Cutting down on our energy use – how have we got on?

I blogged at the start of January about our plans to focus this year on cutting down our energy use at home. We’d been recording weekly meter readings at imeasure for a couple of months – and that’d given us a weekly average for gas and electricity of approximately 100kwh each. We knew it wasn’t particularly scientific to be comparing November readings with January readings – but we took those figures as our starting point. The initial aim was to reduce our energy use by 10%.

So how have we got on? My original post listed a few things that we thought we needed to do. The main ones we’ve made some progress on are the boiler and energy-saving bulbs – so I’ll talk more about that here.

We knew the boiler was on its last legs. But we were hoping it’d last another winter, but in early January it packed in completely. So we had 10 days with no heating or hot water – which does wonders for your energy use stats! Whilst it was a pain (and a big expense) to replace the boiler in an unplanned way at least it gave us an early opportunity to see if we could get our energy use down, by choosing a good boiler.

I looked at Which? (you need to join to see their reports) and chose one of the boilers that came out top in their recent survey – a Worcester Bosch Greenstar 30si (the top 20 Best Buys were all Worcester Bosch). I also looked into thermostats as the thermostat we had previously was hard to adjust. Thanks to my followers on Twitter I chose the Honeywell CM907 as a few people recommended it as being really easy to programme. I really wanted one of these next generation thermostats – but they’re not available in the UK yet.

How have we got on so far? Here’s a graph showing our energy use over the last few months:

Energy use October to January

(You can click on the graph to see it properly)

You’ll notice a slight drop in electricity use in January – and a rise in gas use (other than the week when we had no boiler).

Our gas use has gone up against the previous three month trend. I think there are a few reasons for that. One, obviously, is that it’s winter. Secondly, we’re still getting used to programming the thermostat – and we’ve had a few days where it’s been on for too long because we programmed it incorrectly. And last of all, we reckon we’ve had the heating on more – precisely because the thermostat is easier to control. Previously, we struggled to put the heating on outside of its programmed times. Now we just press a button. And as a result (and this is a good thing) we’ve had the heating on for longer.

With regards to electricity, I’ve been trying out a range of LED lights, for the GU10 halogen spotlight fittings that we’ve got in a few parts of the house. I’d never have fitted them in the first place, but we’ve inherited them and a total re-fit isn’t feasible at the moment. So I’ve looked at LEDs.

They’re not cheap – the ones I’ve tested have ranged from £6 each to £35 each – and it all adds up if you’ve got 20 bulbs to replace. But the promised savings are significant – down from 50W to 7W per bulb – and up to a 20 year life span.

It would seem, with LEDs, that you get what you pay for – the cheapest ones that we’ve tried don’t give off a great quality light, and they don’t seem that robust. These mid-range ones were pretty good – I might well use these in the utility room (i.e. a part of the house where the lighting isn’t quite so crucial). However it was the most expensive ones – from Energy Saving LED – that were clearly the best. Incidentally, Energy Saving LED have written a useful blogpost which compares LEDs and makes the case for investing in their more expensive bulbs.

I’d certainly agree that the quality and strength of the most expensive light was noticeably better and they certainly seemed to be built well – they’re the only ones I’ve found with a five year guarantee. But £35 is a lot of money. I’m going to try the less-bright version of the same bulb – which is around £10 cheaper – and I’m likely to go for those in the kitchen.

We’ve also replaced a number of R10 spotlights – mainly in the hall – with these energy efficient ones from Megaman. Again, they’re not cheap, but we’ve been impressed with the quality of the light – and they’re well made. We haven’t replaced the current spotlights in other areas of the house where they’re used less as it’d cost a lot to replace them all – and the benefits would be minimal as we don’t use those lights much. But we’ll replace them one by one as they fail.

In terms of energy use – gas use is up on average (average 112kwh per week) but in real terms it’s higher than that as we hardly used any gas in the 10 days with no boiler). We’re likely to get a sense of the impact of the new boiler in the longer term.

With regards to electricity, the average weekly usage in January was 96kwh – compared to 98kwh in the previous months. So a small fall – but again the figures are perhaps skewed by the boiler issue (e.g. using an electric radiator). Nonetheless, the last two week’s readings – 84kwh and 85kwh – are promising. Some of that will be down to the new bulbs – but it’s more likely related to us being a bit more mindful about how we use energy.

And reflections so far? I was grateful for the decent insulation when the boiler broke – it wasn’t very pleasant but the house wasn’t as cold as we’d feared. Secondly, trying to choose bulbs is harder than it should be. It’s too complicated – all the fittings have odd names (SES, GU10 etc) and all the talk of lumens etc is confusing. It needs to be made easier than it currently is to make an informed choice. I looked into it in detail – most people won’t. As a result most people – faced with paying a lot of money for a technology they’re not convinced by – won’t invest.

And more than anything, I think it’s useful to be mindful of your energy use (recording weekly readings at imeasure helps a lot here) – and I think that is what is likely to have most impact. We now appreciate how warm our house is – and recognise that the weak spot is the single-glazed front door – that’s just about the only place where cold gets in. But that’s a longer term job. This month we’ll focus more on bulbs – and getting those reflective radiator panels fitted…..

06. February 2012 by admin
Categories: Climate Change, Green homes, Green issues, Social change | Leave a comment

Up next: reducing our energy use at home

Over the last couple of years we made an effort as a family to cut down on how much we used the car – and a couple of months ago we finally went car-free.

In 2012 we’ve decided to work on a couple of other areas which account for a significant amount of our carbon footprint – our energy use at home, and the food that we eat.

I’ll blog about food in the next few days but let’s look at energy use first.  Over the last ten weeks I’ve been taking weekly gas and electricity readings to get a better idea of how much energy we consume at home.  You know how it is, you have a broad idea how much you spend (probably less of an idea of how much energy you consume – or how that’s changed over time), so I thought it’d be useful to keep an eye on it.

I also joined the Energy Group at Roundhay Environmental Action Project – a local organisation which, amongst other things, runs the monthly Oakwood Farmers Market.  Their Energy Group consists of a small group of people who are working on issues to do with domestic energy use – encouraging people to insulate their homes, sharing information about solar panels etc.

Through the Energy Group I found out about a useful website which helps you to record your weekly energy consumption – so I’ve been adding our weekly readings to this.  Here’s a graph showing our energy consumption over the last ten weeks :

(if you click on it you’ll see the whole graph -and if you’re wondering why it drops significantly in week 10 – it was Christmas and we were away for a few days)

The stats show that over 10 weeks our average energy use in Kilowatt-Hours (kWh) was (very conveniently) just under 100 kWh for both gas and electricity (98 kWh for electricity and 99 kWh for gas). So, for ease, we’ll use 100kWh per week for gas and electricity as our reference point.

The plan is to see if we can get our energy use down significantly – by 10% to start off with. Why? Two main reasons. One – to save money – we spend £100 a month with Ecotricity for their new energy plus dual fuel tariff and clearly prices are only going one way. The second reason of course is an environmental one.

I’m all for investing in renewable energy, but I have little faith that we’ll manage to keep up with ever-increasing energy use by replacing coal-fired power stations with cleaner alternatives. I wish (and still hope) we would – but given that as a country we don’t have a great track record in terms of green infrastructure investment I’m not going to hold my breath. So, I’m more interested in reducing demand for energy – and it makes sense to start at home.

So, just as we did with reducing our car use, we’re going to attempt to reduce our energy use gradually over time. I’m genuinely interested to see how much of an impact we can have. We live in a relatively small 3 bed 1930s semi, which has double glazing, cavity wall insulation and good loft insulation. So it would seem that the obvious ways to reduce our energy use are already accounted for.

What else can we do? We’ll find out over the next three months – but here are some of the things I imagine we’ll work on (and I’m not pretending any of this is particularly clever)

  • Replace lighting with LEDs and other low energy bulbs (this may have a fairly big impact as the house is full of spotlights)
  • Use the tumble drier less or not at all
  • Improve draft proofing around windows and doors – curtains, a draft-proofing sausage dog at the door, a better letter box etc)
  • Change the boiler – it’s ten years old and we’ve been told it’s on its last legs
  • Get a new thermostat – the one we’ve got is difficult to control – I’ve got my eye on one of these
  • Fit the reflective radiator panels that I bought three months ago (which are supposed to improve efficiency by 20%)
  • Generally, keep an eye on our energy use and reducing it where we can

So we’ll see.  I’ll report back once a month as to how we’re getting on.  I’m aware that this isn’t particularly scientific – there’s every chance our energy use month-on-month will drop as we move into a warmer period of the year.  But I still think we should be able to identify a trend – and also keep an eye on whether specific measures such as replacing a number of bulbs make a significant difference.  imeasure also has a clever feature where you can track your energy use against weather conditions – so you can see if your weekly energy use is in line with what you would expect, given the weather that week.

Of course, I’d rather not do this alone.  If you’re already working on reducing your energy use – or you reckon you could do with a new year’s resolution – then please let me know by leaving a comment below.  If you were interested we could share info on imeasure by forming a community on there.   It’s much more fun to do things like this with other people – and clearly it’s important that we quickly get to some kind of scale when it comes to reducing our energy use.

04. January 2012 by admin
Categories: Climate Change, Green homes, Green issues | 2 comments

Car-free life – one month on

We gave up our car at the end of October – you can read more about why we did that here and here.

It wasn’t just about the money – although we’re hoping we will save a bit of cash – but I’m interested whether we end up spending more or less without a car sat on the drive.  So I’ve been keeping track of our transport costs in November (and the last week of October)- and here they are in summary:

  • We spent £240 on car hire and related costs (petrol, annual insurance, car club fee)
  • We spent £218 on public transport
  • So, with a  few other things (including internet shopping delivery charges) in total the cost for a family of three getting round for five weeks without owning a car was just under £480.

A few facts to put these figures into context:

  • £85 of the car hire costs are annual charges for insurance and car club membership.
  • We hired a car twice for a total of ten days
  • Around £200 of the public transport costs are costs we would have incurred if we still had a car –  as that was for work travel (mostly on the bus) and visiting family (mostly train and the odd taxi).
  • So, given that we estimated that the car cost us about £3000 to run, we’re on course to save a bit of money, but not much (based on around £240 costs over and above the public transport costs we would have incurred anyway).

Over five weeks our mileage in hire cars was 215 miles.  This compares with a monthly average of around 500 miles a month over our final twelve months with a car.  We’d got our monthly average mileage down from around 1000 miles a month in the previous 18 months.  For me this is the most significant change.

So how have things changed?

  • We’re walking more – short journeys of around a mile each way (e.g. to take my son to a weekly after-school activity) which we’d have done in the car – we’re now walking
  • We’re shopping more regularly – more locally.  We’re picking up things on the way home from work, or popping out to the shops a mile up the road.  We’ve also had a couple of online supermarket deliveries for bulky stuff.
  • I’m cycling more – it’s been fortunate that the weather’s been pretty mild – so I’ve been cycling to more work meetings.

I think the other stuff that’s interesting is how you need to be a bit more organised because you can’t always just pop out and get something that you need.  So I’ll be taking the wheelbarrow up to the Christmas Fair at the local hospice this afternoon to buy our Christmas tree. Life takes a bit more planning when you haven’t got a car sat on the drive ready to go.

Have we missed the car?  Not really – because when we’ve really needed one we’ve hired one.  I think it does change what you choose to do in your leisure time though – we’ve noticed that we’re more regularly going to places that we can get to easily on the bus – which for us means Leeds city centre or Harrogate.  Places like Wilkinson’s and Clas Ohlson – i.e. DIY stores in the city centre – come into their own when you don’t have a car to go out-of-town.

You might be thinking, “So what?”    Fair enough.  I’m not suggesting that everyone should give up their car.  We live in a city, have only one child, and have jobs which mean that with a bit of organisation we can get around without a car.  Our families live in places that we can easily get to on the train.  Not everyone’s life is like ours.

But plenty of us could drive less, or perhaps consider giving up the second car.  Or maybe share our car with other people.  And, in some cases, follow our lead and give up the car altogether.

With years of austerity ahead, many people will need to look at how to spend less.  For years it’s been a given that you learnt to drive at 17 and then as soon as you could afford it, you bought a car.  That’s changing already – and this trend is bound to get stronger as we learn to adapt to a good few years of falling incomes.

More than anything, it feels good not to be such a part of car culture any more.  In a small way we’re reducing demand for a finite resource.  We’re also making a bit of a counter-cultural statement that personal progress (better job, earning more) doesn’t mean you need to buy a nice car to sit on the drive.  And, you never know, I might finally get fit, before the midlife crisis hits……

02. December 2011 by admin
Categories: Climate Change, Green issues, leeds, Social change, Social entrepreneurs | 5 comments

Me, #occupy, #socent and the 99 per cent

I was in town this morning for a very productive meeting with a friend who’s a local GP to help me explore potential opportunities for social enterprises (aka #socent on Twitter) if GPs end up directly commissioning services.

We’d spotted earlier in the day that Billy Bragg was going to be at Occupy Leeds in City Square at midday, so we wandered across after our meeting finished.

I love Billy Bragg.  I think kids in 50 years time will study his lyrics in the way that we studied war poets.  And there is a coherence and clarity to his view of the world which I find hugely inspiring (even though I’m the first to admit I’m not a socialist).  So it was good to hear a few songs and listen to what he had to say about the importance of the Occupy movement.

It was the first time I’ve been down to Occupy Leeds.  I took a passing interest when Occupy Wall Street started, and got a bit more interested when people attempted to occupy the London Stock Exchange.  But it really caught my  imagination when the protest moved to the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral.

I thought the symbolism was brilliant, and could immediately see how moving the protest to the steps of a Christian church was likely to lead to something quite interesting.  But of course I couldn’t have anticipated how much it would shake up the hierarchy at St Paul’s and in the wider Church.

I’m a conflicted, uncomfortable Roman Catholic, born into a Catholic family.  I wouldn’t actively choose to be a Catholic now, but it’s the tradition I’ve been brought up in and it’s where, in lots of ways, I belong.  I also value in some ways the sense of discomfort that it brings me.  But I have no time for the hierarchy of the Church, and I struggle with a lot of its teaching.  Yet I find a niche within it – informed mainly by my year in Ecuador with a social project steeped in liberation theology – that keeps me hanging in there.

It was my patchy understanding of liberation theology that sparked my interest in the protest at St Paul’s.   I was pretty sure that Jesus would be outside in one of the tents, sitting with the people whose demands may be incoherent but who are saying something profound about social justice.  I also thought that the kind of church leader who inspires me – someone like the assassinated Archbishop of El Salvador Oscar Romero – would be out there with them too.

So that was my way in to the Occupy movement. But I’d be lying if I said I felt that I was part of that movement.  When I was down at City Square this afternoon I found it too easy to tell myself that the people there – camping, speaking, waving banners were people not like me.  I accept that’s not particularly helpful, but it was my honest response.  Got a beard?  Probably not like me.  Read Socialist Worker?  Not like me.  Look vaguely “alternative” in any of the ways that we like to compartmentalise other people?  Not like me. Got a desire to camp outside in the freezing cold at City Square?  Not like me. And there were lots of people there who, I told myself privately, were “not like me”.

But I think that’s the challenge, both to me and to the rest of us – both those who do currently feel totally part of the Occupy movement – and those like me who are intrigued by it and who see how important it is at this moment in time.  And that’s why I think the We Are The 99% slogan is so clever and so powerful.  Because in my opinion we – the vast majority of the world who are at the mercy of modern capitalism (and the vast majority of the world are doing far worse out of it than I am) – need to see that all of us are ill-served by the current economic system.  There has to be a better way.  If we don’t find one, the only question will be whether it’s economic collapse or environmental catastrophe that gets us first.

So I think with time we need to all see ourselves as the 99% – a diverse, engaged and not so engaged, political and apolitical, religious and non-religious, “alternative” and “mainstream” group of people.  So, speaking personally, I can be part of a movement that aims to make the world a much better place than it currently is.  Me, with my lack of political upbringing, my complicated relationship with Christianity, my lack of desire to take part in protests, my interest in finding business opportunities that deliver social change, my pragmatism, and my messy contradictions.  I see myself as part of the 99 per cent now.  Do you?

18. November 2011 by admin
Categories: Business, Climate Change, Social change, Social enterprise, Social entrepreneurs, Social Justice | 1 comment

Trust me – I’m a sharer

So we’re ten days into our car-free life.

Having said that, we hired a car for about five of those days, with it being half-term.  Good service from Enterprise – picking us up, dropping me off for my 930 meeting on Monday morning.  Why bother owning a car when you can rent one and then be chauffeur driven to your first meeting of the day?

It was interesting to compare renting a car with sorting out our membership of the local car club.  Joining the car club felt very modern and hi-tech – I applied online, then had a three way telephone call with the DVLA and the Club to check that I was who I said I was.  My smart card arrived the next day – and now a couple of cars are there for when I need them, about a 15 minute walk from our house.

Things were a bit different with Enterprise.  First thing to say is that their customer service was excellent – friendly and efficient. But the process leaves a lot to be desired.  Whereas the car club makes you feel like you’re making a sound decision, hiring a car makes you feel like this might not be such a good idea after all.

First of all you search the house for your paper driving licence and two recent utility bills.  And your passport.  Then you fill in all the documentation and they instil fear into you by suggesting that if the car doesn’t come back perfect they’ll take £600 off your credit card.  Unless, of course, you take out our ridiculously over-priced excess-waiver.  Oh, and if your partner wants to drive the car too (who’d have thought of that?) that’ll be an extra £10 a day.  Have a nice trip!

And it’ll be the same next time, find the documents, sign all the disclaimers etc etc.  Now, I understand there need to be some safeguards – I’m sure some shady people hire cars and get up to all sorts.  But maybe the big car hire firms could learn a few lessons from the new entrants to this market – City Car Club, Whipcar, BMW DriveNow and the rest.

Enterprise appear to making the assumption that you can’t trust your customers, whereas our car club seems to trust that most customers are decent people who will do the right thing.  So they rely on us to not leave the car low on fuel, or tell them if there’s a problem with the car.  Some people will abuse the system because some people can’t be trusted.  But they don’t build their system based on the assumption that you can’t trust your customers.  And, I’d like to think, when you make it clear to people that you trust them, they’re less likely to abuse that trust.

Trust is a key issue in what is increasingly called the sharing economy, or collaborative consumption.  And it’s one reason that I’m keen on sharing more and owning less.  I know I need to get better at trusting people – and I think relationships based on trust do us all good.  So if I lend my lawnmower to my neighbour who I don’t know very well, there’s a chance that he might run off and sell it on ebay.  But he probably won’t.  And by lending stuff to eachother we’ll get to know eachother better, and trust eachother more.  And my street will be a nicer place to live in.

So what’s that got to do with Enterprise?   Maybe they need to go beyond offering friendly customer service towards understanding this new breed of customer, and work out ways to trust us a little more.

03. November 2011 by admin
Categories: Climate Change, Customer service, Green issues, Marketing, Social change | Leave a comment

No way to treat your customers

Money is tight in the world of social business.  Our city-centre office (which to be honest was a bargain – courtesy of this social enterprise) is no more. There’s just no slack in any of our contracts for anything that is a nice-to-have rather than a must-have.

So we hotdesk with fellow social business Angels Housekeeping, and I work from home a fair bit more.

Working from home has its advantages.  You save a fortune on coffee and sandwiches.  From a green perspective, I bet we’re wasting less food – any leftovers from last night’s tea tend to be recycled into a worker’s lunch.  And my commute up the stairs is pretty carbon free.  Although I’ll soon need a new pair of slippers.

But there are dangers too.  Not just daytime television.  But knocks at the door.  I had one such knock on the door yesterday.  Someone from Scottish Power greeting me by name.  Not my name – that of the previous occupiers.  He was in the area, just “checking up” on things, or something nice and helpful like that.  That’s when it all started to go a bit odd.  He told me that “they’d taken over supply of this area”.  Obviously this is ridiculous and I told him so.  He said that’s what he’d been told – and then he said that they’d become the main generator of energy for the area.  Clearly another load of nonesense.

I cut the conversation short. I was incredulous.  You hear about this kind of thing, but I never imagined that anyone would offer up such blatant untruths.  I tweeted about it, did a bit of googling and eventually ended up chatting to Trading Standards.  At one stage it sounded like they were about to send out a SWAT team to intercept him (they asked if “there is any vulnerability in the area”) but in the end they said they’d just pass it on to Trading Standards in Scottish Power’s home town, Glasgow.  I wasn’t to expect a follow-up call.

I didn’t think that was good enough to be honest.  The reason I was so angry about it is that we do a lot of work with older people’s groups – and they’re always telling us about older people’s better nature being taken advantage of by dodgy sales tactics.  I’ve seen it in my own family with double glazing and financial products.  Carefully crafted patter which disarms many of us – and in particular older people, but which has only one goal – a sale, whether it’s in the best interests of the customer or not.

I searched the #scottishpower hashtag on Twitter – and found out that Scottish Power had just announced that they were going to end door-to-door sales – but not just yet.  They plan to finish encouraging people to switch suppliers through door-to-door tactics at the end of November.

Consumer organisation Which? (of which I’m a member) picked up on my story and wrote about it today.  They’re following this up with Scottish Power and hopefully they’ll take some action.  To be honest I can’t understand why they can’t just end this practice now.  If it’s no longer appropriate on 1st December, I’d say it’s not appropriate today.  How many more people will end up on a tariff which is potentially not right for them – just in time for the winter – thanks to similar tactics?

I’m not a great fan of a lot of big businesses, particularly those that appear to be doing pretty well out of us at a time when most of us are feeling the pinch. But I’m certainly not in the “all big businesses that make profits are bad” camp.  But when, time and again, the big six power companies have been criticised for misleading sales tactics, I find it hard to understand why they don’t just sort themselves out.  Either, you might assume, they’re badly-run businesses (possibly) or they care about short-term shareholder value more than they care about their customers (that’d be my gut feeling).

Let’s hope I’m wrong.  Maybe they’ll show some leadership and end these sales tactics now, instead of waiting until the end of November.

25. October 2011 by admin
Categories: Business, Customer service, Social Justice | 2 comments

Who pays for better mental health?

We had an interesting round table discussion with two of the leading thinkers and do-ers in the worlds of social enterprise and mental health yesterday – Mark Brown and David Floyd.

Mark is editor of leading mental health magazine One in Four, whilst David runs Social Spider – the social enterprise, which, amongst other things, publishes One in Four.  David also writes what in my opinion is the best UK blog on social enterprise, Beanbags and Bullsh!t.  Well worth a read if you want an honest, front-line take on the world of social business.

We’d invited Mark and David to Leeds because we’ve been chatting to various people over the last few months about exploring new ways to support people with a mental health need.  And, just as importantly, exploring ways that people can help themselves.  Mark and David had written a thinkpiece about the potential for a Big Society approach to helping people to improve people’s mental health – so we were keen to hear more.  The thinkpiece is excellent (but not available online yet) and yesterday’s discussion was fascinating.

I’m no expert in the field of mental health – I’m just someone who cares about this stuff and is interested in trying to work out how to do things better.  But it strikes me that some of the things that can contribute to a person’s improved mental health and sense of wellbeing could include:

  • Active involvement in the development and delivery of the support that they receive and the opportunity to influence things (you might call that co-production)
  • Support from and contact with peers – people who are – or who have been – in a similar situation – with an emphasis on self-help and peer support
  • Appropriate, non-institutionalised, personalised services
  • A sense that they matter – they’re not just a statistic in a faceless world of health and social care

    So, with that in mind, you can imagine how an approach – which you might call Big Society – could work.  People setting things up themselves to support eachother.  Local charities and social enterprises setting up services which are funded through contracts and charges to paying customers.  All sounds great doesn’t it?

    Except the discussion yesterday – whilst highlighting the potential of a Big Society approach – also emphasised the barriers that are in place if more of this stuff is to happen.  Fundamentally, it comes down to money.  Where is the money in the mental  health field?  Much of it stays within the NHS and the local authority.  Some of it goes out through contracts – to deliver pre-determined outcomes, tightly monitored through Key Performance Indicators.  And a bit of it – if you’re lucky – might go on innovative, local, risky, do-it-yourself initiatives.

    And please don’t tell me that Personal Budgets could fund this kind of thing.  They could – in theory – and should.  But our experience – and increasing amounts of evidence such as this report into Personal Budget pilots in Scotland – suggest that few people with a mental health need are getting support which is different in a meaningful way through a Personal Budget.

    Locally, we’re hearing that the local authority will approve a Personal Budget to cover someone’s transport costs to get to an activity (which could be a Big Society, DIY, self-help/peer support activity) – but they won’t pay for the activity itself.  So how is the service supposed to develop?  And, given that many people with a mental health need are on pretty minimal benefits, they will tend to struggle to pay for that activity.

    Solutions?  I doubt there are any quick fixes.  But, as always, the starting point needs to be an honest assessment of where things are.  Big Society approaches aren’t going to magically spring up out of thin air.  If the State decides that more of this kind of thing should happen, then we need to invest in it.  In Leeds we’ve made a start with the Ideas That Change Lives investment fund, which has teamed up with UnLtd to offer support to people with good ideas.  It’s a good start, but we need plenty more.

    27. September 2011 by admin
    Categories: Public services, Social Care, Social enterprise, Social entrepreneurs, Social Justice, Voluntary sector | Leave a comment

    Revive, and the Vision for Leeds

    I went along to Revive Leeds this morning for the launch of the Vision for Leeds 2011-2030 – Our vision to be the best city in the UK.

    More on the Vision later, but first a few words about Revive.  It’s an idea that’s been a long time coming – I chatted with someone there who was exploring this idea eight years ago, and someone else reckoned he’d been talking about it fifteen years ago.

    Revive Leeds is a Re-Use Shop which is based at a tip (sorry, recycling site) in East Leeds.  It’s run by a Community Interest Company – which in turn is a collaboration between three well established Leeds social enterprises – Emmaus Leeds, St Vincent de Paul Society and Slate.

    The idea – and it’s a good one – is that people can drop off stuff that can be re-used whilst they’re dumping other stuff at the tip.  As someone who despairs whenever I go to the tip at what people are throwing away, I’m delighted to see this up and running.

    First impressions?  The shop is attractively laid out and has a good range of stock.  The stock was generally good quality.  I think there’s work to do on pricing – as a charity-shop regular I think some of the pricing was a bit on the ambitious side.  £10 for a second hand iron, £175 for a decent but unremarkable three piece suite, didn’t strike me as realistic.  But these things take time – and they’ll have had to second-guess who their customer base will be.  They’ll know better who their customers are in six months time – and I’m sure their pricing will reflect that.

    It made me think of my visit a few years back to another Revive (unrelated) in Liverpool – part of the FRC Group.  They take stock primarily from their Bulky Bobs bulky waste collection service (which I notice has today been successful in the Big Venture Challenge) and sell it in their high-street shop.  Shaun Doran, who was responsible for Revive, was frank about they got it very wrong in the early years at Revive.  In short, they took little notice of who their customers were – who was walking past their shop front in that part of Liverpool.  Once they realised who they were really serving, the shop became more successful.

    I liked their emphasis on quick turnover of stock – I can’t remember the detail but let’s say it was something like “Have an item for two weeks at full price, two weeks at half price, then move on”.  It’s important that customers see fresh stock regularly – it’s what keeps people coming back.  You might make a bit less on each item, but you’ll sell (and divert from landfill) a lot more stuff.

    I also liked their pricing strategy – with different prices for products depending on whether you had just walked in off the street, were on benefits, or had been referred by a FRC partner organisation.  It sounds like a logistical nightmare, and could be a bit embarrassing for people if it was implemented poorly, but it seemed to work well.  The £175 three piece suite brought this pricing strategy back to me – who’s the customer with £175 in their back pocket?

    But let’s not take anything away from the people who’ve worked really hard to get Revive Leeds up and running.  They’ve done a great job and I wish them every success.  And it’s been a long road.

    Which brings me to the Vision for Leeds.  This was the softest of soft launches I’ve ever witnessed – I’d be interested to know why the Council has gone for this approach to launching the Vision.  At most there were 50 people there – perhaps 10 of whom were unrelated to the Council or to Revive Leeds.

    I’ll be honest, I really struggle to get excited about long-term visions.  The ten minute video which accompanies the Vision (not online yet) is all very nice but voxpops with loads of people saying how great Leeds is (it’s friendly, it’s diverse, it’s a great place to do sport/learn/do business etc) just leave me cold.

    But, let me try my best to suspend the scepticism.  There’s something quite refreshing in the idea of trying to be the “best” city in the UK.  As the Vision says:

    “Not the richest or the biggest, but the best for all who live and work in Leeds – our children, our communities and our businesses.”

    Maybe that’s something I can get excited about over time.

    It’s worth reflecting on the story of Revive Leeds, alongside the Vision for Leeds.  Revive Leeds will hopefully do well, but we can’t wait another 8 years for the next great innovation.  The Councillor at today’s event was very proud of the Council’s collaboration with three local social enterprises – and that is undoubtedly a step forward.  But we have to get better – and quicker – at coming up with creative ideas which make a real difference.

    And this is where things might just get interesting.  Leeds Council – according to this article by the Council Leader in the Yorkshire Post – seems to be opening up and suggesting that in the future it needs to become more entrepreneurial – for example by collaborating more with other organisations.

    As someone who’s worked with the Council closely for a number of years, let me just say they’ve got a long way to go before I’d use the words entrepreneurial and Council in the same sentence.  But acknowledging that things need to improve is a starting point, at least.  The hard bit will be moving from nice words to messy practice.  Councillors and Council officers have a steep learning curve ahead of them.

    20. September 2011 by admin
    Categories: Climate Change, Customer service, Green issues, leeds, Public services, Social change, Social enterprise, Social entrepreneurs, Voluntary sector | 1 comment

    Time to give up the car?

    This was my new year’s resolution on a frosty New Year’s Day in 2010:

    I won’t bore you with the thinking behind wanting to use the car less – I’ve written about it before and you”ll be aware of the issues.

    But I wanted to tell you about how we got to where we are today, and why I think that is relevant to how we adapt to a world  where scarcity of resources and climate change is going to shape how we live.

    We didn’t just decide to give up our car.  We agreed to try, over time, to change how we travelled.  So we started to think about how we got around, to consider whether there were alternatives.  Making conscious decisions – instead of just jumping in the car, meant that over time we changed how we got from A to B.

    It also helped that we ended up living in the city centre for six months when the deal to buy a house fell through.  Suddenly we didn’t have a parking space, and we had good public transport on our doorstep.  That helped to strengthen some of the changes in behaviour that were already taking place.

    Two years on, and we’ve cut down our mileage from over 10000 miles a year to 6000.  We’ve also moved to a house on good bus routes, and walking distance to school.  Yes, not everyone can make those choices – but it’s also worth saying for the same price we could have moved deeper into suburbia – and further from other transport options.  How we would travel to work and school was a big factor in where we chose to live.  We didn’t want to end up living somewhere where we’d be more reliant on the car – or end up having to get a second car.

    The week in the strawbale house got us thinking again about things.  The fact that the MOT and insurance are due this month also focused our minds.

    We sat down and tried to consider things rationally.  The car sits on the drive nearly all of the time Monday to Friday, slowly depreciating.  It gets used for a few hours most weekends.  We estimated that it costs around £3000 a year to run – if you include depreciation at around £800 a year.

    So are there better ways to get around – which might also end up cheaper than £3000?  Time will tell – but we reckon we might hire a car one weekend a month – £750 over a year.  Then we might hire a car for another two weeks over the year for holidays etc – £500.  With petrol, that might total £1500 a year.

    We might also join the local Car Club.  £75 to join, with occasional use maybe adding up to £350 over the year.  Additional bus and train fares, (remember we already routinely travel on public transport so we already incur that cost) might add up to another £500.

    So, let’s say we might save somewhere in the region of £750 a year (plus what we’ll get from selling the car).  A sum worth having, but also an amount of money worth weighing up against the convenience of having a car at your service 24 hours a day.  In other words, it looks like it makes financial sense, but it’s a close one.  Clearly things would be very different if we were comparing buying a new car – with credit – against hiring a car and joining a car club.

    But it’s not just about the money.  It’s also about changing how we live.  I think it will help us to walk more, cycle more, do more stuff locally.  Live life at a slightly slower pace.  Not be part of a car-centred culture which I think in many ways is damaging to society.

    So we’ll see.  The car goes in for its MOT next week, and we’ve got a potential buyer for the car.  We might reconsider and decide to wait until the car finally fails its MOT.  But I think we know what the right decision is.

    09. September 2011 by admin
    Categories: Climate Change, Green issues, Social change | 4 comments

    My holiday romance

    Back today from a great couple of weeks’ holiday – first in Northumberland, then in East Yorkshire.

    I really felt like I needed the break. Lots of people have things far worse at the moment, both in terms of work and personal life, but as a small social business we’re by no means immune from the troubles we’re facing as an economy. No-one will tell you it’s much fun to do 20% more work for 20% less money, as I reckon we’re doing at the moment. I’m a believer in hard times bringing out the best in innovation – but there’s always a limit to how much more you can do with less. So it was good to get away for a while – no phone, no Twitter, no TV. Even the car radio packed in, seemingly in solidarity with my desire to escape from the world for a bit.

    I didn’t think too much about work. But obviously when you’re on holiday you’re dealing with lots of businesses – places to stay, places to eat, things to do. It’s great when some of them inspire you, and we were lucky to find a few that we fell in love with this time round.

    We camped overlooking Holy Island in Northumberland for 8 days at the Barn at Beal – recommended to us by social enterprise structures guru and Northumberland resident Geof Cox. The views were breathtaking and the service we received – as campers and as customers in their cafe – was spot on.

    The Barn at Beal is a working farm – we camped at the side of a field of barley which was destined for Timothy Taylor Landlord – and they’ve done a fantastic job of diversifying and thus keeping the farm going.

    The second week we stayed at Straw Bale Cottage – a cottage in Howden, East Yorkshire, made, as you might guess, from straw bales. It’s a bit of an interest of mine – you might remember me writing about LILAC – a strawbale development in Leeds. I was intrigued to see what it’s like to live in a strawbale house.

    Firstly, there’s something quite exciting (at least for me) about a house that’s built from straw. But more than that there’s a warm, human quality to the way that the house is built – corners are slightly curved and imperfect where they would be perfectly angular in a brick built house.

    And as you’d imagine, straw is a great insulator and the house soon warms up when you light the living room fire – the only heating in the house. I’d be interested to go back in winter to see how warm it is then, but you do get a real sense of cosiness.

    Both places reminded me of my great admiration for entrepreneurs. People with a vision who put the hard work in to turn that vision into reality. Diversifying from arable production into tourism, or building a straw bale house, requires a level of risk-taking and commitment that I really admire, and I like spending my money with people like that.

    Finally, it wouldn’t be a proper holiday if it didn’t involve a few commitments to do things differently when we got back home. A few of these have been forgotten about already. But the strawbale cottage got us thinking again about our own energy use. We’ll look into solar panels in more detail soon, but with the MOT, insurance and tax all due later this month, the time has come to decide whether we’re going to ditch the car. We’ve got our mileage down from 12000 to 6000 miles a year in the last two years, so it’s looking like it might make financial as well as environmental sense. More on that later this week.

    05. September 2011 by admin
    Categories: Business, Climate Change, Customer service, Green homes, Green issues, Social change | Leave a comment

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