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.