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Norwich is UK’s greenest city

Norwich has been portrayed as a peculiarly provincial place since well before Alan Partridge stepped out of his Lexus, and it continues to be so, long after his passing. Former Norwich City goalkeeper Robert Green recently dubbed it “a city the size of a town with a village mentality”.

But Norfolk’s capital may have quietly overtaken flashier parts of Britain in one important way. It has just been named the country’s greenest community, boasting the highest concentration of eco-friendly businesses in the nation, according to a survey by online listings people Locallife.co.uk. Norwich beat more widely feted green hotspots such as Brighton and Totnes in an analysis of farm shops, organic foods, charity shops, recycling, asbestos removal services and double-glazing firms.

Norwich is a pleasant place with an attractive medieval centre, and out of all Britain’s cities has one of highest ratios of green space per resident. But how environmentally friendly is it? And how has it gone green?

Shoppers in the Green Grocers, a smart organic supermarket wedged between charity shops in the city suburbs, have no doubt that the Green party has played a major part. “We’ve got the biggest [local] Green party and I think that’s what has made things change around here,” says Julie Dean, an optometrist, who is on her way to donate belongings to a charity shop.

The May elections gave Norwich city council nine Green councillors, more than on any other council in the country. Although it is controlled by a minority Labour group, the Greens hold the balance of power and claim to have helped improve recycling, designate Norwich an official fair-trade city, find funding for a cycling officer to improve cycle routes, and block cuts to rural railway finances.

Local businesses have seen changes, too. In two years, the Green Grocers has trebled in size, with annual growth ahead of the 20-30% seen in the buoyant organic market. “It either suggests Norwich people are more green and have taken an organic approach to heart or there is a gap in the market,” says owner Ben Binns. Blackboards show which vegetables are in season; the shop sells organic and bio- dynamic fruits from Norfolk farms; a customer loyalty card gives 1% of profits back to local charities. “We’re trying to play the Tesco game but with ethics,” says Binns, who also ensures the shop is carbon neutral by calculating and offsetting the food miles of all his stock.

Green businesses appear to have reached a critical mass in Norwich. Residents can find a local, eco-friendly version of almost anything, from Living Clean, an environmentally friendly cleaners that devises its own cleaning products, to permaculture landscape gardeners Roots to Fruits and Booja Booja chocolate, which is vegan and organic. There are ethical investment companies and ethical builders.

Dino Neale, a plumber, is shopping in the Green Grocers. He is taking a course in solar panel installation to make that a key part of his business and has persuaded his father, builder David Neale, to construct an eco-house out of straw bales on the outskirts of the city.

How did it happen in Norwich? It has good reason to be green: parts of the city are less than 1m above sea level, making it vulnerable to global warming. Some believe its eco-awareness sprang from green radicals who moved from the big conurbations to settle in Norfolk in the 70s; others point to the influence of the University of East Anglia, home of the internationally renowned Climatic Research Unit and other green initiatives such as CRed, a carbon-reduction project.

“Norwich has always had a radical history of dissent from the mainstream,” says Eamonn Burgess, a housing support worker and passionate recycler. “There was Robert Kett’s rebellion [over land enclosures and high prices in 1549] and we’ve always had a large Labour movement, battling for good causes. The main cause now is global and environmental survival.” Burgess reckons Norwich’s size encourages green behaviour. “You can walk from one end to another. It’s extremely accessible as a community and very well defined. There’s a community consciousness at a human level that’s lost in London.”

But there is also scepticism about the greening of Norwich. More than one local reckons it remains predominantly a “chattering class” concern. Yet ordinary folk are going green. “There is movement but it’s slow,” says Neale. “I don’t think it’s that genuine – people are jumping on the bandwagon. I go to Devon and Cornwall where there’s a lot happening.”

There is still no home collection for plastics or compost in Norwich, while the Conservative-run county council wants to remove waste by burning it in a controversial incinerator proposed for the edge of the city. “The city council aren’t doing that brilliant a job in recycling from people’s houses,” says local resident Vanessa Lockwood.

Traffic congestion is a growing problem and the county council wants to solve it with a northern bypass, which would deposit traffic in the suburbs if it does not plough through the beautiful Wensum valley. Bus services are poor, say some locals. “It’s very difficult to be green in the evening,” says Lockwood, who must use a car if she wants to have dinner with a friend across the city because so few bus routes operate late.

Clearly, there is a long way to go, particularly in tackling traffic and developmental pressures. “If Norwich is the greenest city in Britain, that says some problematic things about other places, because if you compare it with continental cities, it is far short of where we would want to be,” says Rupert Read, the Greens’ transport spokesman. But then again, as he says, “If we can have this greening happening in Norwich, you can have it all over Britain”.

Article by Patrick Barkham for The Guardian

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