Let's repay the sacrifices of Britain's poorest by building a greener country once the coronavirus crisis ends

It’s not enough for the government to abandon some of the destructive shibboleths of the past. It must go further and make the health, resilience and wellbeing of people the focus of all public policy

Caroline Lucas
Saturday 25 April 2020 13:53
Police patrol parks and tell people not to sunbathe in London as sunny weather hits UK

There are lots of things which are being turned on their head during this coronavirus crisis. Not least a recognition of who our economy and society really depend on (clue: it’s not the hedge funds) and that government does after all have a money tree when it’s needed.

It’s also laid bare Conservative government claims about careful management of the economy. How much more resilient might we have been to the shock of Covid-19 if public services, including the NHS, local authorities and Public Health England, had not been cut to the bone? The policy of austerity is being shown to have been the grotesque political mistake it was.

We need to learn from all this, and ensure that as we come out of this crisis, our recovery is both fair and green. That means rejecting a business-as-before approach which would merely patch over the wounds of this crisis and leave us equally or more vulnerable to the next. We must not address this emergency by making others like the climate emergency worse.

So how do we build a better, fairer, greener future? We begin by facing up to the truth that this crisis has had the biggest impact on those who were already the worst off, in low-paid or insecure jobs, forced to lockdown in homes with no access to open space, or left risking their lives as carers, shelf stackers or cleaners.

Their sacrifice needs to be recognised with a commitment to build back better.

That means redesigning our economy to meet the needs of everyone in the UK for food and shelter, with a guaranteed basic income. It’s not enough for the government to abandon some of the destructive shibboleths of the past. It must go further and make the health, resilience and wellbeing of people the focus of all public policy.

As a start, strict conditions should be applied to companies that ask for financial support during and beyond the lockdown. Seeing companies which routinely avoid taxes or have huge pay ratios is deeply offensive. There should be no bailouts for fossil fuel industries, and companies which are driving the climate crisis should be required to adopt targets in line with the Paris Agreement.

The UK has some of the most energy-inefficient homes in Europe leaving many families having to choose between food or staying warm. One dreads to think what the impact of Covid-19 might have been if it had struck in the middle of winter. It may well return then.

We urgently need to insulate and retrofit all homes, not only tackling fuel poverty but creating thousands of skilled jobs and combating fuel poverty. Plans for this could start now, with a directly supported retrofit programme for vulnerable households and a national retrofit fund for social housing, available to local authorities.

We have learned the past few weeks how vulnerable our food system is – with no one to harvest food grown in the UK and supermarkets dependent on long supply chains. Farmers have been forced to pour milk down the drain or leave crops unpicked while families go hungry. Food insecurity has quadrupled during this crisis.

Government support should go to small farms and local shops and this sector should be prioritised after the immediate crisis has passed. There should be funding for local food networks with a focus on agroecological farming so we start the shift towards a resilient, localised and regenerative food and farming system.

Covid-19 has revealed the importance of open space, how valuable it is to people for their sense of well-being, and how unequal access is. Too many people, trapped in small flats, have no access to green space.

While social distancing measures are in place (and they may be with us for some time) we should work with golf clubs to open more of the UK’s 300,000 acres of golf courses to walkers and public schools to open up their huge playing fields.

In the future, we could green our cities by setting a target for accessible green space, for instance within one kilometre of every home, and rewilding public land around hospitals, police stations and elsewhere with native grassland and trees.

If people cannot access parks, they should be able to walk along streets unpolluted by traffic. All councils should be encouraged to reallocate road space so everyone can walk, cycle, shop or exercise safely. I’m glad to see Green councillors in my own city of Brighton taking a lead on this with proposals for car-free zones by 2023.

Covid-19 has exposed the fragility of our economy – the inequality, and the insecurity and poverty of millions of our fellow citizens. While we may all be weathering the same storm, we are not all in the same boat.

The government has demanded huge sacrifices of everyone, some more than others. This needs to be repaid with an economic and social system that benefits everyone.

Caroline Lucas is the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion

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