Monday 26 September 2011

Northern Distributor Road - It's the Ecos, Stupid

Welcome to the Outreach section of our Transition Themes Week where writers and community activists relate what is happening around the city within a Transition context. The proposed Northern Distributor Road was the key subject in one of TN's early theme groups that met to discuss Transport. Here Andrew Boswell puts this controversial scheme into a clear (and global) perspective and challenges "the shadowy world of economic hallucinations".

All last week, there was a debate in the Eastern Daily Press over whether the Government should fund the Norwich Northern Distributor Road – a £112.5m scheme on which the Council has already spent at least £15m of local people’s Council Tax. The arguments can get very technical – too complicated for many people to bother with. It’s my job to engage at that level day-to-day, and I have spent literally months poring over calculations of projected congestion levels, consultation responses, planning policy statements etc but I often feel we all just need to stand back and look at it all much more simply.

The issues really come down to what sort of future do we want – how do we want to live, work, play, eat? And crucially, what will future people feel about these fundamentals of human existence. That sounds a bit like Ecos – the root of the words economy and ecology.

What is on offer with the road proposal and the associated plans for Greater Norwich is massive housing growth in North East Norwich that is pure and simple ‘business as usual’. This was clear when the County Council’s PR offensive hit the EDP front page on 9th September with the headline “NEW BID FOR ‘£1.3bn’ ROAD”. No, I hadn’t got all my decimal points wrong on the cost of the road above – it turns out that this bigger number represents the benefits: the County are hanging their bid to Government on the road “adding £1.3bn” to the Norfolk economy. That’s £1,300,000,000 if you like lots of noughts. But has anybody at Norfolk County Council tried really defined what “economy” means?

I never tire of Satish Kumar’s wisdom having first come across him and Resurgence at the first Schumacher Lectures in Bristol in, I think, 1977 – an event that started to change my view on the world. Satish has written widely on what real economy means, here he is recently in Brazil:
The word ‘economy’ is made from two Greek words ‘ecos’ and ‘nomos’. ‘Ecos’ means the earth household and ‘nomos’ means the management of it, so I want to ask the world leaders, are you managing the earth household or are you managing only the financial capital? True wealth is not money, money is only a measure of wealth, true wealth is land, animals, forests, clean water, human communities and human intelligence. If we have lots of money but the natural capital is diminished then what good is that economy so please understand the true meaning of economy and manage it properly for all people now and future generations and create a system which is harmonious for all living beings.
However, I don’t think that is quite what the Norfolk officialdom folk mean with the £1.3bn claim. Even from the mainstream, rationale point of view, I am very sceptical, in the best sense of the word, about this claim and what it means. If you build 37,000 houses and then create lots of jobs of business parks and out-of-town retail centres for the inhabitants … and, if, the economy suddenly goes back to what it was in the last decade before 2008, and that is a big IF, then, sure, you must add something measureable to the ‘size’ of the economy. But that’s not adding something to the current economy – its actually saying if you replace Norwich over twenty years with a city like Nottingham, you have something bigger and, yes, it generates more business.

The £1.3bn claim keeps making me think of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where a computer is invented to discover the answer to the “Question of Life, The Universe and Everything” – the good old computer comes up with 42. Somehow, those folk at County Hall seem to have come up with a computer into which you pour lots of concrete, carbon emissions, lost landscapes, congestion, future human stress and found it comes up with the answer £1.3bn.

We all know too that some of this calculation involves adding up the fractions of time that a new road might shave of journeys and places a value on time - see references 8 and 9 in this article by George Monbiot for a good expose of this. Of course, this is not real money – not many people will be able to say “well, I saved 5 minutes each way of my commute since that brilliant road opened, and that’s enabled me to grow my business 50% this year”.

What is really disturbing is that the Council are still trying to tell people that all this growth, and the huge number attached to its value, will bring us a veritable land of milk and honey. In fact, they have been telling Norfolk people for years, that it is the ONLY way to the Promised Land.

Lots of big questions come to mind. The most obvious one that I don’t need to spell out for Transition and One World Column readers is ‘is it at all likely that this sort of economic growth vision will actually happen?’. Well, as I write, the latest ‘Markets plunge’ story is on all the newsfeeds, the Greeks are striking against extreme austerity measures, and all commentators are talking about a double-dip UK recession, and possible “contagion” spreading around Western European economies. And, yet, people are still thinking that this sort of business as usual model is going to continue and that it is the only vision for the future.

There is a much deeper question. Even if, our economies recover from the current situation, is this what people want? Everywhere that this sort of urban sprawl has been built, it hasn’t benefitted the local people. The main beneficiaries are the retail park owners, the likes of Tescos and B&Q, and the businesses like Aviva. For the ordinary person, high carbon transport brings lack of choice, greater conformity and greater dependence on the car leading to isolation for some people. Money is sucked out of the local economy to London, Chicago, Beijing as fast as you can say ‘N D R’.

And then there is personal happiness and fulfilment. One has to be careful with this nowadays because despite all the years of good work by the people of Bhutan and the New Economics Foundation, the Government and David Cameron have suddenly latched on this. Wellbeing and happiness are the latest words due to have their meaning corrupted like sustainability and, yes, economy.

When you look at real wellbeing and real economy in the way Satish Kumar suggests, then it is hard to see how the road and its associated way of living will bring us any closer. It might be convenient for a few often, and convenient for others occasionally, but that’s not wellbeing. And the costs of that are landscape destruction, congestion and high carbon emissions. It’s clear that carrying on trying to pursue the business as usual, growth at 3% a year, is not just going to not give us happiness and wellbeing, but its actually going cause more harm and damage.

Transition and One World readers, and many others, are already working day to day for another vision. One based upon the true meaning of economy and ecos: an ecological society based in social justice. The challenges for this century to tackle climate change and resource depletion make concrete trophies like the NDR an irrelevance to real progress as they steal vital resources from social and environmental welfare. The economy needs stability and diversity not endless growth – a steady state economy is quite possible. Many of us are already downsizing to help economic and climate stability.

By the way, if you need any convincing that a shadowy “Yes, Minister” world occupies the corridors of powers at County, check out these two links: Link 1 and Link 2.

It is important for us to challenge the shadowy world of economic hallucinations that try to take us further down a destructive path – the growth-at-all-costs machine and its cogwheels like the NDR. Over the next few weeks, it is vital that many people write to the Department of Transport and ask them not to fund this road.

The public has an opportunity to comment on the bid until October 14. Comments can be made to the DfT by emailing

If you wish to send a letter please email the campaign against the road on and we will send you some guidance notes on the key issues that we hope people will tell the DfT. The postcard image above gives some headline points too. Many thanks. Andrew

This piece was also published this week in the OneWorldColumn.

1 comment:

  1. It isn't all like this fortunately. This morning I reviewed a plan by our local District Council to remove the A40 from the middle of Town and divert it to the South. The objective was to create a better Town Centre and improve the quality of life. The report accepted that this might slow down journey times but it was worth it. Heartening! And we hardly consider ourselves to be a massivley progressive area either. You are right though - we too think the Council simply makes the numbers up to get the result they want. Sometimes this cuts both ways.