An essay by Michael Bassey December 2016


A basic premise of this essay is that happiness matters:  it must be built into any new political framework.  One of the essentials for happiness is having something worthwhile to do: occupation to which one can devote much of one’s time and energy and gain personal satisfaction.  

So unemployment must be tackled.  But in tackling the problem of global warming by moving from fossil fuels to environmental sources of energy, some industries will suffer and unemployment will rise.  So some new thinking is desperately needed.  Here I am drawing on my 2012 book Convivial Policies for the Inevitable [i].  


What follows is the case for developing local communities that to some extent are self-sustaining.  The argument assumes that everybody is in receipt of citizen’s income and every earner pays income tax on a progressive scale (as described above).      

The essential idea is to enable people who have no paid work the opportunity to engage in worthwhile activities within the local community and through this build a lively community spirit.  

Everybody needs money to buy the necessities of life.  Most people have a job that provides this money.  Some people have no job and receive money as a benefit from the state.  Children depend upon the income of their parent(s).  Older people depend upon pensions. That is today’s model.  

A different model is proposed here starting with the premise that everybody, from birth to death, receives a citizen’s income from the state. This is just sufficient to live on.  Most people will seek a paid job in order to live above the mere subsistence level although in families with young children or with aged members who need regular attention, often only one adult will be in a paid job.   

What of those who cannot find a job?  Automation is already cutting jobs and one of the consequences of avoiding fossil fuels is likely to be job losses, so more people will not be earning an income. The proposal here is that these people have the opportunity to work, unpaid, in the programme of the local community.  How this programme arises and functions needs careful administrative and financial support.  Underlying it is the concept of local partial sustainability.  

Instead of thinking on the scale of nation, county or district, start with the parish.  In most rural and many suburban parts of the country the local unit of government is the parish – with a parish council which, if very limited in its powers, is a democratic body elected by the local adults. They vary in size from a hundred or so households to several thousand.  According to Wikipedia there are 8,500 parish councils in England and they embrace 35% of the population.  

What of the other 65% of the population, living for the most part in denser living spaces?  Local government in England is gloriously complicated with counties, metropolitan boroughs, London boroughs, non-metropolitan districts, unitary authorities and other bodies.  In principle, however naïve this may seem, they could be sub-divided into parishes for the purposes to be described.  There is, of course, the considerable problem of drawing boundaries to delineate parishes, but it could be done.    


The central idea is that parishes could become to some extent self-sustaining, ie looking after themselves by growing some of the food they need, generating some of the energy they consume, and in part looking after the disabled, infirm and aged of their parish.  Essentially it needs to be done on a very local scale.  

Suppose that a particular parish council votes to participate in a Community Self-Sustaining (CSS) programme.   Suppose that this means that for say five years they will have an ‘executive mayor’ who is a trained professional worker who will lead the CSS development of the parish.  He or she will be appointed by the parish council as someone whom they feel they can trust and whom they believe can help the parish.  This executive mayor will be paid by national government for the five years of office and will have a limited sum available each year for parish projects.  

The first task for this executive mayor will be a geographical one – of dividing the parish into what may be called ‘manors’ – each an area with between say ten and fifty households.  These manors will be the main agencies for the Community Self-Sustaining programme.  Inevitably some manors will be eager to participate and others will reject the idea – the mayor works with those that choose to.  The workforce of the manor will be the unemployed and retired people who choose and are able to take part.  Each manor must be small enough for people to know each other and learn to trust each other, but large enough to have sufficient people to undertake whatever tasks are chosen by the manor.  

The executive mayor will then seek to identify persons who can take the lead, as a voluntary task, of developing the CSS programme in each manor.  Since ‘manor’ is a medieval term let’s use another one for this volunteer – ‘reeve’. 


The first task of the reeve is to foster any sense of neighbourliness that exists in the manor, or if it is lacking, begin to try to create it.  Neighbourliness is having positive answers to questions like these.
>  Do you know the people in the houses near to you? 
>  Do you ever visit each others’ houses?
>  If you ran out of, say milk, could you ask a neighbour for some? 
>  If you are away would they put out your refuse bin and take it in when emptied?
>  If you were to fall ill would you expect anyone nearby to come and support you?
>  When a new family moves into the neighbourhood are they welcomed?  

These are, in a way, very intimate questions about a neighbourhood.  In some places such relationships are taken for granted, in others, sadly, not.       

One way that the reeve could begin to develop neighbourhood spirit is through the Big Lunch.  This is a national programme of street parties, mostlyl held on the same summer day and promoted by the Eden Centre in Cornwall [ii].  This remarkable process, started in 2008, has been picked up in small communities all over Britain.  The national government has no part in it at all – it is just a happy idea promoted by a few entrepreneurs – and with no money changing hands!  It is described as:
“a day when, for a few glorious hours, cars stop, shyness stops, gloom stops and Britain comes together in the street to meet, greet, share, swap, sing, play, and laugh for no reason  other than we all need to.”  

The second task for the reeve will be to make some kind of a survey and census of the manor.  She/he will need to learn which people could be involved one way or another in the Community Self-Sustaining Programme.   Who are unemployed or retired and could become active in the project?  Who are elderly or infirm and may benefit from local support and help?  Who live under roofs that could carry solar energy panels?  Is there unused land that could be turned into allotments?   

A long-term aim of the Community Self-Sustaining Programme should be to develop some sustainability in each manor.  To this end there could be three major objectives for the manor to try to work towards:
(1) growing some food;
(2) generating some energy;
(3) giving some support to members of the manor who are sick, infirm or otherwise needing help.  

For growing potatoes, other vegetables and fruit the manor needs some land that can be treated as common land.  It might be a communal plot or divided into individual allotments.  Chickens might be reared for eggs and for meat.   This is going to be easier in rural and suburban areas.  It may be that only the third objective can be achieved in densely populated urban areas – unless roofs can house vegetable plots and solar panels.    

The most obvious way of generating energy is solar panels on roofs – for either hot water or electricity.  In some areas small wind turbines may be appropriate and where there is sufficient common land quick growing wood, such as pollarded willows, could provide fuel for wood-burning stoves.  

Supporting those in need of help will depend upon the extent to which neighbourliness has developed.  For the infirm elderly it could be a vital contribution to their staying in their own homes.  

An important aspect of the concept of the manor is that it is small enough to act as an everybody-participating democracy.  Decisions on what to grow and how to share what has been grown should be taken by the manor as a whole, acting under the leadership of the reeve.  It will all be part of the growth of local neighbourliness.  

It is not intended that anywhere should be completely self-contained, but rather that people should find some alternatives to buying everything with money obtained in employment and from citizen’s income.  And for those who are workless – either because there are no jobs, or because they have retired but still have some energy – these voluntary activities could provide the mystical quality of meaning to their lives as well as opportunities to associate with others in worthwhile tasks. As noted earlier they need some state income - citizen’s income which, of course, comes from the taxes paid by those in paid work across the country.[iii]

The executive mayor would be an adviser to the reeves and also the source of limited funds allocated by government for the purchase of tools, seeds, energy-generating equipment, etc.  She/he would negotiate the feed-in tariffs to the electricity companies for any electricity generated by the contributing manors in the parish.  She/he might establish a parish ‘food market’ once a week where any surplus from the manor allotments could be sold or bartered.  In addition the mayor might organize – or cause to be organized – sports and social events for the parish.  

These suggestions are not intended to supplant national provision.  In particular the work of the social services and national health service would not be reduced but augmented by the volunteering.  But our present dependence on imported foods and fuels could be reduced and prepare us all for any major crises that lie ahead.  

Over time other forms of self-sufficiency might develop.  For example building eco-houses and making simple furniture. Also existing clubs, sports facilities, local societies might become involved and new ones developed in accord with local interests.   After five years, say, the executive mayor should be replaced by a democratically elected mayor of the parish – a local person, unpaid, who hopefully, as best able, would continue the sustainable development of the parish and its manors.   

Does it sound like the probably phony idyll of Merrie England before land enclosures robbed the peasantry of the opportunity of growing their own crops?  It is not.  It is an answer to the enforced idleness that rampant forms of capitalism put undeservedly onto some communities.  It is an answer to the loss of paid employment that may arise as the national economy flat-lines (or declines) due to national changes in energy provision.  It is an answer to transport becoming more difficult and people needing to live more within their own communities.  It is an answer to the repairs needed for freak storm damage associated with global warming because communities will be more geared to supporting each other and doing things for themselves.   

With the benefit of scientific understanding of small-scale agriculture and small-scale energy generation it can herald worthwhile activity for the workless of today.  By mobilising volunteers it can foster community support for the aged and infirm by helping them to live in their own homes.  

These ideas are in tune with the democratic ideal that government should not be the fiefdom of the rich and powerful but a manifestation of the will of the people.  Parochial manors with competent reeves may be an important answer to unemployment today and to many of the problems of the future.  

Above all, they can put happiness into the lives of people who have little prospect of paid employment, but every opportunity for community involvement.

[i] Convivial Policies for the Inevitable, Michael Bassey, (2012)  Bookguild, Brighton [Now out-of-print but copies available from the Resurgence Trust, Bodmin, Cornwall, PL30 3BR]
[ii] www.thebiglunch.com
[iii] There is a coherence of the ideas of citizen’s income, minimum and maximum wage, and community self-sustainability, but it could lead to numbers of people choosing unpaid community work rather than paid but uncongenial employment and clearly this could affect the revenue from taxation.  It would require careful planning by the Treasury.
[iv] After I had first put these ideas together I came across Rob Hopkins book, The Transition Handbook:  from oil dependency to local resilience (2009) Green Books, Totnes, Devon where similar notions are developed.