The Social Business

Category: Social innovation

Our plans for Zero Waste Leeds

I’ve written previously about our plans to get involved with local approaches to tackling climate change in Leeds.

You may remember that I  joined Leeds Climate Commission last year, and that the Board of the social enterprise I help to run gave me some time to explore a range of different environmental business ideas – to see if we could identify an opportunity to get involved with tackling an issue locally.

In short, we looked at three ideas – community energy, transport, and waste & recycling.

Whilst we were very interested in community energy, we reached a stage where we needed more money, and greater expertise, to really take things further, so we stopped exploring that before Christmas.  Having said that, we’re always open to ideas – and it may be that this is one we pick up again in the future – perhaps working with other people with greater sector-specific expertise.   Please contact us if you want to chat about opportunities around community energy in Leeds.

Transport is a fascinating one for me personally, as you’ll notice if you scroll through the #LeedsTransport hashtag on Twitter.  I joined the local Transport Consultation Sub-Committee at West Yorkshire Combined Authority, and I work hard in my own time to keep up to speed with interesting ideas around transport & sustainable cities from around the world.

But,  realistically, this was always going to be an issue for us to campaign on, rather than explore from a business perspective.  I’ll keep exploring it, in my own time, including looking at issues around transport poverty with Leeds Poverty Truth Commission.  And if there are pieces of work that people would like our input into, I’d be interested in being involved.

Waste and recycling proved to be an issue with many more opportunities to explore, as I outlined in this post.  Since we met up with over 30 people working on this in January, we’ve continued to explore ideas under the Zero Waste Leeds banner – whilst we’ve also been working hard to build up a following on Twitter and Facebook.

Our plan is to pilot a range of ideas over a nine month period  – around a number of themes – looking at opportunities to help Leeds as a city to waste less, whilst also reusing, repairing and recycling more.

After a funder expressed an interest in what we were doing, we’ve put together a proposal for the pilot, focusing on the following five areas of work:

  • Engaging social enterprises in the Council’s new Waste Strategy
  • Marketing, communications and community engagement
  • Collaboration, business development and innovation
  • Proving social impact
  • Securing long-term investment and funding

We’re keen to chat with other potential funders, sponsors and investors, so if you are interested in our work, or you have ideas on who we should contact, please get in touch.

We’re confident we can make something happen here.  We know how big a social issue this is – and it feels like there’s an opportunity that wasn’t there as recently as six months ago.  The whole Blue Planet II phenomenon – and the interest it’s generated in plastic waste – has raised public consciousness on issues to do with waste.  We want to capitalise on that interest and turn it into a range of practical actions in our city.

We know it won’t be easy, but we’re confident that  the way we work at Social Business Brokers – tirelessly tapping into our networks to explore ways we can collaborate with others  & change things – gives us a good chance to make stuff happen.

We’ve done it before – most successfully with Empty Homes Doctor – which started with a text conversation between me and my social business partner Gill when we were each sat at home watching George Clarke talking about empty homes on Channel 4.  We took an idea – spotted an opportunity – and turned it into a sustainable social business – that, with Leeds City Council support, has brought back into use nearly 300 long-term empty homes in the last five years.

And – working with a wide range of other people – we helped to take Leeds Community Homes from an idea and establish it as one of the UK’s first urban Community Land Trusts – which raised £360,000 through a pioneering community share offer.

We don’t know exactly what will emerge from Zero Waste Leeds, but we’re confident something – or more likely some things – will.  But, to be frank, we’ll need support to get it going.  We’ve funded our work on this so far ourselves, and we can probably only commit to it for a couple of months more.  If we’re not successful in securing some funding or investment for a pilot, Zero Waste Leeds may have to go back on the “nice ideas” shelf.  I for one would be really disappointed if that turned out to be the case.


 

If you’re interested in what we do and may be interested in supporting our work, please get in touch – our contact details are here

Car hire companies: I’m not a cyclist – I’m your regular customer

We’ve not owned a car for around seven years now.  But that’s not to say I never drive – on average we hire a car around once a month.  Sometimes for weekends, often for holidays, and on the odd occasion for work.

It works well for us.  Neither of us routinely needs a car for work – and our journeys to work are pretty easily made on the bike or on the bus.  My son, whose seven years at school have coincided with those seven car free years, walks the 30 minute journey to school.

But a car is there when we need it.  Both for longer hires from car hire firms like Avis and Enterprise, and for shorter rentals, from our local car club – now owned by Enterprise too.

There’s lots that I like about organising how we get around in this way.  I like the fact that, by and large, we choose the most appropriate mode of transport for each journey.  So when walking makes most sense, we walk.  When cycling fits the bill, we get the bikes out.  Heading into town as a family?  The bus, usually.  Longer weekend journeys?  The train when it makes most sense (practically and financially) – and if not, a hire car.  A small, cheap car if it’s just us, and a bigger car or van if we need the extra room for bikes, Christmas presents or camping gear.

Compare that with what tends to happen when you own a car.  It’s sat there on the drive, waiting to be driven (some studies suggest they spend up to 95% of their life doing nothing).  So when you need to go somewhere, the car is the obvious choice.  It appears convenient, and it appears cheap.  £4.30 return for a 2 mile bus journey – or perhaps a notional 20p in fuel to drive?  It’s obvious what choice most people will make – even if the true cost per mile is much higher.

I would say that is one of the main problems with our current ownership model for cars.  Individual ownership makes traveling in a car the default choice for most journeys many of us make in cities – when, for some of those journeys at least, another mode of transport would be better all ways round.

So I’m hopeful that over time we’ll move away from individual ownership of cars – and move more towards a model where we “buy mobility”.  This is the emerging Mobility As A Service model where, easily organised via your phone, it’s easy to jump on the bus, book a taxi, pick up a dockless bike, hire a car for an hour, buy a train ticket – whichever mode of transport makes most sense for that particular journey.  In a small, low-tech, much-more-difficult-than-it-needs-to-be way, that’s what we currently do as a family.  And on balance, I love it.

But today I’m focusing on cars – prompted by a tweet from car hire company Sixt.

I’m not pretending I was “offended” or anything like that.  I just thought it was a poor piece of marketing.  In large part, because of what I’ve outlined above.

I am 100% their target customer.  I don’t own a car and spend over a grand a year on car hire.  And, in their eyes, I’m a “cyclist” – the customer group they’ve clumsily targeted.

But that’s where they’re wrong.  I am not a cyclist.  I am someone who wants to get from A to B, and I choose the most appropriate way to do that.  I mainly cycle precisely because for the majority of my journeys, (peak time commutes in Leeds)  it’s the quickest option.  I want to go faster.   Effortlessly gliding past queues of stationery cars and getting to work on time is the ultimate performance boost.

Yet I do need a car from time to time, and whilst I’m very happy with a lot of the service I get from the hire companies I routinely use (in particular the consistently excellent staff at Avis in Leeds),  it fascinates me that they don’t better serve the regular, “multimodal” hirer.  This clumsy piece of marketing points to a wider inability to make the most of a growing customer group.

For example, I have lost count of the number of times I’ve turned up a car hire places, on my bike, and asked where the bike parking is.   I find it bizarre that they seem surprised that someone, who, by definition, is in need of a car at that precise moment, may have turned up by another mode of transport.

If they thought it through properly, there’d be all sorts of other opportunities too.  More electric and hybrid cars are an obvious thing to think about.  Reviewing the classification of cars – and giving people the option of not having a diesel car (it’s still often sold to you as a premium vehicle – because of better fuel economy) could be good too.  As would not always assuming that an upgrade (to a bigger, more expensive to run car) is what the customer wants.  A bigger car is sometimes handy, but I’m buying mobility, not a mobile status symbol.  And don’t get me started on the hard-sell of Collision Damage Waiver insurance….

I care about this because I can see the enormous potential of easier access to on-demand cars, rather than ownership of them.  Our cities could be transformed if more of us chose the most appropriate mode of transport for our journeys, rather than routinely jumping into the car.  We could also stop wasting so much of our disposable income on an asset that sits idle more than half the time.  And I think there are big business opportunities for the companies that get their heads around this emerging market and serve it well.

Zero Waste Leeds – change begins at home

As I’ve mentioned before, over the last few months I’ve been looking into various ideas broadly around the theme of “local responses to climate change”.

The theme that we’ve made most progress on is around waste and recycling – and we hosted a meeting last week attended by 30 people interested in exploring the idea of “Zero Waste Leeds“.   I’ve just about finished writing up the notes, and I’ll share more on here soon.

One thing I’ve learnt over the years is that with things like this, change begins at home.  To create real change, action pretty quickly needs to expand beyond the home –  at a neighbourhood level, a city level, the country, universe and beyond…. but you can learn a lot by first of all trying to change things that you have direct control over.

I’m also a big fan of counting things, keeping track of things.  That’s where the journey towards going car-free began – making a conscious effort to record each journey over six months – and then reflecting on what we could change.

So,  given that I want 2018 to be the year when we really get stuck in to helping Leeds create less waste, I thought we’d start at home.  On January 1st we agreed (family buy-in is important!) to weigh everything that we were getting rid of – black bin waste, recycling, compostable waste, glass, and donated goods.

And the results are in….

This first table shows everything we’ve “got rid of” – including donations of stuff that’s been sat in the loft for a while. It shows a total 111kg. (click on the table to enlarge it)

Household "waste" during January, including donated goods.

Household “waste” during January, including donated goods.

This second table is without the donated goods (as this might give a better comparison for throughout the year).

This table shows a total of 65kg of household "waste" during January, excluding donated goods.

This table shows a total of 65kg of household “waste” during January, excluding donated goods.

 First of all, a few bits of explanation

And some overall thoughts

It was a really useful exercise – and got us thinking about the amount of waste that we create as a family.   When you weigh it all up, it’s striking how much rubbish you create – 2kg a day – or closer to equivalent of 4kg a day if you include all the stuff we’ve amassed over the years that we’re starting to get rid of.

And although what you might call our “household reuse & recycling rate” is perhaps not that bad – 64% excluding donated goods, 79% including them), it really focused our minds on how much “residual waste” we were creating.  That, as you’d expect, was made up of all sorts of things.  But the amount of non-recyclable plastic packaging was striking.

As was the amount of food waste.   My guess is that relatively speaking weren’t not that bad on food waste – we’re certainly much more on the ball than we were a few years ago.  But there was still too much.  Leftovers that got forgotten in the fridge.  A third of a tub of cream.  A couple of rashers of bacon from no-one could quite remember when.  That kind of thing.   It all went in the bin – and presumably will mostly be burnt at the RERF, just down the road from our office.

On a positive note, it confirmed to us the importance of home composting.  By weight, 8% (excluding donations) of the waste we produced made the journey to the compost bin at the bottom of the garden.  And having emptied some beautifully rich compost from the bin a few months ago, I need no convincing of the value of carrying on doing that.

And then there’s glass.  Talk about recycling with anyone in Leeds and it’s the first thing they’ll mention – why don’t we have kerbside glass collection?  The recent Council report into recycling confirmed how much Leeds glass doesn’t get recycled.  Our month (no Dryanuary in this house) confirmed the obvious – in weight terms at least, glass is significant.  By weight glass accounted for 11% of what we got rid of (excluding donated goods).  And I promise, we don’t drink that much…..

So there you go.  We haven’t quite decided whether we’re going to continue weighing everything (if anyone wants to join us in the experiment let me know – that might help us to maintain the motivation!) but it has been a very useful exercise.

We’ll keep thinking about it, but our main immediate reflections have been:

  • We need to keep doing what we can to buy things with less packaging (and of course, consider alternatives to buying some stuff in the first place).
  • We need to work harder on reducing the amount of food we waste at home.  We didn’t track how much of our residual waste was food waste – but I know it was too much.
  • We’d be interested in knowing how we compare, and in getting other people’s ideas and experiences.  If you’ve done this as a household – or fancy doing it this month – say hello on Twitter and follow #ZeroWasteLeeds.

 

 

Could a Latte Levy work for Leeds?

The year is only a few days old and already we’ve had at least two big news stories about waste.

The first concerns plastic – and the possible impact of China’s decision to no longer accept our plastic for re-processing.  Then today we’ve had news of a potential 25p Latte Levy – to “nudge” people into reducing their use of non-recyclable coffee cups.

Waste reduction is an issue that interests me a lot.  As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve had a bit of time over the last few months, courtesy of the social enterprise that I help to run, to explore “green” business ideas – things we could get involved in locally that would help in one way or another to tackle climate change.

We’ve been looking in particular around community energy, waste, and transport.  Waste and recycling is the one where we’ve made most progress – and I’ll be putting some more time into it over the next few weeks.

We’re interested to see what more could be done to help Leeds as a city create less waste,  and increase the amount of waste materials that gets recycled.

The context is that in Leeds, as elsewhere, recycling rates have stalled in recent years.

Up until recently,  year-on-year progress was impressive – with close to 44% of Leeds household waste recycled in 2013/14 – compared to 22% in 2006/07.  Yet this dropped to 38.5% in 2016/17.

This is pretty consistent with the national picture – as these Government statistics demonstrate.

I’m not sure why we’ve hit this plateau.  My guess would be that years of central Government cuts haven’t helped – and that the continued investment that’s needed to ensure that householders are able to recycle more just hasn’t happened.

On this, it’s interesting to compare what’s happened in Wales – where improvements in recycling rates are much more impressive.  So it would seem that it can be done, if there’s political will and investment.

Locally, Leeds City Council are currently working with WRAP – and are undertaking a review of their Waste and Recycling Strategy this year (see item 17 here).  So it seemed to us that it was timely to explore whether there were any ways we could help to work out how to waste less and recycle more.  I summarised some of the key points in the council report in this thread.

Our starting point has been to chat with the wide range of social enterprises that are active in Leeds on waste and recycling.  There’s loads going on already – with really impressive social enterprises such as SCRAP, Seagulls, and Revive doing loads of good work to make good use of stuff that other people are throwing away.  And, of course, Leeds is the birthplace of the Real Junk Food Project – who through projects including Fuel For School and the Sharehouse have saved tonnes of food from going to waste.

But could we do more?  That’s what we’ll be exploring at a meeting we’re hosting later this month.  We’ve invited the Council along too to chat about the review of their waste strategy  – and to find out more from them about the challenges the city faces around waste & recycling – alongside opportunities to do more.

One really positive thing in Leeds is that a lot of social enterprises already have a strong relationship with the Council – for example Revive has reuse shops at two of the Council’s household waste sites.  And it’s that kind of co-operation that has a big impact.

As today’s focus on coffee cups has illustrated, this is a really complex issue.  There are no easy solutions – and progress will probably come (if it does come) in a range of different ways.  Businesses have a role to play, as do all of us as consumers.  Local and national government will play their part too.

That’s why I think the coffee cup issue is such an interesting one.  I think it’s going to be a really tough one to solve.  As Jo from The Greedy Pig outlined in this Radio Leeds interview, (from 2hrs42min),  the issue of disposable coffee cups is a bit different to plastic bags.  It’s the “on-the-go” consumption that makes it such a difficult issue.

There will be solutions.   But I think we’re going to have to think really creatively.  There are plenty of interesting ideas in this post by Hubbub, who’ve been working a lot on the issue.  I think they’re right that there’s plenty of scope for city-level action – and I’m already talking with a couple of Leeds indie businesses who are up for working out how they can reduce the amount of packaging waste that they create.  Many independent businesses already take a lead on this (eg offering Vegware packaging) – and it’s great to see there’s an appetite for doing more.

There are other interesting ideas out there too – like Cup Club – and again, I’ve been in touch with them to see if there’s scope for trying something out in Leeds.

It’s a massive challenge, but I sense a change in public mood – thanks in no small part to David Attenborough.   There will be things we can do to increase recycling rates – but even more importantly there’ll be ways to reduce the amount of waste we create in the first place.  And the thing that interests me is that I think it’s in cities that we’ll be able to do the collaborative, joined-up work that will help us make progress on this issue.  Starting in Leeds of course….

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.

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.

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