Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”, published in 1962, is often credited as being the launch pad for the modern environmental movement. The “silence” is the absence of birdsong in American fields blighted by the spraying of chemicals.
Our silent spring of 2020 is of a different kind. Over the last few weeks trees have blossomed and lambs have been born, as ever. The natural world is indifferent, it seems, to the human pandemic. But in our towns and cities, there’s been a stillness as traffic has ebbed away and gatherings of people have vanished.
This is not a silver-lining. The temporary lull comes at enormous cost of the loss of loved ones and unique pressures on families, organisations and businesses. When change comes rapidly and with little advance-planning, it widens social division. It’s the poorest who bear the brunt.
So the coronavirus pandemic is a dark cul-de-sac on the way to a better Edinburgh. But it also shows that it is possible for governments to act on a big scale when necessary. Over the next few months we will need that same ambition, and then some, to do more than just return to status quo.
After all, we have discovered what is truly meant by “key worker”. Not just the super-hero staff in the NHS, but the army of cleaners, supermarket workers, bin workers, care assistants and the rest who are providing lifeline services, often on the lowest pay and insecure contracts. They deserve more than a weekly clap. Decent pay and a Citizens Basic Income – which Edinburgh is currently investigating with three other councils – would offer a radically different foundation for work and caring in the future.
Out on the streets, people sleeping rough have been housed and families have been moved out of bed and breakfast hostels into self-contained accommodation. There is still a lot to do on homelessness but it is now possible to imagine a capital city with no rough sleeping and no-one in homelessness B&Bs.
Right now there is a big scramble to turn empty holiday lets back into homes again. When the visitor economy picks up again, let’s make sure these properties stay as permanent homes, through landlord registration, planning rules and much tighter regulation of AirBnB and the like. Our city needs homes more than holiday lets.
For visitors and residents alike, there will be no festival this year. We look forward to welcoming it back in 2021 as the centre-piece of cultural life in the city, but one that’s not obsessed with bigger is better, that’s for the whole city and is steeped in showcasing what is best about Edinburgh and Scotland.
And there is work to do to transform the city transport system. Over the last few weeks, thousands of people have discovered the freedom of using bikes on city streets unclogged by traffic and pollution. For the sake of our future health, those conditions need to continue and be expanded. At the same time, public transport has taken a hit: restoring and increasing passenger numbers will have to be a top priority, by investing in clean, green buses and trams.
So there’s a different kind of “normal” waiting to be born. Of course, there’s a long way to go still. But history teaches us that even in those times where the light at the end of the tunnel seems far-off, future plans can still be sown. In 1941, in the depths of global conflict, the Beveridge Report was commissioned and became the foundation stone of the post war welfare state.
Let’s find that Beveridge moment now. Let’s create a new normal.
Melanie Main and Alex Staniforth are co-convenors of the Green councillor group in Edinburgh