The Social Business

Category: leeds (page 1 of 2)

Ideas to tackle climate change in Leeds – a second update

I’ve written two posts – here and here – over the last couple of months about how I’m keen to get more involved locally in tackling climate change.  I’ve also outlined how the social enterprise I work for has given me a bit of time to explore a few ideas, to see where there is scope for us to get involved with things that are already happening, or set something up ourselves.

Over the last few weeks I’ve spent a bit of time each week exploring a few ideas, so with the launch of the Leeds Climate Commission this evening, I thought it was time to give another update on where we are up to.

Big picture first – talking with people, and reading up on this issue has left me more convinced than ever that this is something I want to focus on over the next few years.  Whilst there are no shortage of issues to worry about in the world right now, I’m convinced that climate change is the biggest threat we face.  So I’m more keen than ever to try to get involved in things locally that could make a difference.

But how do you make a difference?  That’s something I’ve been thinking about a fair bit too.  Rather than just concentrating on social business ideas, I’ve been thinking – what actions are most effective?  When, for example, is it best to focus on lobbying politicians, or campaigning?  When does it make most sense to focus on changing what you do personally – what you eat, how you get around your city, etc?  When should you concentrate on teaming up with neighbours and friends to do things locally?  And when might it make sense  – in our case – for us to set up a new social business?

It won’t surprise you that I haven’t come to any conclusions on all of that, other than to confirm that all of the above are important!  But I think it’s a useful starting point – a reminder that making progress on such a big issue will require a whole host of approaches – whether that’s at a global scale, or at the scale we’re focusing on primarily – Leeds.

That said, our Board will be expecting an update next month.  So is anything emerging around the themes I explored in previous posts?

Energy remains the topic where there’s most, well, energy.  Most conversations have included discussion of opportunities to generate more renewable energy locally, and to involve local people in financing this activity – through for example community shares.

Given our recent experience with Leeds Community Homes and #PeoplePoweredHomes, this is clearly an opportunity that interests us a lot.  And, in summary, at the moment it’s definitely the main avenue we’re exploring.  But we’ve also been given plenty of advice to tread carefully – given that the business models for community energy have become more difficult to sustain, due to reductions in incentives like Feed in Tariffs.  It would have been an obvious one to explore five years ago when the policy environment was very different – but it’s a little more difficult now.

Our next steps around energy are to continue to look in more detail at other community energy schemes around the country, and also talk with Leeds City Council (we have a meeting on Monday) to see if they would be interested in partnering up with us in some way – eg on a rooftop solar scheme.

We’re also looking into insulation – in the news again this week.  Given that it makes so much sense  – and brings all sorts of benefits – is there more we could be doing in Leeds to insulate more homes?   For example some of the empty homes social enterprises we’ve worked with have developed expertise in insulation hard-to-heat homes – could we help them to do more?

Waste remains an interesting topic too – and as I suggested in the two previous posts it’s an area where as a city we’re pretty strong, in terms of having a whole host of social enterprises turning “waste” into useful resources – including of course the Revive re-use shops at 2 household waste sites.

This is one where it feels like if there is an opportunity, it is in supporting the organisations already doing good stuff in Leeds to do more.

As I’m reminded every time I look in a skip on our street, plenty of good stuff still gets thrown away.  That costs us all in a whole range of ways.   How could we make it easier for more people to reuse more useful goods, instead of throwing them away?  I’d be interested in chatting more with the Council and others on that one, as it’s an interesting problem to explore, around behaviour change and effective marketing.

Transport is another key theme – particularly so in a city like Leeds with public transport provision which is nowhere near good enough.  Reading up on things over the last few weeks has confirmed to me that, personally, this is the particular issue that interests me most.  It’s such a crucial issue for so many reasons – carbon emissions, pollution, economic growth, making the city child-friendly etc etc.

Yet, from a social business start-up perspective, opportunities are probably limited.  It might be one where we focus more on lobbying and working with others to make the case for significant investment in public transport and active travel.  I’ll hopefully be able to use my membership of Leeds Climate Commission to continue to get up to speed with the issues, and also influence the debate around transport in Leeds.

So that’s a quick update.  There have been plenty more conversations which I haven’t got time to share now but hopefully that gives you a bit of a feel of where we’re up to.  There’s a fair bit of detail for me to keep exploring over the next few weeks – to then discuss with our Board in October.

As always, we’re keen to chat with people who’d like to work with us on this – so if you’re interested in exploring how we could work together in Leeds to come up with practical ways to tackle climate change, please get in touch.  And don’t forget to follow the Leeds Climate Commission launch on #LeedsClimate.

 

Ideas to tackle climate change in Leeds – a quick update

I wrote recently about how the Board of our social enterprise has given me a bit of time over the next few weeks to explore how we could get more involved in initiatives in Leeds to tackle climate change.

I thought I’d give you a quick update on how I’m getting on.  Partly because it’s a useful way to think things through myself, and partly because I think being open about what you’re doing is one very important way of making interesting things happen.  There’s no point trying to do this stuff in secret.

I’m in the stage that we’ve called Looking for Clues – looking around to see what’s going on, what the issues are, and trying to explore where there may be opportunities to improve things.  And as is always the case, conversations and introductions have led me in all sorts of different directions.  I’ll share a few of the more interesting and promising ones below.

Starting with the big picture, the people from Leeds Climate Commission pointed me to research done in Leeds a couple of years back – The Economics of Low Carbon Cities – A Mini Stern Review For The Leeds City Region.  I haven’t considered it in detail yet, but it’s a reminder of the expertise that already exists in the city around how we can create a low carbon economy.

Then at a national level, the Committee on Climate Change produced a report for Parliament last month.  Again, beyond a quick read of the summary, I’ve not had time to take in the detail – but there are clear messages in there about the opportunities that could come from decisive actions and investments – but also the increasing risks of not doing enough, and not doing things quickly enough.

So that’s all useful context – which I clearly need to get to grips with.  In the meantime, I’ve been having conversations around a number of themes.

One issue that keeps coming up is community energy – with a few people I’ve spoken with suggesting that there’s potential in Leeds to do more on this – around energy generation (community-led solar schemes for example) and around energy reduction (investment in insulation of hard to heat homes).  There are plenty of interesting co-operative initiatives around the country to learn from, including ones that have involved Local Authorities.

Again, I need to explore this more, but one of the key things to understand will be where the sustainable opportunities lie – given that the investments and subsidies that made some of these schemes viable in the last few years (Feed In Tariffs etc) are far less generous than they were.

It’s possible we may have missed the boat on this one – or we may just need to think a bit more creatively.  I’m following this one up with a few people who know the community energy world inside-out – like energy4all – and I’ll feed back more soon.

I’ve had a good few conversations around waste and recycling too.  I started by having a think about all the great social enterprises and voluntary groups in Leeds that help us to reuse and recycle things that would otherwise go to waste.  People like Seagulls, Scrap, Leeds Repair Cafe, Leeds Freegle, Revive, Re-work Office Furniture, Real Junk Food Project and Slate.

They – and plenty of other organisations – all help to reduce the amount of useful stuff that goes to waste in Leeds – saving the city money, and bringing a whole range of other benefits too.  But like with all these things, there’ll be loads of Leeds people who don’t know about them.  I’m wondering what more we can do to more widely promote all the reuse and recycling organisations in the city – so that reusing and recycling becomes as easy as throwing something in the bin.

And again, context is important here.  It emerged this month that Leeds’ new, PFI funded RERF (Recycling and Energy Recovery Facility) has missed its recycling target by quite some way – and looks like it will miss it again this year.  That’s a lot of potentially recyclable goods that have instead been thrown in the fire.  And this is against a backdrop of what appears to be declining recycling rates in Leeds.

This is a complex one.  But I’m interested in what more we can do to reduce waste – and stop reusable and recyclable goods being incinerated.  I also noticed in this Council report that the money that the PFI contractor will pay to the Council, having missed its recycling target, will be “ringfenced for the delivery of front-line services, or environmental projects that contribute to recycling.”  So there may be potential there for some of the social enterprises I mentioned above to bid for funds to help the city to improve its recycling rates.

Food and drink is another issue that I’ve been exploring.  I met up with one of the people behind Growing Better CIC – a new social enterprise that aims to grow micro leaves and herbs for local restaurants.  It’s an interesting one because of the well-documented benefits of short supply chains – but they also recognise the therapeutic benefits of growing food – and have an explicit aim around improving people’s mental health.

I’ve also been researching ideas around reducing the use of single-use plastic bottles – after spotting this news story about calls to install water fountains in city centres.  A few years ago I spent a couple of days in Paris with Danone staff from around the world – and one of the workshops I went to explored ways to increase the amount of “on-the-go” recycling.  Even those of us who enthusiastically recycle at home often end up buying single-use plastic water bottles whilst we’re out and about – and then throw them in a street-bin – with little chance of them being recycled.

So I’m interested in ideas to reduce the use of single-use plastic bottles – and water fountains sound like a good one.  It’ll no doubt come down to money – but initial responses from Leeds BID and Yorkshire Water were positive.

I also discovered Refill – a Bristol based social enterprise that works with local cafes and other businesses to offer people the opportunity to fill up their water bottle for free.  It sounds like a great idea to me so I’ve been in touch with them to let them know that I’d be interested in exploring how we could help if they decided to expand to Leeds.  Leeds Indie Food are keen to find out more too.

If you follow me on Twitter, it won’t surprise you to know that I’ve had a few conversations around transport too.  I’ve written before about what I think about transport in Leeds – and how things need to change in the city.  Short of setting up a crowdfunding page for a tram system, what more could be done to explore socially innovative ways to improve what Leeds is like to get around?

Again, it’s been a busy month for this kind of thing.   Leeds Council launched its long awaited Cycling Starts Here strategy.  I shared info about it in this thread – where you’ll see that it soon emerged that what I thought was a summary of the strategy was actually the strategy.  There was a nice aspirational Tube Map of what a comprehensive cycle network could look like, plus 24 “objectives” which covered just about anything and everything to do with bicycles.

Let’s see where it goes.  I can’t pretend I’m that hopeful to be honest – just a few days later we learnt (or at least I think we learnt, if I’ve read the notes correctly) that cycling infrastructure plans for the city centre have been scaled back, at least in the short term.   As Brent Toderian has said, look less at the vision, and more at the budget, if you want to see where a city’s aspirations truly lie.

So what are my reflections there?  Transport’s clearly a harder one to change.  There may be fewer direct opportunities for community-led approaches to changing things, but instead it might be about continuing to lobby for change, hold people to account, and point to what’s being done elsewhere (like Mobike in Manchester, the Workplace Parking Levy in Nottingham, or the Mobility as a Service pilot in Birmingham).  For me it will also continue to be a personal thing – continuing to reduce as a family the number of journeys we make by car.  I’ll also keep working to try to tackle issues around road danger near where I live.

So that’s where I’ve got up to.  Plenty more to explore – plenty more conversations to have – plenty of detail to digest.  But I’m more convinced than ever that getting involved in local responses to climate change is something  we should be doing – we just need to work out what it’s best to get involved with.  As before, if you’ve got thoughts, please get in touch.

How do you solve a problem like climate change – in Leeds?

Of all the social issues I’m involved in and care about, climate change is the one that matters most to me.  It is an existential threat – and we’re already seeing a whole range of negative impacts that have their roots in man-made climate change.

But it’s also one of those issues where it’s easy to feel hopeless.  It’s hard to know what to do.  And even if you do something, it can feel pointless.   So inaction, or disengagement, become ever-more attractive.  And the less we engage, the more time we waste, the less chance we’ve got of coming up with solutions.

Over the years I’ve tried to “do my bit” (see – even the language is problematic).  I’ve written here before about how we’ve tried to make our home more green (more problematic language).  I’ve written too about reducing our car use – and selling our car – and about big issues in Leeds – like transport and recycling.

And I’m pleased I’ve done all that.  It’s got us thinking about this stuff as a family.  It’s made a difference at a micro-level.  It’s saved us some money.  Made us feel a bit better about ourselves. And it’s got us into conversations with people we know.  Including difficult conversations, some of which probably haven’t done done much good.

But, of course, all of the things we’ve done are micro-scale, personal actions in a world that needs so much more to happen.  And they were all probably cancelled out by that flight to France last May.

It’s complicated isn’t it?

So I’ve been thinking again this year about what more I can do, particularly through work.

With this in mind, I recently joined the Leeds Climate Commission.   It’s due to launch publicly in September (if you’re interested in this kind of thing and would like an invite to the launch please let me know and I’ll pass on your request) and in broad terms it has a remit based around exploring how as a city Leeds does all it can to reduce its carbon emissions.

There are people from businesses and organisations across Leeds involved, with the Council and Universities taking a lead on bringing it all together.

My main aim in joining the Commission is to explore how we can come up with social business solutions to climate change in Leeds.  Sustainable ideas in both senses of the word.  I don’t know what they’ll be – but I’m sure there must be opportunities to develop ideas that could for example improve air quality, reduce waste, tackle traffic congestion, reduce fuel poverty, and reduce the amount of CO2 that we pump into the air.

The good thing is that the Board of our social enterprise, Social Business Brokers CIC, is keen for us to work more on this.  So they’ve given me a bit of time over the next couple of months to explore things in a bit more detail.

Could we help to develop some social business ideas in Leeds to tackle climate change?  Five years ago we decided to get involved in housing – and that led to us coming up with the idea for Empty Homes Doctor.  250 no-longer-empty-homes later, we’re still making a difference.

And on the back of that we got involved with developing Leeds Community Homes.  We played our part in raising £360,000 through a community share offer to create People Powered Homes.

So could we do the same on climate change?  Come up with sustainable social businesses that really make a difference?  I really hope we can.  And not just because it’s the issue that matters to me more than anything else.

I am increasingly convinced that many of the actions we need to take to tackle climate change are best taken at city level.  That’s the level at which you can engage citizens – and the level at which we could best appreciate the positive impacts of the changes we need to make to reduce carbon emissions.

So I’m on the lookout for ideas and opportunities – looking for clues, as it says in our 5 stage plan to creating change.  If you’d like to chat more, please say hello.

 

 

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?

 

 

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

Leeds Empties – what’s the Big Idea?

I wrote a blogpost for the RSA earlier this week about Leeds Empties Week – which we’re hosting next week. The title they gave the post – The Big Idea – got me thinking – what is the Big Idea behind what we’re doing? Let me try to explain….

We decided to change how we work 18 months ago. We made three main changes:

Up til then, we’d been social enterprise support “generalists” – working with people on lots of different issues at once. We decided we’d focus on one specific issue for a while.
We decided to proactively seek out other people who could create change – not just social enterprises
We decided to focus on Leeds – and how we could help make our city a better place to live in

As luck would have it, just as we were talking about how we’d change, George Clarke popped up on Channel 4 with his Property Scandal programme. We knew nothing about empty homes. But our instinct told us that this would be a good first issue to focus on.

I’ve written elsewhere about what we’ve done so far with Leeds Empties – and you can see what we’re up to next week here – so I won’t go over that again. But it’s worth thinking about what’s behind the approach we’ve taken so far.

Ultimately, what drives Gill and myself is the belief that as a society we’ve got to get a lot better at solving complex social problems. Wherever you look, there are big, big issues that aren’t going to go away any time soon. How we can get access to decent housing, climate change, how we help people to live decent lives in older age, increasing levels of obesity…. – I could go on all day.

None of these issues has a simple solution. Instead, our belief is that we need a range of people working on a wide range of enterprising solutions to tackling the problem at hand. This is where we think we can help.

To summarise, we think there are five stages to our work:

Look for clues – understand the problem and work out where there may be opportunities to make a difference
Create a buzz – generate interest in the issue
Bring people together – invite people to share ideas
Build momentum – get behind people with good ideas
Make things happen – turn ideas into action

It’s all about helping other people to make a difference. Our role is as “connectors” – in the middle of it all joining the dots, introducing people to each other, encouraging collaboration and giving people timely support where they need it.

One important part of our work is to get behind some of the good stuff that is already happening. Leeds City Council works hard to bring empty properties back into use – and they plan to do more – such as increasing the Council Tax to 150% on properties that have been empty for two years or more. Social enterprises like LATCH and Canopy do great work bringing homes back into use. But the scale of the problem we face around housing need – not just in Leeds – means we need to work out ways to do more – often on shoestring budgets.

There’s plenty still to do – but we really think we’re onto something. In a small way, I think we’re tapping into a feeling a lot of us have at the moment. We live in difficult times. It’s easy to feel helpless. Politicians seem as lost as the rest of us, and we’re not sure we trust Big Business to make things better either.

But, given the chance, there are lots of us who would like to offer the skills, expertise, time and resources required to solve some of the problems we face. But acting alone doesn’t feel like an option. Our aim is to bring people together to create significant change. And we want to do this first with empty homes – and then we’ll start the process all over again – looking for clues on how to solve the next big social issue.

What did it cost to not own a car in 2012?

Travel is in the news today – as it is every year when rail fares increase above the rate of inflation.

For many of us, getting around is one of our major expenses, and whether you get from A to B in your car, or on public transport, you’re likely to be spending more year on year. And, of course, how much we travel, and how we travel, has implications for the environment too as we call upon natural resources to help us get to where we want to be.

As a family, we decided a while back to try to change how we got around. We began by keeping track of how much we used our car, and over time we got to a stage where we were ready to sell our car. That was in October 2011 – you can read more here, here and here.

Family Gold Ticket

Bus travel isn't cheap - but it feels more affordable when you're not running a car

2012 was our first full year without owning a car. So how did we get on? I wrote about it in October last year (12 months since we sold the car) so I won’t go over the same arguments again, but I thought it might be useful to focus this time on the cost of not owning a car – and some thoughts on where we go from here.

As I’ve mentioned before, we’re a family of three, living in Leeds, on decent bus routes. Both of us can get away with not using a car, most of the time, for work.

I’ve rounded the numbers slightly, but over the year, we spent £4700 on transport. Of that, £1900 was for car hire and car club fees, and we spent just over £600 on fuel. We also spent £1900 on public transport – of which £1300 was bus travel, and £550 was train travel. We spent £100 on taxis and £150 on bikes (servicing etc).

To put that into a bit of context – we hired a car 20 times – for a total of 98 days in 2012 – around one day in four. The majority of hires were for holidays or weekend visits to family & friends. We travelled around 5000 miles – an average of around 50 miles on each day that we hired a car.

I talked more here about how things have gone – so I won’t cover that again now. Instead, I’ll focus on the financial side of things – and then talk about it from a green perspective.

Having a car, when we’ve needed one – just under 100 days in 2012 – cost us £1900. I reckon that’s pretty economical – when you factor in the cost of buying a car (including possible loan costs) plus the other costs that come with car ownership – MOT, servicing, insurance, Vehicle Excise Duty etc.

Obviously, you also need to factor in the cost of the alternatives to car ownership – more spent on the bus, trains etc. That’s a bit harder to analyse – but I don’t think those costs are too high – for two main reasons. One is that most of our weekday journeys (mainly work) were already done by public transport – and weekly/yearly passes mean that extra journeys at the weekend are “free”.

Secondly, we’d already decided – mainly to try to be more green to shift longer journeys, where we could, to the train. So we were happy to absorb those costs (mainly the extra train travel costs). But they are still costs, and need to be taken into account.

You can see a monthly breakdown of our travel costs in this graph – click on it to see it in more detail.

Monthly travel costs in 2012

Our monthly travel costs - car, bus, train, taxi, bike - in 2012

The other thing that I’m keen to focus on is how we’ve used the car, when we’ve hired it. Stats never tell the whole story, but 5000 miles over 100 days suggests we’ve travelled, on average, 50 miles a day in the car.

This is interesting (at least to me) because I’d argue that one of the issues of mass car ownership is that many of the journeys many of us make in the car are sub 5 mile trips – the kind of journey that could, in a good number of cases, be made on public transport, on a bike or on foot.

Pint of Happy Chappy

One of the many benefits of car-free travel - increased opportunity for a cheeky pint

Why do we many of us make many of those short journeys in a car? Because we’re time-poor, we’re hassled, and we’ve got lots to do. But also because the car is sat there, on the drive. In 2012 we didn’t make those short journeys in a car- because most of the time there wasn’t a car to jump into.

What if more of us chose different ways to make some of the short journeys we make every week? What difference might that make to traffic levels? Pollution? Our health? The sense of our streets being living places, not just thoroughfares for motor vehicles?

So where do we go from here? We’re going to try to cut down on our car use in 2013. If you look at the graph you’ll notice that car hire was pretty erratic – mainly concentrated around school holidays – and it tailed off in the last 3 months of 2012. It tailed off partly because it’s not holiday season – but also because slowly we’re weaning ourselves off having a car. Bit by bit we’ve adapted how we live so we need a car less. But we still know we can easily get one when we need one.

So this year we’d like to cut what we spend on transport by around £700 to £4000 – fewer days car hire and a bit more bike instead of bus. And we’re aiming for 4000 miles in the car instead of 5000. We’ll let you know how we get on this time next year….

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