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How Laid-Off Theatre Workers Are Tackling the Climate Crisis

A new project in Manchester helps laid-off theatre workers use their skills to retrofit homes to make them carbon neutral. It's the latest example of communities stepping up where the government has failed.

Covid-19 has caused the deepest recession since records began and a burgeoning unemployment crisis. According to the Office of National Statistics, UK GDP fell 20.4% in the three months to June and redundancies have risen to their highest level since 2009. Another crushing economic blow is coming this winter, as a new wave of local lockdowns slows economic activity further and workers in affected areas must scrape by on 66% of wages on the government’s new furlough scheme.

Accompanying the unemployment crisis is the climate emergency. According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have one decade to limit global temperature rises to 1.5°C or else face devastating consequences, which means cutting emissions by 7.6% per year from 2020 to 2030.

For perspective, a study of monitoring of global CO2 emissions published in Nature found that due to Covid-19 8.8% less carbon dioxide was emitted than in the same period in 2019. However, decreases of human activities cannot be the answer to the question of averting climate catastrophe. Only with transformational changes to our energy production and consumption systems can we achieve this.

The scale and urgency of the economic and environmental emergencies strengthens the argument for the state provision of green jobs as part of a transformational recovery programme. We urgently need a Green New Deal, and retrofit is an obvious starting point. Retrofit means making existing buildings energy efficient through a series of retrospective carbon-reduction improvements such as insulation; draught-proofing windows, doors, roofs, floors and ceilings; and fitting solar panels.

Housing accounts for 18% of UK emissions, so it is crucial that we ‘green’ it in order to transition to a zero-carbon society. And while new builds should be zero-carbon, the real challenge will be greening current housing stock, as 80% of the housing stock of 2050 – our deadline for becoming zero-carbon – exists already.

The prospect of economic regeneration retrofit makes its inclusion in a recovery programme all the more imperative. Research published by UK100 shows that retrofit could create 455,000 full-time jobs for construction workers and more than three million jobs across other sectors as part of a transition to a green economy.

However, a shortage of skilled construction workers means the challenge of greening the UK’s current housing stock is enormous. Last year, the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) estimated that 230,000 additional skilled workers would be needed to meet demand for new infrastructure and housing projects currently on the books – let alone the 27 million existing homes which need retrofitting.

There has been excitement around the government’s Green Homes Grant but the £3 billion allocated under the scheme is not nearly enough to combat the climate emergency. The scheme also fails to address retrofit skills shortages, meaning householders keen to take advantage of the funding are struggling to find contractors.

This is the problem our group of activists in Manchester for a Green New Deal have sought to remedy. Our project, Retrofit Get-in, which we founded alongside red coop, addresses this skills shortage by employing creative industry and live events workers made redundant by Covid-19 on domestic retrofit projects, utilising their construction skills to level up homes and tackle the climate crisis.

Andrew, who founded the project, is a freelance sound engineer and production manager based in Manchester. He was 12 hours away from the get-in of a show he had spent two months working on when the UK went into lockdown; within two weeks the rest of his work had been cancelled or postponed until 2021. Andrew’s is a familiar story for thousands of workers whom Covid-19 has prevented from making a living through creative endeavours.

It is disgraceful that the government has overlooked the workers of an industry which generates £111 billion for the economy. While it has injected money into cultural institutions and venues, there has been nothing for workers themselves. 7,442 creative industry workers have been made redundant, while creative freelancers are not eligible for the government’s furlough scheme and have been left reliant on Universal Credit.

The government’s job schemes have ignored the needs of culture sector workers; its online quizzes recommending one moment theatre workers get jobs in theatres which are closed, then the next suggesting they leave the arts altogether and re-skill in cyber.

There is a huge skills base in the creative industry which we can harness to build back greener. Many live events workers, for instance, are skilled in carpentry, construction, decorating, electrics, hydraulics and plastering. For the last month we have employed eight live events workers to work on a house in Manchester, installing insulation, replacing a bay window and removing floors.

Our goal is to support these skilled workers while theatres and venues are closed, keeping them in dignified green jobs with pay and work conditions equal to or better than their original line of work. We envisage Retrofit Get-in being a place for theatre workers to come whenever they are between gigs, a job which can support their creative endeavours while promoting climate action.

The workers who have lost out as a result of this catastrophe can help us reach a cleaner, fairer and more prosperous post-pandemic society, while keeping open the option for them to return to creative industries in future – which we sincerely hope they can do.

However, to grow this project we need assistance from the government to help provide training for those who have the work ethic and basic skills, but lack the skills to do more advanced tasks. With funding to support training we could give every out of work stage manager, lighting designer, set builder, flysman, and sound engineer a job that builds on the experience they have gained in live events, meaning we can open this project up to even more creative industry workers.

Retrofit is by no means a silver bullet, but the demonstrable value of this work should galvanise politicians – and particularly those who support a Green New Deal, like the Labour Party – to back projects like ours. Ultimately, it is a product of the Labour party. The Green New Deal is undoubtedly an idea whose time has come, but Labour for a Green New Deal had the foresight to create a space within Labour, the party of coal mines and industry, to enable newly climate conscious members like us to come together.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of this. Previously, Labour members had to join environmental groups outside of the political sphere to feel like they were helping to avert climate breakdown. Being Labour members meant that our foundation was socialism, and that we were situated inside a political party. The Retrofit Get-in project would not have happened without Labour for a Green New Deal and it is likely up to Labour now to push for retrofit to get off the ground.

“What we say at the next general election isn’t written yet,” Keir Starmer said during his conference address in September. “But it will be rooted in Labour values. It won’t sound like anything you’ve heard before. It will sound like the future arriving.”

Our future is intrinsically bound to the question of preventing the devastating effects of climate breakdown. If Labour’s policies are going to sound like the future arriving then they must cut fossil fuels in a way which improves living standards and opportunities for working people. That means a Green New Deal with retrofit at its heart.