The power of community action at a local level

3 December, 2019

By Jane Stephenson, Chair at Resource Futures

This week, Resource Futures has handed over the care of the CAG Oxfordshire Project to the local project itself. We’ve been working with the team over the past two years to consult with the network and set up the project as a new entity, a Community Benefit Society, so that it can take forward the fantastic local community action work that takes place across the county.

I’ve been involved since the very beginning of this project in Oxfordshire, 18 years ago, and it has been such a pleasure to see what the dedicated members of the local community can achieve when they come together and focus on what matters to them.

At this very significant milestone I thought it would be a good time to explain why community action at a local level is something that we’re so passionate about at Resource Futures.

Where it all started

I’ve personally been involved in recycling and the waste agenda for nearly 40 years. I did a Geography degree in the 70s where discussion around ecosystems was a new thing. Another big influence was the thinking that emerged at that time from E.F. Schumacher and his exploration of a socially and environmentally just way of living. And after university, I spent 18 months in Latin America and was particularly inspired by some of the community action happening there. The biggest thing that struck me was how little waste there was. In many places, if you didn’t take your own bag you couldn’t buy anything; and buying your first beer was a real challenge because you needed an empty one to exchange first!

Coming back to the UK and Bristol in 1983, it really hit home how wasteful we were. At the time, Friends of the Earth secured funding for job creation programmes, which were used to set up the first kerbside collections in Bristol. There was a lot of sustainability work going on in general in Bristol at the time through this programme and I then started developing The Recycling Consortium. This aimed to build a consortium of organisations like Avon Friends of the Earth, Children’s Scrapstore and The Sofa project, so that they could work better together and money could be invested in reuse and recycling infrastructure.

Developing the model

I was very conscious that these big social enterprises had all started with a couple of people in a pub or café who had an idea. Over time they had become quite big and employed a lot of people. So I wanted to start something that explored how to foster community action at a local level. We identified five communities around Bristol and went into each and found out who the movers and shakers were and started talking to them about what they wanted to see happening. They formed a committee and we helped them with funds and support to get things started. We had everything from composting projects, to arts projects, to schools projects all engaging with the community and making a difference.

Having seen such success at a local level in Bristol, we developed a toolkit and started marketing this across the UK. Luckily, in Oxfordshire they had a very forward-thinking waste manager at the time who took a waste truck and dumped the contents in the high street to get people talking about waste. From there, we started the Community Action Groups (CAG) Oxfordshire Project, which has now been running for 18 years.

Impact in Oxfordshire

CAG Oxfordshire now consists of over 65 groups across the county, who are at the forefront of community led climate change action, tackling issues including waste, transport, food, energy, biodiversity and social justice. The staff team act as the glue for the network and facilitate discussion between the groups, as well as supporting them to develop, expand, or rethink where appropriate.

Looking at the numbers, it is truly inspiring to see how many people are impacted positively by the work of these local groups. 2018-2019 was our most impactful year on record with groups across the network holding over 4,000 events, with 80,000 attendees, and contributing 51,000 volunteer hours (equivalent to 31 full time staff). The CAG Oxfordshire network also prevented 82 tonnes of waste going to local waste disposal (that’s the same as 82 small cars) and avoided 191 tonnes of carbon emissions (the average household emits 2.7 tonnes). It also saved consumers £259,000, the local authority £9,000 and raised £1,300,000 as a network.

What all these figures mean is that as a network it is positively impacting people and the environment more than ever. They are planting trees, stopping items from going to waste disposal, reducing plastic waste and improving people’s wellbeing and local environment by creating community gardens, growing food, and helping people get on their bikes. Most importantly, they are building community and showing that not only is the shift to a more sustainable way of life possible, but it is happening now, and it’s fun.

Engaging people across the UK

The focus on behaviour change and how to engage citizens is starting to become very visible again. We are actively working with partners in Devon, Gloucestershire and Scotland as well as a number of other locations on some really interesting projects with communities at their heart.

Although our communities’ work was originally focused on tackling waste issues, this is something which is broadening by the day and now encompasses much wider sustainability issues, including how communities respond to the Climate Emergency. We are also linking our community work much more closely with the businesses that form a part of that local infrastructure – after all they are critical as they dictate to a large extent the goods and services we consume and to bring about real change we need to engage all stakeholders to take action.

We still believe in the theory that local action on waste (and sustainability) issues is the best way to identify and implement solutions relevant to those communities. If you are interested in consulting your local community on issues around sustainability and resources and would like our help in developing a plan of action please get in touch with Bethan Jones, our Head of Behaviour Change to talk it through.