WMNEG first met in 1994 to apply the ideas of the New Economics Foundation to the economy of Birmingham and the West Midlands. Since then we have developed our own unique response to the practical economic problems of the City and the Region through dialogue with many other organisations and bodies of opinion. We focus on economic activity activity designed to last and to meet people’s basic needs.
New Economics opposes the short-term exploitation of people, natural resources and the environment typical of industrialised societies. E F Schumacher, in his book “Small is Beautiful” describes it as “a study of economics as if people mattered”.
Outside the meeting members carried their understanding into their own sphere of influence and activity. An early collaboration with a group of teachers at the University of Central England (since renamed Birmingham City University) resulted in the publication in 1996 of Struggling with Sustainability. This was followed in 1997 by Alan Clawley’s New Green Guide to Birmingham published with the support of Birmingham City Council.
WMNEG members attended a number of meetings in Birmingham of the Real World Coalition and George Heron attended the NEF Conference in Edinburgh. WMNEG was somewhat left out of the City Council’s Local Agenda 21 working groups in 1997 but after a meeting between WMNEG members and Jane Forshaw, Birmingham City Council’s Local Agenda 21 Officer, WMNEG was invited to join in the Indicators Working Groups and the Agenda Setting Group for the Environmental Forum. George Heron and Alan Clawley had meetings with City Council officers to request funding from the Saltley and Small Heath Single Regeneration Budget for a Centre for Promoting Self-Sufficiency. This proved to be unfruitful because the project did not fit wholly into any one budget heading and there was not enough money in them to support the full cost. Some of the ideas in the proposal were being done by others, such as self-build housing.
In 2002 WMNEG was awarded a grant of £10,000 by the West Midlands Social Economy Partnership to do an action research study entitled Sustainable Housing in Small Heath. Study visits were made and a report was published in 2004 for distribution to policy-makers, practitioners and academics. In order to implement some of the proposals in the report a new charitable company, the East Birmingham Community Energy Company was formed in 2006. This had some early success in raising funds for community outreach but ultimately failed to gain access to the government’s 2008 Green New Deal programme. It is currently dormant.
WMNEG attended or was represented on a number of bodies and organisations with which it sympathised. Representatives of WMNEG were members of Localise West Midlands during its formative years 2001 to 2005. Andrew Lydon continued to belong to LWM under whose auspices he has developed a body of work on indices of inflation. During the lifetime of the West Midlands Constitutional Convention WMNEG members took part in many meetings but the negative outcome of the national referendum led to its demise. The idea of regional government resurfaced in 2015 but not in the democratic form envisaged by WMNEG and its allies.
From 2002 to 2005 WMNEG was represented by Alan Clawley and Andrew Lydon on the Eastside Sustainability Advisory Group to which they submitted papers and attended many meetings. Whilst the final outcome was disappointing the management fee received from the Regional Development Agency enabled WMNEG to fund its activities for several years whilst members paid a nominal subscription.
The New Labour government of 1997-2010 gave the public many opportunities to comment on draft policy papers. WMNEG responded to many of these and attended a number of big local consultative conventions chaired by Clare Short MP when she was Minister at the Department for International Development (DFID).
CHALLENGING THE PLANNING SYSTEM
Andrew Lydon and Alan Clawley spoke at the Public Planning Inquiry in 1996 against the development of green belt land at Peddimore for a silicon chip factory during which Counsel for the City Council described the concept of sustainability as ‘protean’ and accused objectors of being opposed to all development.
A planning application for the redevelopment of Nechells Power Station for an entertainment complex to be known as Star City was received by the Council in 1997. WMNEG engaged the Neighbourhood Initiatives Foundation (NIF) with a grant from the Digbeth Trust, to mount a Planning for Real exercise to come up with a ‘sustainable’ alternative. The outcome was inconclusive. NIF was not experienced in applying its non-verbal participation model to the abstract concept of sustainability in a neighbourhood that had no local residents. The exercise did however demonstrate the difficulty of defining sustainable development in concrete language.
At the AGM in January 2018 it was decided that the speaker at each meeting would chair it.