Denise Kingsmill: How Brits get by on less

From allotments to solar power, online trading to discount stores, the UK is adapting to a zero-growth economy.

by Denise Kingsmill
Last Updated: 01 Oct 2012

October is a beautiful month but, notwithstanding Keats, the mood of the season is not one of 'mellow fruitfulness'. The recession persists and politicians across Europe continue to depress with their lack of vision and the one-track strategy of austerity. The endless talk of economic crisis, cuts and deficit reduction serves to sap confidence in all of us. Despite warnings from the OECD and the IMF that austerity without growth is a hazardous dead end, offering no prospect of progress, development or improvement in the economy or in people's lives, finance ministers persist with discredited economic policies.

The trend is towards frugal living, as people adapt to a no/low-growth economy. Some have no choice, but even those who have not yet suffered the worst effects of job loss or pay cuts have responded to the mood of the times. Demand for allotments is growing, as people seek to produce their own food to save on household costs.

It is estimated that more than six million people are interested in the idea of an allotment. The increased awareness of the provenance and sustainability of food production encouraged by celebrity chefs, as well as the health and environmental benefits of gardening, have contributed to the demand for more space to grow food. There are many hectares of vacant brownfield land that could be developed into allotments, community gardens and urban farms.

The London mayor, Boris Johnson, following the example of Vancouver for the winter Olympics of 2010, announced a scheme to create more than 2,000 growing plots in the capital to feed Olympic athletes. Housing developers such as Crest Nicholson have recognised the opportunity and have included 'edible landscaping' or rooftop allotments in some of their developments. British Waterways (the Canal and River Trust since July) has also made available unused stretches of waterway for floating allotments on retired workboats. With global food shortages and concerns about the security of supply, small-scale domestic food production makes good sense from a national perspective as well as for the individual.

The recession has also increased the interest in the self-generation of energy. Not long ago, Brunel University gave a prize for the most innovative power generation method to a young boy who had devised a way to recharge his mobile phone by harnessing the energy of his pet hamster in its wheel. Unfortunately, such methods are not really scalable.

However, solar power has become more and more widespread. In the UK, there have been around 350,000 installations, roughly the equivalent of the output of one fossil-fuel power station. In other parts of Europe - for example, Germany - the figures are much higher. However, as costs come down and with sensible government support, this form of energy generation could significantly displace fossil-fuelled generation. As people, businesses and communities become able to generate their own electricity, it is likely they will become more engaged with their own consumption and with energy efficiency, with the consequent benefits not only of cost but also for climate change.

More and more people are having to find ways of saving money or even earning a little on the side. There has been an increase in the numbers of eBay sellers creating small businesses from selling not only their own unwanted goods but also those of friends, family and community for commission. My 22-year-old niece has become an expert, paying for her summer holiday through skilful buying and selling on eBay.

Discount shops are one of the few kinds of high-street retailers that are flourishing, as people are forced to look for bargains. Chains such as Poundland, Home Bargains and 99p stores, which were once scruffy downmarket businesses, are now applying professional retail standards and are seen as growth opportunities. It is estimated that the sector could be worth more than £8bn by 2015.

When a respected retail heavyweight such as Tesco's former finance director, Andrew Higginson, became chairman of Poundland recently, the City sat up and took notice, anticipating an imminent IPO. It is clear that the stigma attached to value retailing has gone when even the middle classes of affluent Twickenham welcomed the recent opening of a Poundland in their town.

A rather more unpleasant growth sector is that of the so-called payday loan companies. The financial crisis has drastically reduced the availability of bank credit and has driven those in need of quick cash to the tender mercies of the 'alternative loan industry'. These companies, such as Wonga, are subject to much looser regulation than banks. The sector is estimated to be worth around £1.7bn, having expanded rapidly in the past five years. This has been achieved by charging huge penalty and rollover fees that can spiral into sums hundreds or even thousands of pounds greater than the original loan, and by targeting the poor and desperate.

It has to be said that the abject failure of the banking sector to meet the reasonable credit needs of ordinary people and the reluctance of regulators to cap the cost of credit have enabled this startling and worrying growth. Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow and one of the potential stars of the 2010 parliamentary intake, has taken up this challenge on behalf of some of her constituents under the banner of 'Wonga is Wronga'.

Out of adversity can come opportunity for some, but this prolonged downturn is hard scrabble for most.

Baroness Kingsmill is a non-executive director of various British, European and US boards. Lady Kingsmill can be contacted on editorial@managementtoday.com

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