The Social Business

Category: Climate Change (page 2 of 6)

Year three car free – a quick update

I’ve had a couple of hours on the train this afternoon (who says we need to get to London faster?) so I had a bit of time to catch up with updating how things are going in our third car-free year as a family.

I’ve written plenty before.  But to summarise, we sold our car in November 2011 with the aim of getting around more on foot, by bike and on public transport, whilst hiring cars when we need them.

It was mainly a green thing – but I was also intrigued as to what the financial impact would be – so I’ve kept track of all our transport costs since we sold our car.

Our new year's resolution in 2010

Where this journey began – with a new year’s resolution

 

I’ve written before about how we’ve got on – in particular how not having a car has saved us money – and our use of hire cars has decreased year on year.

We’re now just over half-way through the third year car-free, so I’ve added up what we’ve spent (November 2013 to May 2014) and compared it with the same period in the previous two years – to see if any patterns emerge.

Here’s a graph which shows how our spending has changed over time (click on it to enlarge it):

Our spending on cars, public transport and bikes over 3 years (period November to May each year)

Our spending on cars, public transport and bikes over 3 years (period November to May each year)

 

In summary – over the three years our spending on cars (mainly hire cars and fuel) has dropped from £1368 (Nov-May 2012) to £565 (Nov-May 14) – a drop over the period of 59%.

Meanwhile public transport spending dropped slightly from £1,103 (Nov-May 12) to £1,058 (Nov-May 14) – a decrease of 4%. Whilst spending on bikes has gone from £40 to £255 during the same period – a rise of 538%.

So what’s changed? I’ve covered the detail before – so I won’t go on – but clearly over the three years we’ve reduced our reliance on cars. We use public transport more, we cycle and walk more, and we do more stuff locally.  Car use has mainly been for holidays and weekend trips to see family – although again, more of those journeys are on the train now.

Dad and Lad weekly bus tickets

Dad and Lad weekly bus tickets

For me it’s interesting that the drop has continued into year 3 – even though at a slower pace (a 23% drop in car costs from 2013 to 2014, compared to a 46% drop in the previous year). So we’re continuing to find more alternatives to car journeys – albeit at a slower pace.

Public transport costs are mainly buses – to get around Leeds – whilst the increase in bike costs relates to me getting a new commuter bike through Edinburgh Bicycle Co-op’s Bike To Work scheme. There are also bike servicing costs in there – given that I’m cycling pretty much every day now, my bike needed a pretty big overhaul this Spring.

So there you go. As I’ve said before, it’s one of the best decisions we’ve ever taken as a family – it’s great to take a step outside of car culture, particularly in such a car-centric city as Leeds. It’s the lifestyle changes that I like more than anything – the extra hour of exercise I get most days, the increasing tendency to stay local and go to the park, rather than get in the car and drive.  And as cliched as it may sound, feeling far more connected to the place where we live.

And as I’ve said many times, I totally accept not everyone can go car-free, but hopefully our decision to get rid of our car suggests that a good number of people, particularly in cities, might well benefit from making a similar choice.

Some thoughts on riding a bike in Leeds (and not being a cyclist)

Cycling in Leeds is in the news a lot at the moment.  Obviously there’s the Tour de France Grand Depart.  Then there’s the new cycle route from Leeds to Bradford.  And there are the ongoing discussions on how we can encourage more people to get around the city without always jumping into their car.

So it was good to see cycling as the main story on this evening’s Look North – with Leeds Cycling Campaign featuring prominently.

Yet the Look North piece left me with the feeling that I so often get when I cycle in Leeds.  It was all going so well and then, out of nowhere, someone shoots out from a side-street – or in this case the Look North Facebook page.  They finished what had been a well-crafted piece – which asked the question “What is it like to cycle in our cities?” with four comments from motorists on the story.  You can guess the kind of thing.  Why do so many cyclists not use lights?  Why do they push to the front of traffic queues?  Make them pay for cycling proficiency tests before they go on the road…. etc etc

You could argue that it was just an attempt to provide balance – and having looked at the Facebook page – it’s probably fair to say that the comments were a reflection of what a lot of people were saying in response to Look North’s request for viewers’ thoughts.

 

 

But it seemed odd to finish a piece that was all about “What’s it like to cycle to work in Yorkshire cities?” with the opinions of people who don’t cycle to work.  And for our next story:  What does beer taste like?  Here are some comments from people who drink wine.

Perhaps I’m over-thinking this.  The problem is that I think about this stuff all the time – because I live it every day.  I cycle to work – 5 miles each way – just about every day.  A carefully planned route from north Leeds, through the backstreets of Chapeltown and Harehills,  up the beautifully-named Dolly Lane and out of town again towards Cross Green.  It’ll never win the nation’s most beautiful cycle route award, but it’s a relatively quiet – and therefore relatively safe, route to work.

And I love it.  It keeps me fit, it saves me money, and it clears my head – I always arrive at work more alert then when I get the bus – and my cycle home provides an important barrier between the stresses of work and my role as a dad, picking up my son from school at 3.25 each day (well, 3.27 – I’m consistently overambitious about how long it’ll take me to get back home up the hill).

Yet cycling in Leeds brings its own stresses.  It’s rare that I have an incident-free journey.  Someone will pull out at a junction without looking.  Or someone will pass me too closely.  Or too fast. Or on their mobile phone.  Fortunately after 15 years of cycling in Leeds I’m a pretty confident rider – balancing assertiveness with caution – assuming people will do something stupid until proven otherwise – or until we’ve made eye-contact.  I’ve been knocked off once (by someone turning across me at lights) and a series of near misses have made me take extra care on Leeds roads.

But it’s not all about motorists misbehaving, I hear you cry.  True – and this is where I get to my point.  People on bikes do stupid things too – some go through red lights, some ride without lights, some ride without due care for themselves on anyone else.  I’ve challenged people riding badly – a few weeks ago I caught up with a guy on a bike who had ignored two sets of red lights to make the point that he makes life more difficult for the rest of us.

You see, it’s not about cyclists and motorists.  It’s about people.  There are lots of considerate people out there – people who look out for others.  But there’s a significant minority of people who appear to not really care much for anyone but themselves.  And some of them ride bikes.  And some of them drive cars.  So that’s why it gets to me when people have a go at people who ride bikes like they have done here.  Because I feel like they’re having a go at me – because they’ve thrown me into a category of people who all happen to get around on the same form of transport.  But, the thing is,  I am not a cyclist.   I’m a fellow human being.  A dad. Someone who usually rides a bike, often gets the bus and sometimes drives a car.  Someone who’d very much prefer to get home in one piece this evening.  As this article argues:

 The bicycle is merely a means to an end. It is a tool which does not convert me into a cyclist, any more than vacuuming my apartment turns me into a janitor, or brushing my teeth transforms me into a dental hygienist.

Yet our roads are sadly just part of modern life.  It’s easy to demonise – mark out as the other – a vulnerable, visible minority.  Cyclists.  Immigrants.  People on benefits.  It makes us feel better about ourselves if we kid ourselves that the problems we face (why does it take me so long to get anywhere?) are caused by someone else.  Like the guy who commented on Look North – annoyed about the fact he has to slow down to overtake someone on a bike – probably ignoring the ten minutes he’s waited in a queue of cars at the traffic lights.  Sometimes the problems we face aren’t caused by the other.  Perhaps we’re part of the problem – and we’re not ready to admit that, so we blame someone else.

Where do we go from here?  I’m hopeful that things are changing for the better, slowly.  And it’s good to hear the councillor on Look North talking about what the Council are doing to get more people riding their bikes.  And nationally, there’s some great work going on to get more investment into cycling infrastructure by organisations like CTC.   But how far are they prepared to go?  Is Leeds forever the Motorway City Of The Seventies – or will our leaders be brave enough to give us more #space4cycling – which, given that they don’t make land any more, inevitably means less space for driving?

 

 

What’s not so great about not owning a car?

I wrote last week about how we’ve got on in the two years we’ve not owned a car.  I focused on the financial angle – last year we saved £1400 compared with the year before – but it’s about much more than the money.

Yet however committed we are to trying to “do our bit” from an environmental point of view, we wouldn’t have stuck with it if it’d been loads of hassle. But that’s not to say it’s all been a walk in the park (although there have been a fair few of those, now that’s our nearest leisure opportunity….)  So, before I write more about why I’m glad we ditched the car, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on things that can be a bit of a pain.

Probably the main issue is that whilst we’re pretty happy with the service we get from car hire companies, there are things about the whole experience that could be better.  Whilst I’m used to it now (and in two years I’ve had no problems) you do worry that you’re going to get stung for the 800 quid excess for the tiniest of scratches.  As I say, I’ve had no problems, but I’ll always be the one parked miles away from anyone else in the car park, just in case someone opens their door into ours and leaves an expensive little dent.  Of course, you can pay to waive the excess, but that’s expensive – although I now have an annual policy which gives me a bit more peace of mind.   For the record, we hire from Avis – as they’re pretty near, their prices are good and their Avis Preferred scheme makes life a lot easier for regular customers.

One of the other main issues relates to spontaneity.  Today’s been a good example – a dull Sunday morning, and then early afternoon the sun came out for a glorious winter afternoon.  With a car on the drive, we may have set off to somewhere like Harlow Carr for a couple of hours.  By that time, going there on the bus (which we often do) would’ve taken too long – so we didn’t go.  I tidied up the garden instead…

There’s a similar issue in relation to your world shrinking a bit.  We go to certain places (particularly the city centre) much more than others – because some places (for example Yorkshire Sculpture Park) aren’t easy to get to by public transport.  It doesn’t really bother us that much, but it’s noticeable how we now don’t go to some places that we used to go to a lot.

Then there’s the quality of public transport in Leeds.  We’re fortunate that we’re on decent bus routes – and only around 20 minutes from the centre of Leeds.  But public transport in Leeds – for the city of its size – isn’t good enough.  Ever since I moved here 20 years ago there’s been talk of trams – and they’ve never turned up.  We might be lucky and get a trolleybus.  And whilst I do stick up for public transport – the buses aren’t as bad as people would often have you believe – it’s really not good enough – and I understand why for lots of people driving is a rational choice.

Similarly, as much as I love my bike,  cycling in Leeds leaves a lot to be desired.  It’s getting better (at least that’s what I tell myself) but Leeds isn’t a city with a strong cycling culture – or much decent cycling infrastructure.  My commute to work is 5 miles – on carefully chosen, relatively quiet roads – but it’s rare that I have a totally incident-free commute.  It shouldn’t feel like I’m taking my life into my hands every morning – but that’s sometimes how it feels.

So there you go, they’re the main challenges that come from not owning a car. You might well be wondering why we bother.  Just buy a bloody car.  But I’ll explain over the next couple of weeks why we’re happy with the choice we’ve made – and why I think our city would be a better place if more people considered doing the same.

Two years without a car – in numbers

It’s been four years now since we made a resolution, in an icy car park of a budget Manchester hotel, to drive less.

Our new year's resolution in 2010

Our new year’s resolution in 2010

Eighteen months later, we’d sold our car – to see if we could live by hiring cars when we needed them, rather than owning one.

So how have we got on?  I’ve written a few times about it so won’t go over old ground, but now that we’ve had two full calendar years without owning a car, I thought it’d be interesting to compare 2012 to 2013.  What changed year on year? And why might that be?

As I’ve suggested before, it wasn’t really about the money.  It was mainly an environmental decision – an attempt to reduce our family’s carbon footprint.  But it was also about the money to a certain extent – particularly once we started using the car less, and saw it sat on the drive, slowly depreciating.  So how much has it cost to not own a car?

These are the headline figures.  In 2012, our  travel costs (as a family of 3) totalled £4661.  In 2013, that dropped to £3260 – a saving of £1401.  So that’s a drop year-on-year of 30%.

In both years, car costs (mainly car hire and fuel) made up the majority of our travel costs.  In 2012, we spent £2518 on cars and fuel – and in 2013 we spent £1809.  That’s a reduction of just over £700 – a 28% drop.

Other costs dropped year on year too.  In 2012 we spent £1331 on buses – and £912 in 2013 – a drop of £420 (or 32%).  Meanwhile we spent £335 less on trains (£205 compared to £540) whilst the only thing we spent more on in 2013 was cycling – up from £163 to £273.  Taxis made up the last bit of spending – £120 in 2012, and dropping by half to £57 in 2013.

So £1400 less spent in 2013 compared to 2012.  Why?  In short, we’ve adapted to not owning a car.  We were pretty quick to hire in those early months – particularly at weekends.  But slowly we changed how we got around.  My son’s birthday is a good example.  In the first year we hired a car to get to his party, carry his cake, bring his presents back.  In the second year we got the bus – and – now that most of his friends’ parents know we don’t have a car – we got a lift back.  £60 or so saved.  One car fewer on the road.

Overall, in 2012 we hired a car 20 times – for a total of 96 days – the equivalent of around 1 day in 4.  In 2013 we hired twelve times – for a total of 73 days – the equivalent of 1 day in 5.  So around a 20% drop year on year – and as this graph suggests – car use was nearly all about school holidays – plus weekends away.

Car hire costs and fuel - month by month in 2013

Car hire costs and fuel – month by month in 2013

The other main change year on year was switching more short journeys to my bike.  I bought a bike through the Edinburgh Bicycle Co-operative Cycle To Work scheme – which meant I paid around £25 a month during 2013 out of my gross pay for a  new bike.  My cycling really picked up when Leeds Empties moved to new offices in Cross Green in the summer – as the daily commute is a perfect length for cycling – 5 miles – half an hour.  So the amount I spent on bus fares reduced – as (to a certain extent) did my waistline.

My cycling - mostly to and from work - in 2013

My cycling – mostly to and from work – in 2013

 

I’ll write more over the next couple of weeks about how things have changed – and why we hope we’ll never go back to owning a car. But I suppose the main point I’d like to make is that I think what we’ve done (which I totally accept not everyone is in a position to do) wasn’t about a sudden, dramatic change.  It was about steady, sustained changes in behaviour – bit by bit changing how we got around, so that eventually we were in a position to try to live without owning a car.

Is it time more of us shared cars rather than owning them?

It’s been 18 months now since we sold our car. It took a while for us to adapt, but if feels normal now. Except not owning a car is anything but normal. 3 out of 4 households in the UK have a car – 1 in 3 has two or more cars. Two-thirds of the journeys we make are made in a car, compared to 2% of journeys by bike. (All statistics from the National Travel Survey).

As I’ve said many times, not owning a car isn’t really an option for a lot of people, just like it wasn’t a particularly viable option for us for a number of years. Having said that, keeping track of what we’ve spent over the last 18 months, and how things have changed over that time, does make me wonder whether more of us could manage without owning a car – or at the very least, without a second car.

The key issue for me is ownership. Why own a car if it’s as convenient – or moreso – to hire one when you need one? Or share one with others? There are times when only a car will do – but that doesn’t mean you necessarily have to own it. And how might things change if fewer of us chose to own cars? Here are a few thoughts on how things have changed for us:

We can easily compare the real cost of each mode of transport. When you own a car, a lot of the costs are annualised, one-off costs – insurance, MOT, etc. They’re the same whether you travel 10,000 miles or 2,000. Similarly, you may well have already paid for your car – or the monthly loan cost is the same whether you drive every day or just once a week.

But when you hire a car, you’re paying the real cost of that particular journey. So when we go to see family in Manchester for the weekend it’ll cost us £50 to hire a car. Which suddenly makes the train look quite a good option. Result – whereas when we owned a car we’d have never considered public transport – we often do now. And that’s one car fewer on the M62….

When we need a car, we get the car we need. If we’re going on a camping holiday, we get a big estate car to fit everything in. If we’re just running errands round Leeds, we’ll get a little car. How many of us drive cars that are too big for what we need on a daily basis – just because every couple of weeks – and a couple of times of year for holidays – we need a big car to fit everyone and everything in? Having access to a range of cars – instead of owning just one – means you get the car you need. And if what you often need is a small car, then it saves you money on petrol – and is better for the environment too.

We walk and cycle more. It sounds like a bit of a cliche, but it’s true. Nationally, 1 in 5 car journeys are under 2 miles. For us, that’s the distance to the local shops and back. Previously, we might well have jumped in the car. But now the car’s not on the drive (in fact it’s at the shops). So we walk, or get the bus, or cycle. It takes a bit longer, but not that long. And the exercise does us good.

We’ve noticed the difference most with our 7 year old son. Of course he moans sometimes. Why do we have to walk? But I can honestly say that most of the time he doesn’t even mention it. It’s just the norm now to step out of the front door, and walk. Which links into the next thing that’s changed….

We do more stuff locally. Again, it sounds like a bit of cliche. But it’s true. We shop more in local shops because they’re the ones that are most convenient. And yes, there’ll be times when we’re paying more than if we went to the big supermarket that’s now not that handy. But if I’m going to spend a bit more money, I’d rather do that locally. And I feel better about where I live because I’m a regular here, here, here, here and most importantly here.

(By the way I keep reading stuff that says pedestrians and cyclists are better for local businesses – because they shop more often – I’d certainly say that’s been the case with us.)

Not owning a car has saved us money. As I’ve said before, getting rid of the car was mainly an environmental choice, backed up by a more vague desire to live a little differently. But I was interested in the impact on our bank balance too. So I’ve been keeping track of what we’ve been spending – and how that’s changed over time.

I wrote more about it here – but to bring you right up to date here’s what we’ve spent in 5 months in 2013. Overall we’ve spent £1050 on travel – including £432 on car hire and fuel. That compares with £1736 in the same five months in 2012 – including £895 on cars. So year on year our travel costs have dropped by 40% – and car costs have dropped by 52%. That’s a big saving….

Why have we spent so much less? Basically, because bit by bit we’ve changed how we live. We’re spending less on cars because we hire cars less. Where we might have hired a car for a weekend to do a few things around Leeds, we’re more likely to get the bus. And as I suggested earlier we’re more likely to do more stuff locally. My son’s default request now is to go to the local park – where we now know local kids. Which means he wants to go more – and we need a car less….

So they’re a few reasons why I’m glad we got rid of our car. I think it’s done us good – and it gets me wondering how the city I live in – Leeds – might change for the better if more of us did the same. Might our roads be less gridlocked? Might our streets be more friendly? Might our local shops be more busy? And might we get a bit nearer to that 40% CO2 reduction that we keep telling ourselves we’re going to achieve by 2020?

After 18 months not owning a car – what’s changed?

I’ve written a few times over the last couple of years about how, as a family, we decided to slowly reduce how often we used the car – with the ultimate aim of selling it. The journey started with this resolution in 2010:

Our New Year's Resolution in 2010

It’s been 18 months now and I thought it was a good time to look back and consider how our behaviour has changed over that time – particularly as it gives a good opportunity to compare Winter 2011-12 with Winter 2012-13.

The decision to use the car less was largely a green one. It was also about a slightly harder-to-pin-down desire to live a bit differently. We were interested – particularly with a young son – to explore how our lives might change if we didn’t have a car on the drive.

But we were also interested in the financial implications of not owning a car. Anyone who owns a car knows how expensive it can be to get a car on the road – insurance, MOT, servicing etc – and then keep it on the road – £1.35 per litre for fuel. So would not owning a car – and instead hiring one when we needed one – make much of a difference financially?

The only way to find out was to do it – and then record what we spent. I’ll crunch the numbers a bit more over the next few days but here’s a summary graph, comparing what we spent in Winter 2011-12 and this Winter (you can click on it to see it more clearly):

How travel costs compared Nov-Apr 12 and Nov-Apr 13

The figures show that as a family we spent a total of £2302 on travel in the six months from November 2011 to April 2012 – whilst we spent £1698 in the same six month period that’s just gone. So overall we spent 26% less.

In the first six months, we spent £1177 on cars – car hire, car club rental, fuel, annual excess insurance and other things like parking. In the same period this year, we spent £670. A drop of 43%.

Dad and Lad weekly bus tickets

Other travel costs – buses, taxis, trains and bike servicing cost £1125 in the first six months and £1028 in the six months up to April 2013. A drop of 9%.

So, in summary, we spent around a quarter less getting around – with most of that drop accounted for by lower car costs. What we spent on public transport stayed about the same.

So what’s changed over the 18 months that we haven’t owned a car? I need to look at the data a bit more closely but the main thing is that, as the data shows, we’ve hired cars less often this winter than last. Why? Mainly because we’ve got used to not having a car. To give you a good example, when it was my son’s birthday party in 2011 we hired a car for the weekend, without hesitation – total cost with fuel around £60. How else would we get the cake there intact? And how would we get the presents home? It was obvious that we needed a car.

Or at least it was obvious then. This year we took the cake on the bus and we got a lift home from a friend with a seven-seater. A mundane story about how small things change with time….

As I’ve said many times, many people, realistically, need to own a car. We did too, particularly when our son was younger and we lived a bit further away from the centre of Leeds. But I think our experience suggests that there are alternatives to mass car ownership. Whenever we’ve needed a car, we’ve hired one – either from Enterprise, Avis or, for short hires, City Car Club. But we haven’t been paying for a car to sit on our drive, 90% of the time, slowly depreciating.

This graph shows when we’ve needed to use a car – and you’ll see it’s mainly holiday times – Christmas, Easter and Summer. So we’ve hired cars (a big one when we’ve gone camping, a small one when we’ve visited family – another major benefit of hiring over owning) when we’ve needed them.

Monthly travel costs - car and public transport

My broader interest is in how my city might change if more of us chose not to own a car. It’ll sound like a cliche, but our lives have changed in many of the ways you might expect. I know more of my neighbours now (mainly because I walk up and down our street several times a week). Me and my son have regular kickabouts – with kids we didn’t know a few months ago – in our small local park (previously we’d have driven to the bigger, better park a few miles away). And we shop – and have cheeky pints – more locally.

There’s the odd time we miss the car – particularly when the weather’s not great and we’ve got stuff to do locally. But overall it’s one of the best decisions we ever made. And I hope we never own a car again.

Leeds – a good place to build your own home?

Housing minister Mark Prisk was in Leeds today to announce a series of measures to encourage more people to build their own homes.

He was visiting LILAC – an inspiring development of strawbale housing in Bramley, West Leeds – which today welcomed its first residents.

You’ll know we’ve been working hard on Leeds Empties for the past year or so. Ultimately, our interest is in ensuring that more Leeds people have access to decent housing. Sorting out empty homes has a big part to play in making that happen. But it clearly doesn’t offer the whole answer. We need to build more homes.

But I can’t be the only person who sees volume house builders as part of the problem. We’re told we need to Get Britain Building. We need to relax planning regulations. We need to make it easier for people to buy new-build homes. Just let the big boys get on with the job – they’ll sort it out.

Really? Now I’m not going to suggest that volume house builders don’t have a role to play – they clearly do. But I’d worry if we were going to rely on them alone to sort out our shortage of decent housing. Don’t their developments, often at scale, often on greenbelt land – keep running into local opposition? Do their estates of identikit housing inspire? Do they help us to make a significant dent in our CO2 emissions – 25% of which come from running our homes? And, perhaps most crucially, are many of their homes affordable, by even the most loose of definitions of affordable?

A self-build home in the Field of Dreams at Findhorn, Scotland

This is why I’m interested in how we can encourage more self-build. In the UK around 10% of homes are self-build. Across Europe, the figure is around 50%. In Germany and Austria it’s more like 80% (all stats from this programme). So it’s clear there’s scope for more of us to get involved in building our own homes.

What might be the benefits of more of us building our own homes? I’m no expert on this – but from what I’ve seen with my own eyes – in places like this and this – self-built homes can, first and foremost, be beautiful, inspiring places to live. That’s not too much to ask is it?

But they can be much more than that too. Designed well, they can offer opportunities for significant reductions in the environmental impact of our homes – both in the construction and running of the homes. And, when people decide to build together, there can be benefits with regards to a greater sense of community – LILAC, for example, is based on co-housing principles and the development includes a shared house. Might co-housing – much of it self-built – help tackle what’s been called Britain’s loneliness epidemic?

And then there’s affordability. We live in a pretty modest 3 bed semi in Leeds. About £1 in every £3 we earn goes to pay a mortgage on a house that I like, but I’d struggle to say I love. And we, of course, are amongst the luckier ones – the generation below us has got little chance of being able to afford a decent home.

Strawbale Cottage in Howden, East Yorkshire

Now there are bigger things at play here – but self-build housing surely has to help. LILAC, for example, has affordability at the heart of its approach and its ownership model. And, particularly where people group together to buy materials and do some work themselves etc you can imagine there are opportunities to do things more cheaply than house builders who are driven primarily by profit.

So how do we make sure that LILAC isn’t the last inspiring self-build community in Leeds? A starting point could be a meeting that’s being organised by Leeds City Council in May. Hopefully that’ll bring a number of people together who are interested in building their own homes. I’ll be going – it might take us four or five years before we’re ready – but I’m keen to start exploring whether our next home could be one we build ourselves – with others.

Getting together in May might also start us thinking about what might need to happen in Leeds to make it easier for people to build their own homes. Clearly access to land is key. Getting your head round planning regulations, I presume, can be a barrier. It’ll be interesting to see what role the Council – and others – could play in this – for example by identifying appropriate parcels of land – perhaps smaller pieces of land that commercial developers aren’t so interested in – and offering them on good terms to self-builders.

Personally, I’d like to see us trial an approach whereby volume house builders are offered planning permission in return for selling – at a fair price – a percentage of their land to self-builders. Might that be a good way to get more decent, green, affordable homes for Leeds people?

We need to make sure LILAC is a starting point to inspire others to do something similar elsewhere in our city, not somewhere we all visit, dreaming of what could be.

And finally, a self-build house in Findhorn built from an old whisky mash tun

A day with Bristol Together and Triodos

It’s been a busy few days. After Monday morning’s inspiring session with Muhammad Yunus I spent the afternoon with 150 others at the Empty Homes Conference.

The highlight for me was listening to Dan from Revolutionary Arts – the man behind the Empty Shops Network who brings a refreshing perspective to the use of empty space. His talk challenged me to think about empty shops – up to now we’ve steered clear of shops and stuck to homes. And I think that focus is still correct – but we should at least look into ways to make the most of empty flats above shops. Which, in some cases, may mean looking at new uses for the shops themselves too. There are people who know much more about this stuff in Leeds than we do – so we’ll be contacting them soon.

From London, on to Bristol for an event at Triodos Bank. The event at Triodos was run by Bristol Together – a social enterprise that’s been up and running for about a year now – and recently won a start-up of the year award. They provide work for ex-offenders by buying, renovating and then selling empty homes.

One of the intriguing things about them is that they’ve managed to raise £1.6 million through a bond issue organised by Triodos. The bond offers a return of 3% to investors – and is repayable in full after 5 years. Investors can also benefit from Community Investment Tax Relief – which turns a 3% return into an 8% return.

There’s a mix of investors in Bristol Together – from institutional investors such as the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation through to so-called High Net Worth Individuals. A couple of the individual investors were there, and spoke about their experience. They were clearly pretty engaged investors – both were on the Board of Bristol Together – and one commented that of all his investments, the Bristol Together Board is the most impressive he’s part of. It made me think I need to widen my network to include a few more thoughtful High Net Worth Individuals…

The £1.6m investment gives Bristol Together the cashflow to act as a cash buyer in the housing market – buying houses at auction and through Estate Agents. They’re also keen to explore a closer relationship with the Council which might see them find a way to buy unwanted properties from them. Clearly part of the return for investors comes from this ability to move quickly to secure a sale.

They reckon around 90% of the work to renovate a home is done by ex-offenders – with usually around 5 or 6 people working on each house. Obviously more difficult tasks – tanking a cellar, sorting out the gas supply– will be done by specialist traders. But much of the rest is done by the people for whom Bristol Together exists.

Each renovation is co-ordinated by a Project Manager. As you can imagine, the Project Manager is key to keeping the job on track and on budget. A big part of their role is juggling the desire to be supportive to people finding their way back into the world of work with the need to get the job done as planned. Not an easy task, but it sounds like they’ve recruited well.

Bristol Together are an ambitious bunch. They plan to scale up their work in Bristol whilst also expanding into other areas. Next up is the Midlands – with a Midlands Together business currently in development. A number of potential partners for the new venture were there – and it sounds like that’ll be something that develops over the coming months – accompanied by a £5 million bond organised by Triodos.

My main reason for making the trip down was to see if there was potential to develop something similar in Leeds. In the short term, I’d think it’s unlikely that Yorkshire Together will happen – as the next step is to develop in the Midlands. But it certainly felt like something we should explore in the medium term – particularly as there appears to be a strong commitment to working to developing each Together with local partners. We’ll be watching the development of Bristol Together and Midlands Together closely, and we’ll obviously do all we can to help them to identify appropriate local partners if they do decide to work in Yorkshire.

Then there’s the investment angle too. If you follow me on Twitter you’ll know that I’m sceptical about much of what’s happening in the world of social investment. But today it made sense to me. Engaged investors, who have a good relationship with a social business that has a business model which can generate financial returns alongside social returns. The financial return (3% plus tax relief) seemed fair enough to me. And Triodos – well known as a values-driven organisation – felt like a Bank you could do business with.

So could we explore something similar in Leeds? Perhaps with Triodos, or perhaps with another intermediary? What do the investment opportunities look like in Leeds? Could we develop a bond which allowed social ventures in Leeds to act as cash buyers, to do up homes in ways that brought lots of extra social benefits, to ex-offenders, long-term unemployed people or whoever? And could we find a few High Net Worth Individuals of our own?

If you’ve got any thoughts on how to take things further, it’d be great to hear from you.

Social innovation Grameen style: “Look at ice-cream. The cones are edible.”

I’ve been in Nottingham this morning for a breakfast event hosted by Capital One with Professor Muhammad Yunus, the man often described as the Godfather of Social Business.

Prof. Yunus is best known for Grameen – who in turn are best known for offering banking services to poor women in Bangladesh. He’s in the UK for a couple of days – with Friends of Grameen President Liam Black by his side – to talk with a wide range of people – including the UK Government – about social business and, more specifically, the problems the bank is currently facing thanks to the unwelcome intervention of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh.

Prof. Yunus made it clear, with the answer to Liam’s first question at this morning’s event that he didn’t want to “waste time” talking about Grameen’s current problems. Instead he wanted to focus on social business – so that’s what I’ll do here too.

It’s easy to feel a bit starstruck in the presence of someone who has achieved as much as Muhammad Yunus. He’s an interesting mix of zen-like calm and steely determination. This isn’t an ivory-towers academic who’s dipped his toe naively into the world of business. I get the impression you wouldn’t mess with Professor Yunus. But his generosity, warmth and humility are immediately apparent too.

Liam introduced Prof. Yunus as a man who’s “best known for asking questions that turn things on their head.” This for me was the theme of the talk, and something that in my own little way I try to bring to my work too. Many of his questions, of course, concern poverty and its causes. “Poverty isn’t created by poor people. It’s externally imposed. It comes from outside.” A statement such as this challenges – and immediate invites questions. Who/what is imposing poverty? How do we respond?

An illustration of the conversation between Muhammad Yunus and Liam Black

An illustration of the conversation between Muhammad Yunus and Liam Black

His social business journey began in 1976, as an academic who, in his words, was “growing tired of teaching theory whilst people died outside.” He looked around in Bangladesh – and saw big problems with high-interest moneylending. So he decided to be begin lending money to the poor – the poor who most people believed (still believe?) aren’t worthy of banking services.

From those humble beginnings, Grameen now runs more than 50 social businesses – many in collaboration with multinationals – Danone, Veolia, Pfizer, Tesco and more – in a range of markets from microcredit to mobile phones to yoghurt. One of the things I find most fascinating about the Grameen approach is that none of the businesses distribute profit – yet many are run in collaboration with some of the world’s most successful profit-generating corporations.

That challenges me in a number of ways – with regards to my attitude towards who our business collaborates with – and some of my thinking about profit. Yet I’m not saying that Professor Yunus’s attitude towards taking dividends from social business (he suggests business is either selfish – profit maximising – or selfless) isn’t problematic either. But it’s a useful challenge….

He talked quite a bit about Grameen’s collaboration with Danone – a relationship I know a fair bit about having spent a couple of days with Danone at an Innovation Lab in Paris a few years ago. Together, Grameen and Danone sell high-nutrition yoghurt – with the double benefits of “health through food” (Danone’s mission) and plenty of jobs for people selling the yoghurts.

He told a story of product development. Execs arrived from Paris with sample products – in, of course, plastic pots. Cue one of Professor Yunus’s questions.

“Why is the pot plastic?”
“Because that’s what we sell yoghurt in around the world.”
“We haven’t set up a social business so that we can litter Bangladesh with plastic pots.”

They went away, and came back three months later – pleased with themselves of course – with a biodegradable, corn-starch pot. Professor Yunus looked at it, and asked another series of killer questions:

“Is it edible?” No? Why is not edible? People are paying good money for this product – why can’t we produce a pot they can eat? We eat ice-cream cones – so why not yoghurt pots?”

That’s innovation in action, right there…..

But is he – and Grameen – being used by multinationals hungry for good CSR stories and access to bottom-of-the-pyramid markets? Markets that are easily accessed by partnering with a social business with the incredible reach that Grameen has in countries like Bangladesh? Yunus responds to this question – which is asked all the time – primarily by journalists – with mock surprise. “They’re using me are they? Well, I never knew. I thought I was using them….” He’s delighted to be “used” – if being used means that a social business is developed that helps people out of poverty. But as I suggested earlier, Yunus is no naive Professor – I doubt you’d get far if your aim in collaborating with Grameen was purely selfish.

Too soon it was all over, and I had to dash to get my train to London, to catch the second half of the Empty Homes Conference and for a series of meetings to help us to develop Leeds Empties – an enterprising, collaborative approach to tackling the waste of empty homes so that more people have somewhere decent to call home. I travel down inspired by Professor Yunus’s indefatigability (to borrow a mis-used term). Fifty social businesses later, he’s still hungry for the next start-up. These final words stick with me:

“Social business is problem-solving business….. Every time I see a social problem, I set up a business to solve it.”

Inspiring stuff for all of us trying to make a difference through social business.

Life without the car – one year on

We sold our car a year ago last week. It was a bit of an experiment, to see how we’d get on renting cars when we needed them, and getting around on foot, bike and public transport the rest of the time.

So how have we got on? When I’ve got a bit more time I’ll go into some more detail but I thought I’d share a few quick thoughts.

Overall, we’re really pleased we got rid of the car. We live in a big city, on decent bus routes and neither of us needs our car on a regular basis for work. School is a short walk away. So we were confident we’d be fine.

Over the year we’ve kept records of all our journeys and what they’ve cost. It wasn’t just about the money – it was mainly about trying to be more green – and about a slightly more vague change in “lifestyle” – but I was still interested to see how much we’d spend without a car. Here’s a graph (click on it to see it in more detail) showing what we’ve spent – and it’ll give you a bit of an idea of how we’ve got around.

What we've spent getting around over the past twelve months


Over the twelve months, we (a family of 3) have spent £4500 getting around. £2250 of that was car hire and fuel, whilst we spent £1200 on buses. Trains accounted for £500, whilst taxis and bike maintenance cost another £100.

How does that compare with what we would have spent if we still had our car? This is where we need to crunch the numbers a little bit more but we estimated that owning a car used to cost us (allowing for depreciation/new car fund) around £3000 a year. So on the face of it we’ve made a bit of a saving on car costs.

But have we spent more on public transport now we haven’t got a car? Yes, but not that much more. That’s mainly because if you have a weekly/yearly pass for the bus for work you can obviously use that for getting around – at no extra cost – at the weekends. And we’d already shifted many of our longer trips – to see family for example – to the train.

The main expense has been car hire for holidays and trips to see family and friends. Partly because of another green pledge – to try not to fly – we’ve been taking more British holidays – and that’s reflected in the car hire costs you can see in the graph.

But that’s where we’ve felt one of the other big benefits of hiring cars rather than owning one. When we’ve needed a big car to go camping for the week, we’ve hired a big car. When we’ve needed a car to run round Leeds for the weekend, we’ve got a small car. How many of us own big cars that are expensive to run for the one journey in ten where we might need a big car?

So money-wise, for us we reckon it makes sense. But I think more importantly it’s made a difference to how we get around, and how we feel about where we live.

It’ll sound a bit hackneyed, but we do more stuff locally now. We walk up and down our street to the bus stop or to the shops – which means we bump into neighbours.

Autumn leaves on our street today


We definitely spend more money locally – because when you don’t have a car the discount you might get from the big shop 5 miles away isn’t readily available to you. But if you’re not spending money running a car so you can make 5-mile trips to the big shop, you’re not necessarily worse off.

And this is where City Car Club has been invaluable too. We haven’t used it loads (maybe 2 to 3 hours a month) but it’s great to know that there’s a car 10 minutes walk away when we need to do a big shop or pick our son up from a party.

For me, one of the main issues with cars is that so much of the traffic on the roads is made up of cars making short journeys that could easily be done on foot or on a bike. Now I know full well that life gets in the way – we’re busy, it’s raining, we’ve got kids, the bus doesn’t turn up or doesn’t run nearby…. But it’s interesting to reflect on how your behaviour changes when you haven’t got a car on the drive. Our local shops are 15 minutes walk away. For other people they’re a five minute drive away. Most of the time I can afford those extra ten (OK, 20 – I need to get back too) minutes – and if I can’t I get the bus. And the walk does me good.

I need to crunch the numbers a bit more – but I estimate that we’ve hired a car for 85 days out of 365 (25% of the year) – and we’ve driven around 5000 miles. So that means that when we’ve hired a car we’ve driven around 60 miles a day on average.

In other words, we’ve used a car when we’ve had to go a fair distance – and we’ve rarely used a car to make short journeys. Compare this to how the majority of us get around – with 69% of car journeys being 5 miles or less. Imagine how much of a difference it could make to traffic levels if we all cut down on at least some of those short journeys.

Fancy signage for a city-centre car park

The other main difference we’ve noticed is that we go into Leeds City Centre a lot more. Mainly because it’s the easiest place to get to. But I think that’s great – and it’s far more fun to wander around a city centre than get stuck in a car park of an identikit shopping mall. So whilst Leeds City Council obsess about making it easier for people to park, I’d be suggesting we make it easier for people to get into town by public transport.

So overall, we’re glad we got rid of our car. We’re not pretending it’s for everyone – it certainly wasn’t viable for us until my son started school. But whilst money is tight, roads are packed, waistlines are getting bigger and the air is getting more polluted, it’s maybe worth more of us asking the question – is owning a car really the best way for me to get around?

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