An assessment of how successfully local practitioners are linking environmental concerns with exclusion issues and the lessons for national policy.
The last ten years have seen a steady growth in local action on issues such as healthy food, waste minimisation, energy saving, biodiversity and transport. Many such projects are successfully linking social, economic, and environmental activities.
While the direct impact of such local activity may be small, the cumulative impact seems to be increasingly important. Thinking locally, acting nationally sets out the lessons for national policy from local action on sustainable development. It considers how far local practitioners have succeeded in linking environmental concerns with exclusion issues, and assesses the extent to which this work is contributing to the broader sustainable development agenda.
The report suggests that local action can help make sustainable development work but needs to be carried out on a wider scale in order to make a national impact. The researchers suggest ways in which national and regional agencies can encourage and facilitate such growth, including policy change, new programmes and changes to funding regimes.
Thousands of community-focused programmes and projects are working across the UK to create a better quality of life for local people. Many are in areas suffering from deprivation and exclusion. They are working on issues such as food, health, waste and recycling, transport, conservation and community development. A report by Chris Church and Jake Elster for the Community Development Foundation looked at the impact of local activity and the lessons it has for national policy-makers. The study found that:
- more supportive policy frameworks;
- changes to funding mechanisms and support structures;
- greater recognition of the value of community-focused local action.
Local action to protect and improve the environment has been part of British life for over thirty years. Activities such as local conservation and clean-up projects have been joined by community recycling projects, which in turn generated composting and furniture repair programmes. More recently health and environment, food and community-car-sharing projects have emerged. Such projects may often be stereotyped as the concern of middle-class green activists, yet many are in and are run by communities suffering from exclusion.
This research shows that local projects can have important impacts, such as providing jobs, reducing waste and improving neighbourhoods. So far the contribution of much of this work to sustainable development has gone unrecognised. This study suggests that well-run local action can deliver:
Good projects deliver many of these outcomes: many more could do so if they were adequately supported. The next few years will see major environmental challenges where significant lifestyle changes will be necessary. Local action can engage people and show that change is possible and desirable.
The case studies examined ranged from a project to reclaim derelict land and integrate a new Hindu Temple into its local community, to a project offering human-powered 'rickshaw' bicycle taxis to offer mobility to the older people of a neighbourhood. Projects were chosen on the basis of combining environmental and social activity, but there was wide diversity amongst the case studies in relation to their position on the 'environmental/social spectrum'. This diversity was also evident in the size and scope of their operations, their geographical coverage, their lead organisation, and the nature and depth of community involvement in their leadership or activities.
Six general categories of action were identified within the projects selected (see Table 1).
However, these 'types' were by no means absolute: there was often substantial overlap and almost all the initiatives studied had secondary impacts in addition to these primary activities.
Each project or programme had direct environmental impacts. Although these were usually limited (even in the context of the project), their collective impacts may be significant. Some 350 projects are linked to the national Community Recycling Network, for example, and there are a further 300 or so furniture recycling projects. Similarly, about 250 groups are registered with the UK Food Poverty Network, many of which have emerged in the last two years.
The projects also had significant social impacts. These included:
Heeley City Farm and linked organisations employ 60 people, a significant number for a low income area, and the Renfrewshire programme has helped 35 people into jobs or training. In other projects, staff numbers were small but even amongst those relying on volunteers, several were supported by a paid worker, often employed by the local authority.
Training and other experience
Many projects helped people gain qualifications. Heeley City Farm provides vocational training; West DEN's Ley of the Land project provides training in countryside management, while Calstock Development Trust took 100 people through one-to-one IT training. About twenty 18- to 25-year-olds are going through the New Deal Environmental Task Force route at the Vines Centre at any one time.
Projects also helped develop skills in other ways: most projects work with volunteers who gain confidence and experience in this way. One interviewee summed it up by saying "People don't feel intimidated by trees". Volunteers may not receive formal qualifications but they make an important contribution to local action.
Conventional economic activity
Some projects had a significant presence in their local economy: more than 100,000 people have visited Heeley City Farm annually making it a major visitor attraction. It also runs many successful training courses. Other projects support mainstream economic activity: the BioRegional Development Group, for example, works on charcoal production with B&Q. Others again sell goods and services specifically for local people: St Anne's runs a stall passing on school uniforms at low cost. The Vines Centre recycles furniture and computers and promotes credit unions.
Other socio-economic impacts include community and personal development and the strengthening of community pride.
Local projects have another important role: they are often the means by which previously uninterested people first become involved in environmental action. There are many different approaches:
The projects suggest some common ways forward:
All the projects had relationships with others through which they provide and receive support and information: these were often a key to success. However, although such relationships are commonly described as 'partnerships', the research suggests that this conceals a much more complex pattern of relationships. Partnership implies a roughly equal relationship, yet most do not have that equal standing: rather, there seems to be a hierarchy of relationships.
Most projects received some external support, often through 'intermediary agencies' such as issue-based networks (e.g. the Community Recycling Network). However, as new projects emerge, sometimes outside existing structures, they may be unaware of such support at times when it might be most helpful. Moreover, smaller projects described how involvement in networks helped give them new insights, but said that networking takes time and resources that puts extra pressure on those involved.
Local projects relied heavily on personal contact. The 'core supporter' of a project - perhaps a community development worker or council environmental co-ordinator - is often a source of advice and inspiration but such staff have reported lacking up-to-date information to help them advise on possibilities for action. As projects grew, new challenges emerged and local councils and intermediary agencies might no longer be able to support the size and scale of operations underway. This is a particular area of concern if initiatives are not to be stifled.
Several obstacles were cited. The most common problems are funding related. These include:
This suggests that lack of funding guidance and support may be an important barrier to the growth of projects.
Other issues raised were:
Integration of environmental and social agendas is happening in many ways and there are lessons for policy-makers at every level. The researchers conclude that there is still a need for better integration across sectors and disciplines and for local, regional and national government to:
Funding systems also need reviewing if they are to:
National voluntary organisations need to review their work with local communities, in order to provide more effective support, and local community-based organisations need to:
Seventeen projects were selected from a 'long list' of 63 initiatives using criteria including location, project size, income and innovation. Case studies were based on extended semi-structured interviews key actors including project staff, steering group members, and community activists. The researchers also interviewed representatives of a range of national organisations.