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An open letter requesting support in creating sustainable communities

Posted on 16 May 2017

Dear Mr Mayor,

Congratulations on your recent election.  While we recognise there will be a great many things requiring your attention in your first days in office, we the undersigned would also request that you consider how you may be able to support local communities to live more sustainably. 

Recent years have seen some of the most divisive political debates in living memory.  The priority for all politicians of all parties should now be on ensuring that communities have the strength and resilience needed to come together in the present while preparing for yet more turbulence ahead.  The most obvious way of doing this is to focus on the issues, assets and spaces that we have in common and that help to insulate us from unpredictable global forces.

As the world adjusts to new political and trading relationships, more shocks to the economic system are an ever present danger.  At the same time, we are increasingly witnessing the impacts of a changing climate with warmer, wetter weather overwhelming our ill-prepared infrastructure and, as is the case the world over, impacting first and worst on those in our society who have least.

Add to these global issues the fact that the local services, facilities and assets we’ve come to rely on will receive much reduced levels of public money and it becomes obvious that, as citizens, we are going to have to organise ourselves and commit more of our time to maintain the social infrastructure that keeps us safe and well and underpins the networks and activities that we value.  These tensions surface most obviously in our big cities and metropolitan areas where demand for services is highest and inequality is most visible. 

One thing we know is that central government isn’t going to make the running.  Whatever the outcome of the General Election, control on public spending will remain tight and political energy will be sapped by Brexit negotiations. 

We also know that local authorities will struggle to step up.  In the days of Local Agenda 21 councils were seen as natural convenors and funders of community action on sustainable development.  Ongoing austerity means that budgets are being corralled to protect statutory functions and these skills and experiences have largely been lost.

Over the last five years, 12 National Lottery Funded projects have shown the way in helping communities become more resilient.  Through the ‘Communities Living Sustainably’ (CLS) programme local groups – spread from Middlesbrough to Dorset – have delivered activities as diverse as home energy efficiency audits, healthy cooking classes, upcycling ventures and flood relief programmes.  Over 60,000 people have been engaged, more than 6,000 have been trained or found jobs while nearly 10,000 have been supported to make greener choices in their homes or workplaces.

This work has been supported and captured by a national ‘learning partnership’, bringing together organisations with expertise in energy, buildings, land, local economies and behaviour change.  This learning demonstrates that it’s possible for community organisations to lead without government support and that the local vision they create can be joined-up, holistic and relevant to a wide range of stakeholders.   Delivered and supported in the right way, community-led environmental action is popular and can be both a life changer and a cost saver.  It’s a good way for communities to cut their teeth in terms of the management of local services and assets and has the potential to be a powerful instrument for democratic renewal.

It’s fair to say that, while there is a vibrant tapestry of local sustainability initiatives operating in many local areas, few have managed to achieve a scale or a business model that genuinely changes the way our mainstream economy works in sectors such as food production, energy generation or waste management.  It’s also true that many remain vulnerable to the loss of grant funding or committed volunteers.

This challenge to financial sustainability will remain while community initiatives continue to be overlooked as politicians grapple with ‘bigger issues’ such as social care budgets or infrastructure planning.  The irony is that these same community projects – if nurtured and grown – could have enormous impact in reducing demand for health and care services and ensuring that those who generate the biggest costs in terms of public services are better able to benefit from investment in skills, jobs and transport.

Newly elected mayors provide a platform for stable governance over a large area.  They also have the tools at their disposal to join up budgets and think laterally about the challenges facing their communities, creating a positive policy framework and the funding environment needed to enable local people to drive real change.

If the lessons from CLS are going to get traction then we need concerted action in three areas.

  • We need to expand our devolution thinking beyond jobs and infrastructure and into broader powers and budgets designed to ensure economies are more environmentally sustainable, communities are supported to access new economic opportunities and businesses play a bigger role in supporting wellbeing.
  • Mayors should make good on the promise of ‘double devolution’ by ensuring that integrated planning and pooled budgets are used to equip and empower community organisations to lead the delivery of services and activities.
  • Community organisations should be supported to develop structures that enable diverse local initiatives and enterprises to operate together to maximise cross-fertilisation and efficiencies and to achieve the scale and quality necessary to ensure they are financially sustainable and able to drive more systemic change.

Ultimately what made CLS work was the investment in a credible, embedded local organisation, one that was able to operate strategically with public agencies while simultaneously unlocking the power and the passion in local communities to build a different future for the places that matter to them. 

As elected Mayors and other municipal leaders face up to the challenge of the next few years – building stronger, more cohesive communities with a shrinking resource base – we urge them once again to think global and act local.  The UN Sustainable Development Goals provide a framework for ensuring economic development goes hand in hand with stronger communities and environmental security and should be the starting point for a new ‘local agenda’, one which equips communities with the tools and support to make change happen and to make it last.

Signed,

Graham Duxbury - Chief Executive, Groundwork UK

Graham Ayling - Head of Foundation, Energy Saving Trust

Rachel Laurence - Principal Director of Communities and Localities, New Economics Foundation

Chris Blythe - Director, Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens 

Gillians Hobbs - Director of Resource Efficiency - BRE


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