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Environment Organising and deciding

Why community development work is climate work

Following the launch of our new report with IPPR which looks at community climate action, partnerships lead, Georgie Burr, explores why Big Local areas are uniquely placed to respond to this issue.

Would you consider community development to be a kind of climate action? Or describe Big Local as a climate action programmeIf not, I can see why that might be – addressing climate change is often not a top priority for less well-off communities, nor voiced as a priority for many residents in Big Local areas. The climate crisis therefore tends not to feature in many community development plans. 

However, new report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) shows there is a critical role for programmes like Big Local to play in climate action. The report – The climate commons: How communities can thrive in a climate changing world – articulates the opportunity for and importance of community power in how we respond to climate change in the UK.  

Why are Big Local areas well-suited for climate action?

Almost a year ago, we began exploring how some communities were addressing climate issues in their everyday development work. In light of the findings laid out in the IPPR report, it is important to consider why some are able to undertake this work, and others less so.  

Many Big Local areas excel at developing community power. And all of them share the desire to strengthen their community – whether that’s through creating places for people to meet (such as opening community hubsmarkets gardens or pubs), or funding or delivering activities that create opportunities for residents to participate and build relationships (like knitandnatters, street parties or mens sheds)This is everyday community development work, and it rebuilds and strengthens social infrastructure, as our chief executive Matt Leach points out:  

We know from our work in many Big Local areas that where it is missing, rebuilding that ‘soft’ infrastructure is a crucial first step towards communities turning themselves around.”

Recent research has helped us to understand how critical this infrastructure is for enabling community action. The pandemic demonstrated that ‘community-led infrastructure’ – that is, networks of residents, community leadership, trust, relationships with agencies, and access to money  can make all the difference when it comes to local responses to crises 

Rebuilding this infrastructure, especially in places that have suffered from underinvestment, is the foundation for enabling community responses to seize the opportunities and mitigate the threats of climate change – a perspective that has also been explored recently by our director of partnerships, James Goodman. 

Leading the way

Lawrence Weston, a Big Local area in North Bristol, perfectly demonstrates this potential in resilient areas. Since 2012, Ambition Lawrence Weston and Lawrence Weston Big Local have been working to strengthen their community. They have done this by opening a community shop, saving the local youth club from closure, reviving their community carnival, funding parent groups, planning new community-led homes and working to make existing housing warmer. The list could go on.  

All this incredible everyday work means that, both within the area and in the wider city, people know that the community is there. This, along with unrestricted funding, allows them to grasp opportunities – like the opportunity to invest in a solar farm. Bristol Energy Cooperative approached them with the opportunity, and they were able to invest; to work with partners and engage the wider community in support for the scheme.  

This has taken Lawrence Weston on a further journey – with wind turbine applicationand as a successful applicant in the National Lottery Community Fund’s Climate Action Fund. But being able to take these opportunities starts with firm foundations, which is why investing in resilient communities is so important to the future of our environment 

And they are not the only Big Local area taking action. Greenmoor Big Local in Bradford are able to support local residents to cut carbon because they have the trust of their community. Their trusted position in the community is essential and for the last two years this has allowed the group to act as an intermediary for residents; offering advice and support on energy efficiency and helping people to access energy company grant schemes that can help to insulate and upgrade their homes 

Other Big local areas feature in IPPR’s report, including Marsh and Micklefield Big Local in Buckinghamshire, which – as well as working to improve residents’ connection to the local natural environment, including woodlands and rivers – were the first Big Local partnership to declare a climate emergency. North Cleethorpes Big Local in North East Lincolnshire, features for their work supporting people to travel sustainably and has created a cycle hub out of a redundant building near Cleethorpes train station.

And finally, Our Sale West Big Local in Greater Manchester is developing a new community hub, which will be built to carbon neutral standards, and is also planning a climate change conference for local schools. 

All this work chimes with what Chris Stark from the Climate Change Committee noted in a recent talk for Local Trust, Building a better environmentthat over half of the emission cuts we need to make in order to avert climate breakdown will rely on businesses and individuals changing – which he says won’t be delivered through top down changes but local knowledge and networks. 

Sharing the load

While many Big Local areas might not explicitly say that they are busy taking climate action (although some would!)almost all are building the foundations for it – just through their everyday work to improve things in their areas. What matters now is helping to grow this potential across the board. There are many opportunities for communities to thrive in a changing climate – but if we want climate action to spread beyond the most well-off areas, resources need to be made available to all communities to help build their foundations, so that everyone can take hold of them.