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.

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

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