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What policymakers can learn from a successful community energy project

Local Trust’s senior policy advisor, Nick Beall, explores some of the key lessons policymakers can learn from Ambition Lawrence Weston and their community-led role in the transition to net zero.

One of the great stories of the last year has been the success of Ambition Lawrence Weston and its cut-through with policymakers. In the last few months, both the Labour and Co-operative parties have celebrated the efforts of the Big Local that now operates the largest onshore wind turbine in England.

This has been followed by the pledge by the Shadow Secretary of State for Climate Change that a Labour government will, as part of its Local Power Plan, invest up to £400m a year in community green energy schemes so that thousands of other neighbourhoods across the country can follow Ambition Lawrence Weston’s lead.

Unlocking capacity in deprived neighbourhoods

For the transition to net zero by the 2050 target to be just, every community in England must be included in and benefit from it. But providing capital funding alone to build a wind turbine or purchase solar panels risks not learning the lessons of Lawrence Weston, with the result that the most disadvantaged communities miss out and get left further behind.

Lawrence Weston’s story shows how long-term funding with minimal restrictions can unlock the capacity in deprived neighbourhoods for local residents to take action to improve the places where they live.

This funding was the foundation on which members of the community developed the connections and confidence that enabled them to get started in community energy.

Their story also illustrates the challenges facing the most disadvantaged communities if they are to be part of the transition to net zero (we know from polling that those living in the most deprived areas share the worries of most people in the UK about climate change and want to see positive action to address it).

Community-owned energy projects

Lawrence Weston is a post-war council housing estate on the northwest edge of Bristol with a population of around 7,000 people. Deprivation levels are among the highest in the country and the residents of the estate have felt the reality of cuts to government spending, with poor public transport links and the closure of the local secondary school, college and sports centre.

Feelings of disaffection and disengagement had been growing among residents, as the area had little social infrastructure (places to meet, active community organisations and connections) which is vitally important in enabling communities to act on the local issues that matter most to them.

Now the community is in a dramatically different position. You can see this in the success of their community-owned energy projects, which generate enough clean electricity to power local homes and provide a sustainable, long-term funding stream back into their community.

They also have a Neighbourhood Plan requiring heat pumps in new houses on the estate, and projects to help make the housing stock more energy efficient.

The first steps

In 2011, as cuts to local services began to bite, the community received funding from NHS Bristol and the Avonmouth and Kingsweston Neighbourhood Partnership to develop a community action plan which led to the establishment of Ambition Lawrence Weston as a community anchor organisation committed “to make Lawrence Weston an even better place to live and work”.

This was followed a year later by Lawrence Weston being chosen by the National Lottery Community Fund to be one of 150 communities in England to benefit from £1million in funding over the next decade through the Big Local programme. Mark Pepper, Ambition Lawrence Weston’s development manager later told the Centre for Sustainable Energy:

“All that we’ve done really has been enabled by the Lottery Fund and the Big Local so, without that, we wouldn’t have done any work, let alone climate or anything. That’s been the driving force really, the resources and the funding.”

The benefits of local expertise

In addition to the patient, unrestricted Big Local funding, over time Ambition Lawrence Weston was able to connect into Bristol’s network of community energy enthusiasts and experts, enabling them to benefit from local expertise and support to navigate a complex policy area.

This combination of funding through Big Local and the programme of community consultation undertaken by the resident-led partnership, alongside the network of expertise that has built up in Bristol over the past few decades, has underpinned the ability of a deprived community to take a lead on our transition to net zero.

If political parties are serious about learning the lessons of Ambition Lawrence Weston, they should look to:

  • Take forward proposals for a Community Wealth Fund so that the most ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods can access long-term funding and support to rebuild their social fabric.
  • Make available expertise and support networks focused on the transition to net zero that deprived communities can access.
  • Support local authorities to adopt a collaborative and enabling stance when they engage with people in the most deprived communities.

Ambition Lawrence Weston has now joined a growing group of Big Local areas who have spent their funding and closed out of the programme.

For a deeper look at the story behind Ambition Lawrence Weston’s success, the Centre for Sustainable Energy in Bristol have explored their story.

Photo caption: Unveiling of Ambition Lawrence Weston’s wind turbine, which is the tallest onshore wind turbine in England | Credit: Local Trust/Alan Raposo

About the author
Nick Beall

Nick Beall is the senior policy advisor at Local Trust.