Here’s why Sheffield is the right city to pilot Universal Basic Income

Sheffield by night. Image: Benedict Hunjan/Wikimedia Commons.

Last month, we at campaign group UBI Lab Sheffield wrote to every councillor in Sheffield and asked them to back a pilot of Universal Basic Income (UBI) in the city. For those new to the idea, UBI is a radical re-imagining of our broken and discredited welfare system.

Under a UBI, everyone receives a guaranteed income regardless of their employment status or eligibility for benefits. The exact amount isn’t carved in stone, but most proponents of UBI believe that it should be enough to live on.

The very rich would receive it too, but they would also pay much higher taxes to fund the UBI as part of a redistribution of wealth.

Small pilots around the world have shown the transformative effect on people’s health and well-being of a proper safety net without means-testing or sanctions. The Scottish Government is already conducting a feasibility study into their own UBI pilot, which could launch in the next few years.

In August 2018, shadow chancellor John McDonnell suggested that Labour’s manifesto for the next general election may include a pilot of UBI. There are practical reasons why a pilot would be hosted in one city, and it would be politically unthinkable to run it in London.

And by the time the next government enter No 10, we want Sheffield City Council to pass a motion asking the chancellor to host a UBI pilot in Sheffield.

So why here?

Sheffield has a history of radical social experiments. In the 1950s and 1960s, the city council built Kelvin Flats, Hyde Park and the now world-famous Park Hill. To this day, these colossal structures are among the most ambitious social housing projects ever attempted by any government worldwide.


The idea, in the words of architect Berthold Lubetkin, was that nothing is too good for ordinary people. Replacing rows of grimy slums, these flats offered light, space and all mod-cons. A decent quality of life for everybody. A UBI could raise that bar once again in our time.

Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, a renegade city council earned the tag “The People's Republic of South Yorkshire” for its refusal to accept Tory economic dogma. “There is no alternative,” Margaret Thatcher said. Well, there was here.

Before the disaster of deregulation, the council guaranteed extremely low fares on the city’s buses. Travelling from one side of Sheffield to the other was almost free. This would now be seen as an experiment in Universal Basic Services (UBS), a similar idea to UBI that would see services like transport become free at the point of use. The NHS is already a UBS.

These days, successive waves of shock-doctrine economics and half-baked policymaking have left the city divided. It is one of the most unequal cities in the UK. Within its city limits are some of the richest and some of the poorest constituencies in the country.

The 83 bus route runs from north Sheffield to the south of the city. In 2013, the Fairness On The 83 project found that along the route average life expectancy falls by 7.5 years for men and almost 10 years for women.

As historian Rutger Bregman points out, being poor isn’t a lack of character: it’s a lack of cash.

That’s why the people behind Fairness On The 83 have formed UBI Lab Sheffield. After years of work, we have produced a fully costed proposal for a pilot, designed by Sheffield-based academics and researchers and informed by several workshops. When Whitehall give the green light, we are ready to roll.

We’re an organisation made up of researchers, writers, artists, economists and campaigners working towards England’s first pilot of UBI in Sheffield. Each of us are interested in different aspects of UBI, and its potential for transformation. As a lifelong city-dweller, I’m fascinated by the effect that a national UBI could have on our urban environment.

We might see less people commuting by car every day to an office job that they hate, as UBI would give them greater freedom to turn those jobs down. Everyone would have a greater ability to choose a job near where they live, and to cycle or walk instead of drive.

British cities are designed around the interests of large corporations, and Sheffield is no exception. But a UBI could see an explosion in the number of small businesses.

Not only would it give entrepreneurs a guaranteed income while they get their ideas off the ground: it would also provide a safety net if ventures don’t work out.

A UBI could empower would-be entrepreneurs, but it would also enable today’s precariat to spend money in the local economy. We could see a golden age of cafes, bookshops, restaurants, galleries, co-operatives, maker spaces and social enterprises.

This is why we will not stop lobbying until our councillors pass a motion calling for Sheffield to host England’s first UBI pilot.

We have already received support from several councillors across the political spectrum, as well as the backing of candidates in May’s local elections. After receiving our letter, a cabinet member said that our proposed motion will be discussed in cabinet.

We have two world-class universities to conduct the research. We have a range of strong and diverse communities on which to measure the effect of a basic income. We are working towards gaining the support of a council that supports national Labour policy on social justice.

Our pilot will see the world’s attention will turn to South Yorkshire for the first time since the Industrial Revolution. Welcome to Sheffield: UBI City.

You can read more about UBI Lab Sheffield here.

 
 
 
 

Segregated playgrounds are just the start: inequality is built into the fabric of our cities

Yet more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Developers in London have come under scrutiny for segregating people who live in social or affordable housing from residents who pay market rates. Prominent cases have included children from social housing being blocked from using a playground in a new development, and “poor doors” providing separate entrances for social housing residents.

Of course, segregation has long been a reality in cities around the world. For example, gated communities have been documented in the US cities since the 1970s, while racially segregated urban areas existed in South Africa under apartheid. Research by myself and other academics has shown that urban spaces which divide and exclude society’s poorer or more vulnerable citizens are still expanding rapidly, even replacing public provision of facilities and services – such as parks and playgrounds – in cities around the world.

Gated developments in Gurgaon, India, have created a patchwork of privatised services; elite developments in Hanoi, Vietnam, offer rich residents cleaner air; and luxury condos in Toronto, Canada, displace local residents in favour of foreign investors. An extreme example is the Eko Atlantic project in Nigeria – a private city being built in Lagos, where the majority of other residents face extreme levels of deprivation and poverty.

A commodity, or a right?

Although these developments come with their own unique context and characteristics, they all have one thing in common: they effectively segregate city dwellers. By providing the sorts of facilities and services which would normally be run by public authorities, but reserving them exclusively for certain residents, such developments threaten the wider public’s access to green spaces, decent housing, playgrounds and even safe sewage systems.

Access to basic services, which was once considered to be the right of all citizens, is at risk of becoming a commodity. Privatisation may start with minor services such as the landscaping or upkeep of neighbourhoods: for example, the maintenance of some new-build estates in the UK are being left to developers in return for a service charge. This might seem insignificant, but it introduces an unregulated cost for the residents.

Privatising the provision of municipal services may be seen by some as a way for wealthier residents to enjoy a better standard of living – as in Hanoi. But in the worst cases, it puts in a paywall in front of fundamental services such as sewage disposal – as happened in Gurgaon. In other words, privatisation may start with insignificant services and expand to more fundamental ones, creating greater segregation and inequality in cities.


A divided city

My own research on branded housing projects in Turkey has highlighted the drastic consequences of the gradual expansion of exclusive services and facilities through segregated developments. These private housing developments – known for their extensive use of branding – have sprung up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past two decades, since the government began to favour a more neoliberal approach.

By 2014, there were more than 800 branded housing projects in Istanbul alone. They vary in scale from a single high-rise building to developments aiming to accommodate more than 20,000 residents. Today, this development type can be seen in every city in Turkey, from small towns to the largest metropolitan areas.

The branded housing projects are segregated by design, often featuring a single tower or an enclosing cluster of buildings, as well as walls and fences. They provide an extensive array of services and facilities exclusively for their residents, including parks, playgrounds, sports pitches, health clinics and landscaping.

Making the same services and facilities available within each project effectively prevents interaction between residents and people living outside of their development. What’s more, these projects often exist in neighbourhoods which lack publicly accessible open spaces such as parks and playgrounds.

This is a city-wide problem in Istanbul since the amount of publicly accessible green spaces in Istanbul is as low as 2.2 per cent of the total urban area. In London, 33 per cent of the city’s area is made up of parks and gardens open to the public – which shows the severity of the problem in Istanbul.

These branded housing projects do not feature any affordable units or social housing, so there are no opportunities for less privileged city-dwellers to enjoy vital facilities such as green spaces. This has knock-on effects on excluded residents’ mental and physical health, contributing to greater inequality in these respects, too.

Emerging alternatives

To prevent increasing inequality, exclusion and segregation in cities, fundamental urban services must be maintained or improved and kept in public ownership and made accessible for every city-dweller. There are emerging alternatives that show ways to do this and challenge privatisation policies.

For example, in some cities, local governments have “remunicipalised” key services, bringing them back into public ownership. A report by Dutch think-tank the Transnational Institute identified 235 cases where water supplies were remunicipalised across 37 countries between 2000 and 2015. The water remunicipalisation tracker keeps track of successful examples of remunicipalisation cases around the world, as well as ongoing campaigns.

It is vitally important to keep urban services public and reverse subtle forms or privatisation by focusing on delivering a decent standard of living for all residents. Local authorities need to be committed to this goal – but they must also receive adequate funds from local taxes and central governments. Only then, will quality services be available to all people living in cities.

The Conversation

Bilge Serin, Research Associate, University of Glasgow.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.