The Social Business

Category: Social innovation

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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