the services, courses and activities needed and provided by the local people. This would create demand for green regeneration work, which co-operatives should be encouraged to carry out. The potential cash windfall available from wind-farm companies should be channelled to kick-start such a programme.
  • A clear, legally-binding plan to ensure the protection of the area’s wildlife, countryside and ecosystems.
  • Setting itself measurable aims, for example a percentage of homes in the pilot area to be 0 per cent carbon-emitting within the term of government, covering all homes within twenty years; or for 5 per cent of all food procured by the public sector in the pilot area to be sourced within the pilot area boundaries within four years.

The UK Government can help create capacity by:

  • Creating a ‘Peoples’ Investment Fund’ to provide no-up-front cost loans and grants to fund home energy efficiency and micro-generation for homes and businesses. This could be established by bringing together the borrowing power of local government, EU funding, credit unions and the finance available from energy providers as part of their statutory climate change obligations, wind farm ‘wind-falls’, levies from polluting activity, Finance Wales and any other available sources. The fund would be run co-operatively and at arm’s-length from government. It could also provide business start-up capital for green co-operatives and ‘share loans’ for investment in community co-operatives.
  • Assist in the co-ordination and regulation of energy providers and their co-operation with the ‘Peoples’ Investment Fund’ to maximise the benefits of subsidised renewable energy (feed-in tariffs) and smart metering. This would reduce the costs of the no-up-front-cost loans. Loans should be flexible, enabling pay back from savings made on energy bills, with a guarantee to keep monthly utility bills static until the debt is settled, with wholesale price increases extending the loan, rather than increasing the monthly re-payments.  Provision should be made for the debt to stay with the home and not the home-owner and for the transfer of the loan on house sale during the loan period, with the costs factored into the purchase price.
  • Support and promote a local currency, the ‘valleys pound’ and other hybrid alternative currencies linked to time banks and credit unions to encourage local spending.
  • Establish a community land bank, offering preferential leasing terms to renewable energy or food co-operative projects and allotments. Allowing the people of the valleys to benefit from one of the largest urban forests in Europe still in public ownership, this would need a detailed assessment of the area’s publicly-owned land and waterways to highlight the most suitable sites. Particular focus to be given to the generation of hydro-energy and food production.
  • Develop an integrated plan for the transport structure of the Valleys, taking into account the high level of households with no access to a car. Free parking at out of town developments should be discouraged while reducing or abolishing parking costs in town centres to encourage local shopping. Consideration should also be given to ways on which more walking and cycling can be encouraged, especially for journeys under two miles and also for the co-ordination of car sharing. The disused railway tunnels should be assessed for re-opening which could be funded by a levy on retailers which provide parking out-of-town. The plan should work out funding routes and feasibility of re-opening lines and press for the electrification of the valleys lines, and integration with other public transport to improve links between the valleys.
  • Support the creation of an attractively waged apprenticeship programme providing skills and job opportunities for young unemployed people, preferably in co-operatives. Such a programme could utilise existing initiatives to provide a positive alternative to meaningless placements with little or no permanent work prospects. The work could contribute to the long-term self-sufficiency and therefore sustainability of valleys communities and should ensure that people are provided with the training opportunities they want. Young people should be informed of apprenticeship opportunities in school at age 14 and it should form part of a personal development plan which every young person should have as an educational right.
  • Funding for higher education institutions with obligations to the valleys should depend on their ability to demonstrate the successful linking up with and support for green co-operatives. The University of Glamorgan and the new University of the Heads of the Valleys together with UWIC, Newport, Cardiff and Swansea Universities as well as Swansea Metropolitan all have obligations to their wider hinterland.
  • Establish a Green Construction skills college for Wales within the University of the Heads of the Valleys and the Further Education sector. Its remit, as required by the Welsh Government, should be to provide courses which develop approaches to green skills to meet the needs of co-operatives and the apprenticeship scheme. Joint working between the Higher and Further Education sectors should enable the testing and roll-out of innovative renewable energy technologies and energy efficient, socially-just and sustainable food production, transport and distribution systems. The success of the Green Construction College will depend on a good supply of trained specialist teachers able to roll out training at a community level.
  • Help with the co-ordination of local volunteering teams, starting with the existing voluntary network and a reformed Communities First network. These teams could initially set up a database which enabled like-minded people to be put in touch with each other. They could co-ordinate, communicate and market using radio, newspapers and websites to offer volunteering opportunities. A volunteer ‘land army’ could focus on environmental conservation and, for example, a community food production plan. Opportunities to gain experience as a trustee of a community building could be provided, or basic training to undertake the provision of services like money-advice, activities for children and young people, and environment clean-ups. It could also ensure that those interested in setting up co-operatives have access to expert advice, information and business support so that they are able to put together and implement a realistic business plan that will attract investment.

To ensure that people’s ideas and opinions can contribute to the ongoing development of the ‘Greenprint‘, provision should be made for the creation of a democratically elected ‘co-operation network’ with representation from everyone involved – with an in-built majority for the co-operatives and volunteers. This network should oversee the implementation of the finalised plan and ensure all the people involved are in touch with each other, sharing good practice and able to act as one voice when necessary.

The work of the co-operation network should be overseen and held to account by a bigger, more representative annual ‘co-operative convention’ inviting the participation of all the communities involved. Membership of the convention should be open, at no cost, to all people living within the area, over the age of 16.

The government and public sector’s work priorities in relation to the Greenprint should be guided by the ‘convention’ which should also scrutinise the government’s progress towards it’s aims. For a plan like this to succeed, it requires an open-minded, supportive yet ‘hands-off’ government, a public and voluntary sector with a work-force prepared to support it and motivated members of valleys communities, as well as the ditching of tribal party politics.

The Welsh Government is in a position to ensure that the plan strengthens and builds on our existing public service infrastructure, whilst maintaining public sector services. To guard against a top-down plan, governmental involvement should be minimised to the role of ‘barrier-remover’. Government also has a role to play in ensuring that the wealth generated is evenly and equally distributed.

There will undoubtedly be set-backs and challenges, but ultimately it will be down to the people of these valleys to contribute their resources to make it happen. We don’t know whether we can do it until we try. With the difficulties facing valleys people now and even greater challenges ahead, don’t we owe it to our future generations to give it the best try we can?

Case study: Green Valley, Brecon Beacons
The Green Valleys is aiming to make the Brecon Beacons region a net exporter of energy by developing Community renewable energy schemes and supporting communities to reduce their carbon emissions. All revenue from community-owned installations will be reinvested in community-based carbon reduction projects such as electric bike sharing or community woodlands that provide managed wood fuel. One forthcoming community-owned hydro electric installation will generate 82 per cent of the electricity needed by its community. Combined with five privately-owned installations that the Green Valleys initiative is also developing, it will reduce the community’s carbon footprint by 137 per cent.

Harnessing local skills and expertise has been an essential part of the project. The Green Valleys team is now working with statutory organisations in Wales to help other communities develop the skills and expertise needed to run similar projects. Project manager Grenville Ham says:

“Our regional steering group is made up of volunteers with a wide range of skills and knowledge, covering areas from ecology to engineering and accountancy. We believe there’s enormous potential to replicate our model in other communities, but to be successful, these projects have to be owned and led from within the community.”

Leanne Wood is Plaid Cymru AM for South Wales Central. She is looking for feedback on these ideas. Use the comment box below or e-mail her at [email protected]ymru.org

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