The Social Business

Category: Social change (page 1 of 24)

How can we improve recycling rates in Leeds?

I’d never been to a hack before – and then I’ve ended up at two in the last week.

I spoke at an event on Friday which is exploring how to improve mapping of cycle routes in Leeds.  There are two more “warm-ups” and then the Hack My Route event itself – in the next few weeks.  There’s £4500 up for grabs for whoever comes up with the winning prototype.

Yesterday I went to what was termed a Recycle Hack – a Leeds City Council event, facilitated by Abhay Adhikari,  looking at how we can improve how we deal with domestic waste in our city.  Attendees were primarily council staff – plus a few people who do clever stuff with data, and a couple of interested observers, including me.

There’s a lot going on in Leeds with regards to sharing data more openly – and that was the starting point yesterday too.  The council have gathered together a range of data relating to domestic waste, including:

  • Bottle banks – locations and amounts of glass collected, by colour
  • Amounts of different types of waste collected at Household Refuse Sites
  • Information on bin wagon routes
  • Data on amount of waste collected on each household waste collection day
  • Information on contamination of recyclable waste

The data doesn’t seem to be online yet but I assume it’ll be published soon on Leeds Data Mill.

After a brief run through of the data (more about what data there was, rather than what it showed) we split into groups and began to explore what we might try to do with the information in the spreadsheets – with a focus on working out ways to improve how the city deals with its waste.

Our group focused on what information we thought it might be interesting to study in greater detail.  Pretty obvious things – like how different bin routes compare in terms of amount of waste collected, and percentage of waste sent for recycling.

We’d learnt earlier in the morning that all Leeds’ recyclable waste is sent for manual sorting to a privately run facility in Beeston, south Leeds.  One data set relates to the level of contamination of recyclable waste – for example by people putting general waste in their green bin – which (if I understood things correctly) in extreme cases can mean that a whole wagon-load of recyclable waste can be rejected and sent to landfill.  I left wanting to understand this more.  On which routes is there more contaminated waste?  Does “contaminated” mean “dirty” or does it mean “too much of the wrong sort of non-recyclable plastic”?  How is this dealt with?  What solutions might there be?

Another set of data I’d be interested in looking at more relates to areas of Leeds (around Rothwell) where households get food-waste collections. I’d be interested to see what impact that has had on recycling rates – and the amount of non-recyclable waste that’s collected.

In truth we didn’t have loads of time to explore things before we broke for lunch.  But we worked with one of the developers, Nick Jackson, (who’s also working with Leeds Empties on this open data project) to explore a few ideas – including improving the page on the Leeds Council website which lets people know when their bins are collected.  Apparently 40,000 people visit that page every month – so that’s a significant audience – potentially for information that may encourage people to recycle more.

As you’d expect, as you start to get into detail you realise that there are limitations to the data too.  There’s a natural desire to compare performance across the city – how does the prosperous suburb of Adel compare with inner-city Cross Green?  But in reality it’s more difficult – as the data gathered about waste collection relates to routes – which take in a number of neighbourhoods.  But as the data is explored in more detail other possibilities for better analysis may become apparent.  And, with time, there may be possibilities to gather data in different ways.

After the event I got into a few interesting conversations online.  I tweeted a picture of a leaflet that we’ve got on our fridge.

 

 

The leaflet was produced by Leeds University Union – and is aimed primarily at students in the city.  The issue that I mentioned before – about green bins being contaminated with non-recyclable waste – is a particular problem in student areas.  The leaflet shares information – in an engaging way – about what can and can’t be recycled in Leeds.

I learnt a lot myself – I now know that plastics with numbers 1 2 and 4 on them can be recycled in Leeds – but not others.  So, for example, most yoghurt pots can’t go in your green bin, whilst a lot of bottles can – but lots of bottle tops can’t.

Response to the leaflet on Twitter suggested that I’m not alone in being a bit confused about what you can and can’t recycle.  So maybe amidst all the talk of data we’ve found one low-tech solution – better information shared with all households.  A couple of local councillors picked up on the tweet so it’ll be interesting to see what happens there.

So it was an interesting day.  My main interest in this is environmental – but there could be clear financial benefits for the city too.  I don’t know the exact figures but dealing with the city’s waste clearly costs council tax payers a lot of money – at a time when the council’s budgets are under severe pressure.  So reducing the amount of waste we produce – and recycling more of it – makes sense for all sorts of reasons.

When I get more information about next steps – and when the data is shared – I’ll share it here and on Twitter.

 

 

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.

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

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….

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.

Leeds Empties – plans for the next few months

We had some good news last week – our application to Leeds City Council’s Transition Fund was successful – which means we have £10,000 to help us to develop Leeds Empties further over the next few months.

If you’ve read previous posts you may remember that we were initially looking for £50,000, from a range of sources, to develop Leeds Empties. We knew that was always going to be tough, but there’s nothing wrong with thinking big is there? So £10,000 means that – as we have done so far – we’ll be developing things on a shoestring budget. But we’re confident we can make some real progress by next April.

Alongside the £10,000, there’s an important, clear commitment from the Council to continue to work with us to develop Leeds Empties – the idea is that our range of services will sit alongside what the Council currently offers – so that empty home owners are helped in a range of ways to bring their home back into use.

So what will we get up to over the next few months? Basically, we are looking to try out a range of ways in which we can help more people to bring more empty homes back into use in Leeds. To give you an idea, here are a few of the things we’ll be focusing on:

Empty Homes Doctor – we’re aiming to work intensively with at least 15 empty home owners over the next 3 or 4 months to help them to bring their homes back into use. Who they are – and exactly how we’ll help – we don’t know yet. But the idea is that we’ll sit down with people to understand the reasons why they’re currently unable to bring their home back into use. Then we’ll help them to explore a range of options for bringing their home back into use. Options might include working with a local social enterprise to renovate and rent out the home, or they may wish to consider other ways to rent out or sell their home. Our role won’t be to advise – rather to help them to consider options that are available to them – many of which they may not be currently aware.

Support new and existing self-help and social ventures: we’re lucky that we’ve got some great social enterprises working on empty homes in Leeds – people like Canopy, LATCH and Gipsil. We want to do what we can to help them do more of what they do – whilst also encouraging new social ventures to set up in Leeds.

So we’ll be talking to existing social enterprises to see if there are ways we can help – and we’ll also be keeping an eye out for enterprising ways to bring more empty homes back into use. This week I’ll be at the Empty Homes Conference in London on Monday – and from there I’m heading to Triodos in Bristol to find out more about Bristol Together – a social enterprise that works with ex-offenders to bring empty homes back into use. We’re keen to explore lots of ideas – and to find people in Leeds who might wish to take some of these ideas – or things they’ve come up with themselves – further.

Attract funding and investment into empty homes in Leeds: we’ll do what we can to attract more money into Leeds. We’re talking to a range of social investors and funders – people we know who are on the look-out for enterprising approaches to solving this big social problem. So we’re in contact with organisations including Triodos, Key Fund, Ecology Building Society and an intermediary who works with Big Society Capital. We’re also looking into other ways that we could attract investment. Could local people crowd-fund the renovation of a number of empty homes? Or might community share issues work? And how can we make sure Leeds makes the most of the National Empty Homes Loan Fund?

Engage more people in bringing empty homes back into use in Leeds: one of big successes with the Call To Action was that we attracted a wide range of people to the event – including more than 20 local businesses who pledged money, skills and time to bringing more empties back into use.

We want to do far more of this. A new website will give practical information about how to get involved, and we’re also running an event in February with the RSA and Leeds City Council to engage more people in practical ways to bring empties back into use. Then in March, we plan to host a Leeds Empties Week in empty premises in the centre of Leeds – with a range of events to raise awareness of the empty homes issue – and to focus on ways that together we can bring homes back into use.

So it’s going to be a busy few months. Over the next ten days we’ll tidy up the Leeds Empties site so that we can keep you updated and involved. In the meantime I’ll blog here about what we’re up to – including the Empty Homes Conference tomorrow and the Bristol Together event on Wednesday.

As always, if you want to get involved, please get in touch with us.

Leeds Empties & The Great British Property Scandal

This one minute video, produced by Tiger Aspect, the people behind George Clarke’s Channel 4 series The Great British Property Scandal – will give you a feel for our Leeds Empties Call To Action:

And let’s not forget we also made it onto BBC Look North – empty homes was the lead story on Look North all day – and I made my debut on the sofa with Harry and Christa:

You can read more about the Call To Action – and what we’ve done since – on this post. This guest post on the Great British Property Scandal site, alongside the Leeds Empties microsite will also give you some background info.

Where are we up to now? We’ve spent the last few months developing some of the ideas that were explored at the Call To Action – and we’ve come up with the ten point plan for bringing more empty homes back into use.

In summary, we want to try out a range of approaches – working alongside the Council’s empty homes team – and working closely with some of the great social enterprises, like LATCH, Canopy and Gipsil who already bring empty homes back into use.

Our main proposed service – an Empty Homes Doctor – will see us working intensively, on a one-to-one basis, with people who find themselves with an empty home (perhaps through an inheritance) but who don’t know what to do with it. We reckon our approach, over time, can help to bring back into use hundreds more Leeds empty homes. And as a result, more Leeds people will have a decent place to call home, and fewer Leeds communities will be blighted by houses that are eyesores and magnets for crime and anti-social behaviour.

Other things we want to do include working with social investors and funders to bring more money into Leeds for empty homes, finding ways to do green retrofits of empties in Leeds, alongside work to make sure that we make the most of job & apprenticeship opportunities in empty homes refurbishment.

It’s not been easy to get funding or investment – and as a result we’ve made slower progress than we’d hoped. But, with a fair wind, we reckon we’ll secure some initial investment in the next few weeks to try out the Empty Homes Doctor service and some of the other ideas we’ve got – such as finding ways to secure further investment for empty homes refurbishment in Leeds. Then, a few months down the line, we’ll have a good idea as to what works – and we’ll look to expand the service across Leeds.

If you’re interested in finding out more, please leave a comment below or get in touch with us – or follow me on Twitter. We reckon Leeds has got what it takes to bring hundreds more empties back into use as homes, and we’d love to have you involved!

Olderposts

Copyright © 2015 The Social Business

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑