The Social Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our New Year's Resolution in 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dad and Lad weekly bus tickets

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monthly travel costs - car and public transport

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

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

Leeds – a good place to build your own home?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strawbale Cottage in Howden, East Yorkshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leeds Empties – what’s the Big Idea?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family Gold Ticket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monthly travel costs in 2012

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

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

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

Pint of Happy Chappy

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Life without the car – one year on

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Autumn leaves on our street today


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

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

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

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

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

Fancy signage for a city-centre car park

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

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

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