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Neil McInroy

Q&A: Neil McInroy, Centre for Local Economic Strategies

Tell me about the centre’s work.

CLES is the UK’s leading member and research organisation dedicated to progressive economic thinking. A growing economy is all very well but how does that actually impinge upon real people, improve their lives and the places they live? We’re addressing citizenships, social exclusion, poverty and jobs, all the things that flow from a good economy.

We’ve been around for 30 years and our work is more relevant than ever , particularly post-crash. People are seeing that it’s not given that the economy is automatically going to work well. We want to make sure we get an economy which serves us all a whole lot better, an economy which is more inclusive and environmentally and socially just.

We’re not your usual think tank, focusing on abstract policy stuff – it’s increasingly more about animating, activating, catalysing, getting our hands dirty. We both think and do.


Could you give an example?

Our work with Greater Manchester Poverty Action Group is a case in point. The economic model here has been largely successful, but there are still high levels of deprivation and poverty. We’re looking at what could be actioned  more effectively to deal with poverty. 

[GMPAG was formed in 2013 following recommendations from CLES and the Greater Manchester Poverty Commission report, which found that one in five GM citizens live in extreme poverty. GMPAG aims to use cooperation between private and public sectors to create action on poverty.]


What are some of the key challenges in tackling poverty in Greater Manchester?

There’s the broad question of a national economy and how wealth circulates. Redistribution, the welfare state, de-industrialisation – all those accepted problems that are we know are the source of poverty. However what we feel is equally important is the collaborative local action of the public, private and social sectors; it’s about how they work together.

In this city local government is aware of poverty and tries to alleviate it, through a range of public sector activity. You’ve got a private sector that creates wealth, employs people but also is often involved in a range of philanthropic activities. And there’s also a flourishing of social activism and community activity. Our work is trying to see how these elements of local activity come together in more effective ways with a target of addressing poverty.


Let’s talk about the perception of poverty amongst the general public and policy makers. Do you feel it’s something that’s overlooked? Are people aware of the scale of the problem?

These days in modern cities, this one included, there tend to be parallel lives. For instance I live in fairly middle class Old Trafford and I’m probably fortunate in comparison to other people. However my life, in terms of how I use the city centre, where I go for recreation and so on, means I tend to only encounter people who share a certain level of material wealth. It’s maybe something we don’t often think about, but it’s the nature of modern cities. There is a kind of socio economic balkanisation.

Then there’s another cycle of life, in which some people are excluded from some places and activities. So the problem with regards to poverty is that we are often spatially, socially and economically blind to it.

Orthodox thinking simplistically believes that rising tides will lift our boats – the idea that wealth will filter down and lift poorer people up. There’s also an assumption that the national and local welfare state will stop people falling through the net.

There are two problems with both ideas. Firstly, trickle down doesn’t work effectively enough. Secondly, unprecedented levels of cuts mean we’ve got a weakening set of public services which are more and more incapable of picking up on the people who need those services the most.


And you believe the way forward is more collaboration, more joined-up action?

Indeed. Also at a national level we clearly need to understand that some places need more of a hand-up than other areas. The universal welfare system is good but clearly some of the cuts affect the poorest the hardest. We need a needs-based universal provision that gives more money to poorer areas in order to lift those areas and people up.

Moreover, we all have a responsibility to deal with poverty. For example you could argue that business has abdicated responsibility of social provision to the state through payments of corporation tax. Education, childcare, health, the environment…[businesses feel] that’s got nothing to do with them, it’s up to the state. But those things are important to businesses, because if you’ve got a worker living in poor housing, with high levels of ill health, with poor childcare – they’re going to be a poorly motivated and unproductive worker.

We don’t want to abandon the universal welfare state model but businesses have a duty to understand that their success is predicated partly on how they go the extra mile in supporting workers and the community.


What is the centre’s involvement in Greater Manchester’s sustainability agenda? How does the environment factor into your work?

We believe in an economy that creates social justice and works with the limits of the environment. We need to make a transition from a high-carbon society to a low-carbon society and that transition needs to happen pretty damn quick. We are very supportive of the green movement and environmental concerns.

However, how do we ask the poorest members of society, who have got no material wellbeing or security, to go green and act environmentally responsible. They are  struggling to make ends meet and they’re time and resource poor?

It’s not an easy argument to make, but I think it’s definitely the right one: that in certain circumstances we need to think about social justice first and then we can think about moving to environmental sustainability. Because we’re not going to get a movement of people going green when there’s a massive amount of people in poverty who are suffering.

It’s not either or. It’s both. But in some instances we need to think about social justice before we can begin tackling environmental concerns.

If a society wishes to move to greater levels of living within the limits of the environment, we’re going to have to work with what we’ve got. Middle classes and upper classes can go green because they’re time and resource rich.

Being in poverty is like having no future, every day you think about where am I going to eat now, how are my kids going to eat. There’s no ability to think beyond the immediacy of the situation. So unless we do something materially for them, we’re not going to get the transition to green.


But what about policies for green social housing, for instance? Do the two agendas – tackling poverty and lowering carbon emissions – have to be separate?

The pragmatist in me says we need to build people up. It’s a hard shift to mobilise someone who is worrying about making ends meet to act green, the only way is to get them somewhere on the material wealth ladder. So they can make the transition to acting green.

If you look at the low carbon agenda, not just here but in other cities, there’s actually a wicked issue at the heart of it, in that the low carbon economy has never resolved the issue of whether we’re going for growth, short medium or long term, or whether we’re abandoning growth. It seems to me that if you want to have a low carbon economy, in the short term you’re going to have to sacrifice some growth.


For the Greater Manchester Low Carbon Hub, growth is a key priority.

That’s the thing. Does one really believe that going for growth, short medium or long term, is the way to make a transition to a low carbon economy? I’m not denying you can have growth in a low carbon way but the vast majority of growth is predicated on burning fossil fuels.

If we really want to move to a low carbon economy, we’re going to have to sacrifice some growth. And that is politically unpalatable. There is a debate that needs to take place – an honest one – from the people involved in the green movement in this city and other cities, to say: do we really believe that you can have growth and a low carbon economy in the short term? We can’t have our economic growth and low carbon cake and eat it. Something has to maybe give.

There are some elements of the growth agenda that I think do have significant potential in terms of achieving low carbon, for instance the densification of the city centre, by reducing the distance people travel to work and play, is a good thing. But other issues, like Airport City or Oxford Road Corridor, are more distanced from the low carbon agenda.