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.

 
 
 
 

Older people need better homes – but then, so does everybody else

Colne, Lancashire. Image: Getty.

Towards the end of last year, I started as an associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, working particularly on our goal around safe and accessible homes. Before I arrived, Ageing Better had established some ambitious goals for this work: by 2030, we want the number of homes classed as decent to increase by a million, and by the same date to ensure that at least half of all new homes are built to be fully accessible.

We’ve all heard the statistics about the huge growth in the number of households headed by someone over 65, and the exponential growth in the number of households of people over 85. Frustratingly, this is often presented as a problem to be solved rather than a major success story of post war social and health policy. Older people, like everyone else, have ambitions for the future, opportunities to make a full contribution to their communities and to continue to work in fulfilling jobs.

It is also essential that older people, again like everyone else, should live in decent and accessible homes. In the last 50 years we have made real progress in improving the quality of our homes, but we still have a lot to do. Our new research shows that over 4 million homes across England fail to meet the government’s basic standards of decency. And a higher proportion of older people live in these homes than the population more generally, with over a million people over the age of 55 living in conditions that pose a risk to their health or safety.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure all our homes meet a decent standard. A small number of homes require major and expensive remedial work, but the overwhelming majority need less than £3,000 to hit the mark. We know how to do it. We now need the political will to make it a priority. Apart from the benefits to the people living in the homes, investment of this kind is great for the economy, especially when so many of our skilled tradespeople are older. Imagine if they were part of training young people to learn these skills.


At a recent staff away day, we explored where we would ideally want to live in our later lives. This was not a stretch for me, although for some of our younger colleagues it is a long way into the future.

The point at which the conversation really took off for me was when we moved away from government definitions of decency and accessibility and began to explore the principles of what great homes for older people would be like. We agreed they needed light and space (by which we meant real space – our national obsession with number of bedrooms as opposed to space has led to us building the smallest new homes in Europe).

We agreed, too, that they needed to be as flexible as possible so that the space could be used differently as our needs change. We thought access to safe outdoor space was essential and that the homes should be digitally connected and in places that maximise the potential for social connection.

Of course, it took us just a few seconds to realise that this is true for virtually everyone. As a nation we have been dismal at moving away from three-bed boxes to thinking differently about what our homes should look like. In a world of technology and factory building, and as we build the new generation of homes we desperately need, we have a real chance to be bold.

Great, flexible homes with light and space, in the places where people want to live. Surely it’s not too much to ask?

David Orr is associate director – homes at the Centre for Ageing Better.