A look at two community groups bringing about change in their local areas with money from the Climate Challenge Fund
Three years ago, Carin Schwartz decided she wanted to do something to raise awareness about climate change. Spurred on by watching Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and reading an article about the development of sustainable transition towns, she encouraged a few friends to watch more environmental films with her at her home in Forres, Moray. A few months later, the group had grown so big that its members could no longer fit into anyone’s living room so the meetings moved on to a conference room at the local hotel. Now, the group has grown beyond recognition, and naming itself Transition Town Forres it now has around 50 active members and runs a farmers’ market, community garden as well as a number of other projects.
Schwartz and her group learned about the Scottish Government’s Climate Challenge Fund (CCF) at the same time as they got hold of the Transition Handbook by permaculturalist Rob Hopkins detailing how to begin the journey toward making their town more sustainable. The decision to take action was made.
“All of a sudden we started dreaming about what we could do,” says Schwartz, who now has the role of group treasurer. It was decided that allotments would be first on the list.
“We saw that as a very important first part of a project, so that became a big part of the grant application and things fell into place very quickly. There was common good land that became available very quickly – common good land – and we needed funds to be able to lease that land.” In November 2008, TTF was awarded £184,119 from the fund and the group began its work, with a board of ten directors and six project leaders working on a voluntary basis to help deliver the different projects. Along with the monthly farmers’ market and community garden, the group also produces a local food guide, is responsible for a master composter from Zero Waste Scotland, bought 50 books on climate change for the local library and is conducting a feasibility study on the possibility of a local hydro scheme.
Following further funding of £41,000, which was received in May this year, TTF has been able to employ a coordinator who has brought on board a number of part-time staff with expertise in areas such as graphic design.
Unsurprisingly, Schwartz is hugely proud of how the project has evolved and made its presence felt throughout the community.
“We don’t count minutes and hours that the average person in Forres does something for the environment but we have a feeling that by us being around they are taking an active interest,” she says. “We’ve handed out fabric bags instead of plastic bags and the number of people walking around Forres with those bags being very proud…that’s a high number by now.” The brainchild of the Scottish Green Party, the CCF was introduced to the Scottish Government’s 2008 budget in exchange for the party’s support for the overall budget package. A total of £27.4m has been split between over 300 projects with decisions on which projects should receive funding decided by the CCF Grants Panel, headed up by former Director of WWF Scotland, Simon Pepper. However, with the fund running out in 2011 and cuts to be made across the public sector, whether or not the it will be continued in the next session of Parliament is unclear.
Commenting on the future of the fund, Environment and Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead explains that it will depend on the budget drawn up by the Scottish Government once the consequences of the UK Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review have been digested. He adds that a review of the fund has been commissioned, explaining: “The purpose of this review is to concentrate on learning the lessons about critical success factors of particular community-led climate challenge projects and draw conclusions about the projects’ specific local economic, social and environmental impacts. This review will help inform the Scottish Government on future policy options for community carbon reduction.” Green MSP Patrick Harvie argues that the fund should be spared as the community ethos of the project is something that government should encourage. “It would be very surprising if the Government decided to start axing small, successful projects when it’s got much bigger challenges to meet in trying to draft the budget,” he says. “If the cuts are going to be as the Independent Budget Review has suggested, scrapping the Climate Challenge Fund will not help John Swinney out at all – he’s got much bigger fish to fry.” Harvie explains that the original thinking behind the fund was to try and overcome the idea of climate change as a problem and see the opportunities that could arise from it. “We wanted people to see it in much more creative terms and the idea of a challenge fund where community groups, local campaigners, just need a little bit of money to get their ideas under way, just need a little bit of support and empowerment from government rather than government coming in and saying, ‘here’s what we’re going to do, here’s how we’re going to bring down the carbon emissions’.
That needs to happen but it’s not enough.” Harvie is pleased with the popularity of the CCF and the range of projects that have arisen from it. However, if it does continue after 2011, he says he would like to see an information sharing network set up where people involved in up and coming projects can learn from those who have already been through it.
This is something that Gordon Cowtan, one of seven joint directors of Fintry Development Trust (FDT) in Stirlingshire, agrees with. His organisation, which is also run by volunteers, has already started informally offering advice to other projects and hopes to get something more formal set up in the near future.
FDT was formed seven years ago by Cowtan and three other members of the community when they began negotiating with a wind-farm developer about the possibility of getting an extra turbine added to a development being built near the village.
The group’s intention was that this could produce an income for the village and in order to realise that goal, the FDT was set up for the purpose of creating a body to manage the income on behalf of the village. One hundred and fifty people are now involved in the organisation and it has branched out into projects providing residents with home insulation and alterative sources of heating, such as wood pellet boilers and ground source heat pumps.
The group received a total of £138,000 from the CCF, which was split over three funding rounds. The first project it embarked on was the home insulation scheme and this has since seen 80 per cent of homes in the community being surveyed, with 50 per cent of these homes receiving insulation.
Speaking of what motivated the founding members of the FDT, Cowtan says there was a feeling of wanting to be able to work with the renewable energy agenda. “Obviously there’s a lot of stuff you read about communities being upset about the possibility of windfarms and somehow we wanted to show that you could turn that round and do it in a different way and probably just a kind of slightly subversive streak as well,” he says.
To assess the success of each project funded by the CCF, each group must produce reports on what they have been working, detailing what was actually achieved against what the initial goals were. Schwartz admits that this aspect of managing the project has been difficult and has seen the management of TTF move more toward that of a traditional business.
“It is imperative that you have people who take the shovel and stick it in the ground and it is also imperative that you have people who can do the structure, the strategy and the admin. That blew my mind,” she says.
When she initially embarked on the project, Schwartz tried to put her 30-year experience in the banking sector to one side and move toward a more people-focused approach.
However, she now says: “After two or three years in this I am back to the organisational structure of an office and I’ve learned not to underestimate that but I’m still trying to cope with how to make it all work.” Both Schwartz and Cowtan are adamant that even if CCF funding does not continue, their projects will go on, no matter how tough that proves to be.
“It will be very, very difficult. We are still not self-sufficient and the most difficult aspect of that is how to convert a community action group into a social enterprise,” says Schwartz.
“Our organisational structure is that we can be a non-profit organisation and we wish to find a way to be fully sustainable. We will not close the door on the 1 April  – we refuse to do that if the funding doesn’t go on. But we’re painfully aware that we’re not going to be able to move with the speed we’re moving now and it’s going to be very difficult.” Cowtan says that FDT would continue on a smaller scale, as the community wind turbine would provide some income.
Whatever happens to the fund in the long term, Cowtan hopes that the lessons learned from it will be taken on board by government at all levels.
“Politicians – and I’m thinking more about Westminster here – tend to overlook the role that communities can play in terms of tackling climate change in how we all change our behaviour and so on and tend to focus on either businesses or individuals or local government,” he says. “But actually, I think when communities start doing something together, it gives people a sense that they can actually achieve something. It would be a real shame if that disappeared.”