Examination of Witnesses (Questions 570
WEDNESDAY 2 MAY 2001
570. Gentlemen, you came in towards the end
of the previous session so you probably missed the interchange
about localisation that ought to take place, so we have introduced
your topic in a sense. Mr Harper is unwell?
(Mr Allen) He is unwell, yes.
571. But he will get over it, will he? We have
had people collapse in front of this Committee so we are anxious
(Mr Allen) We are in good health.
Chairman: You are Paul Allen, the Development
Director, and Joey Hughes, who is the Media Officer for the Centre
for Alternative Technology. Thank you for coming here today. As
you know, or you may not know, we are trying to look at the world
after foot and mouth and various options and alternatives which
might open up which could be the subject for debate. It is in
that context that we have invited you to come and speak to us.
I suppose you might say your sponsor is Mr Öpik, if that
is a parliamentary expression, so I am going to give him the honours
of opening up the batting from our side.
572. I would be grateful, by your leave, Chairman,
if perhaps Paul could briefly describe what the Centre for Alternative
Technology was set up to achieve and what is its mission?
(Mr Allen) The Centre for Alternative Technology opened
to the public 25 years ago. In the early 1970s there was a lot
of talk about what is an environmental solution, what is a green
thing to do. A lot of that talk was very constructive but happened
very late at night and was very abstract. The Centre was set up
to practically test out sustainable technologies to see if they
deliver in terms of economics, in terms of reducing the emissions
that they claim to do, and in terms of whether they are solutions
that real families can live with in real homes. Over the past
25 years we have grown enormously. We now receive 70,000, 80,000
visitors per annum. A lot of those are holiday makers, they are
also schools, and an increasing number of businesses are approaching
us. Our mission has always been solutions driven environmentalism.
There are other organisations better equipped than we are to highlight
the problems. Our role, as we see it, is to inspire, inform and
enable all sectors of society to take up practical green solutions.
573. So you are not a back to the Stone Age
(Mr Allen) No, not at all.
574. Not the BBC live on the Shetlands for five
years with a spear?
(Mr Allen) We were technical consultants to the Castaway
programme looking at isolated systems of energy generation or
dealing with sewage, so we had a hand in it but we do not recommend
that is a solution for everybody in the UK.
575. Thank you for that overview. One of the
most recent initiatives which, as you know, I have been very impressed
by is the "Think Local" Initiative which you launched
at the start of April as a recipe for recovery. I understand it
aims to promote the importance of robust and diverse local economies.
Could you briefly describe what the "Think Local" Initiative
is about and whether it is a response simply to foot and mouth
or whether you see it having a more strategic importance?
(Mr Allen) Certainly. It grew largely out of our conversations
with the general public and visitors. People want to do something
positive to help. They were initially told to stay out of the
countryside, that was what a member of the public could do, and
then the message was changed that perhaps staying out of the countryside
was not the best thing to do but what they had to do was stay
away from cattle and farms. It needs to go beyond that if people
are to become involved in the recovery. What we are suggesting
is not a return to the Stone Age or the Good Life, as Richard
Briers would have us live it, but selective localisation, not
self-sufficiency that we start making our own shoes and toothbrushes
and so forth. Within what a typical family may buy in a week there
are things which are very sensible and very ripe for re-localisation.
We added the "re" because things did originally come
locally but they were de-localised probably in the 1950s and 1960s.
There are a lot of positive gains from re-localisation. What it
does is reduces the externalities. These are costs which are not
paid by the producer or the consumer. In 1998 it was estimated
that there were £2.3 billion worth of external costs to the
way we do our agriculture which were not paid by producers or
consumers, they were in terms of the cost of pollution of aeroplanes
travelling food around, pesticides getting into the water, etc.
This year with the huge losses faced by small hoteliers, bed and
breakfast owners, tourist attractions and so forth, the external
losses to the way we do agriculture are likely to be very much
greater. Re-localisation would reduce the risk of unforeseen difficulties,
such as BSE, where you find that the way we do agriculture with
a lot of inputs has caused some unusual outputs. It would also
reduce the spread of infections like foot and mouth. I am sure
you are more than aware that the profile of the way the disease
has spread this time is very different from the 1967 outbreak
when we were not moving cattle and food about anywhere near the
distances that we are now. It also supports the local farmers,
adding value to their produce, because produce that is sold directly
to the public has a higher value than produce which is sold to
a supermarket chain or a wholesaler. It also reduces consumer
concerns. The butcher in Machynlleth has struggled for many years
to keep his independent local slaughterhouse open and now for
the meat he sells he has a big list of all the farmers and their
telephone numbers and challenges his customers to ring any of
the numbers and ask any questions about the produce. As well as
that it also meets an awful lot of other targets and drivers which
are approaching us. I am sure you are all aware of the summary
of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution's Report, Energy
in a Changing Climate, which set us targets of something like
60 per cent CO2 cuts by 2050 if we are to achieve contraction
and convergence. We cannot hope to achieve those sorts of targets
if we are still driving food 750 miles to do a 50 mile journey.
Also, de-localised systems become very fragile, as the fuel protests
showed us, the shops become empty after three days with no means
of stocking locally. Future crises may be less self-inflicted
than the last fuel crisis, they may be outside the control of
the population of the UK, it could be an America-China war or
whatever, and we may find that we are without fuel for very much
longer than last time. Re-localised systems give a better chance
of providing food and you keep the infrastructure in the area,
you keep the skills and resources in the area.
576. Who are you aiming to perform the function
(Mr Allen) The free market system depends upon the
whim of individual consumers. We think that if individual consumers
were made aware of the external costs, social and economic, of
a lot of the de-localised systems, then they would make more informed
choices. Also, if everybody wants to help the local economy and
if the links were made and consumers could clearly see that buying
local has a positive effect on the local economy then there would
be more emphasis. We spend between ten and 20 per cent of our
average incomes on food and we spend much more, maybe 40 or 50
per cent, on cultural items which make a statement about how we
are and what we believe in. If some of that cultural spend could
be included in the food spend, and part of where we buy our food
and what we buy is a statement about who we are and what we believe,
then I think more consumers would consider buying local. It is
an initiative that is aiming to better inform consumers than it
is to bring in legislation that prevents the sale of de-localised
577. Clearly it is an initiative being promoted
by the Centre for Alternative Technology but who, in your judgment,
should be the key driver to carry this forward?
(Mr Allen) There are many levels. The first thing
we would flag up is we do not have all the answers, there is a
lot more research that needs to be done. It is not just re-localising
food, it could be re-localising all sorts of other things. It
could be re-localising financial borrowing through Credit Unions.
There are many solutions appropriate to many locations. There
are a lot of practical examples working in the UK and across Europe
but there is no organisation working across all the sectors. For
example, the Soil Association's Local Food Links looks at food
but it does not see how that relates to re-localising other aspects
of what we do, like our borrowing or clothes manufacture or whatever
is appropriate to that region.
(Mr Hughes) To some extent there is a need to look
into what kind of local economy mix you want and that may well
be site specific depending on your region. There is not really
that integrated look with regards to the research of local economies,
it always seems to be sectoral. No-one is looking at what kind
of mix makes a local economy work. I think that is where there
is a definite need for research to be done.
578. And Government's role in this?
(Mr Hughes) The Government has a role in sponsoring
research and in encouraging research.
579. What about promoting the strategy of re-localisation
itself on a UK-wide basis if you see this as at least a UK-wide
(Mr Allen) There are organisations that are promoting
business development in all the regions across the UK. For example,
the WDA does that in Wales. If they were given a brief to include
an aspect of re-localisation in their strategy for how they are
going to see their economies develop over the next ten or 15 years
then that would trickle down.