Programme highlights role of communities in environmental action

Community groups can play a pivotal role in tackling some of the big environmental challenges facing the country – from flooding to fuel poverty to food production – but their efforts need to be supported by local authorities, government agencies and funders if they’re going to have a lasting impact. That’s the message from a series of events held to mark the achievements of the Communities Living Sustainably (CLS) programme.

CLS has seen 12 community partnerships across England working for the last five years to make their areas more sustainable and resilient to the impacts of climate change with the support of a £12m investment from the Big Lottery Fund.

The projects have been supported on their journey by a national ‘Learning Partnership’ comprising Groundwork UK, Energy Saving Trust, Building Research Establishment, Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens and New Economics Foundation.

The events in London, Manchester and Middlesbrough brought together industry experts, practitioners, funders and environmental campaigners to celebrate the work of the 12 local partnerships and to explore how the lessons from the programme can be shared with policymakers and embedded in future initiatives.

Key findings include:

  • the potential of community groups to lead local initiatives around energy efficiency, fuel poverty and renewables but the lack of any coherent government strategy to support community energy
  • the opportunities to connect grass roots food growing projects together into wider programmes that build more sustainable local food economies
  • the important role community groups can play in preparing local areas to deal with extreme weather events such as flooding if they are supported to work in tandem with local authorities and the Environment Agency
  • the ability of community groups to lead campaigns on environmental behaviour change that bring wider social benefits in terms of household income and health, particularly among disadvantaged or minority communities.

Dawn Austwick, chief executive of the Big Lottery Fund, who gave the keynote speech at the London event, said: ‘One of the biggest successes is how communities came together to make decisions about their local spaces and drive forward the changes they wanted to see.

‘What we’ve learnt from them will really influence the way we work with projects in the future.’

Graham Duxbury, chief executive of Groundwork UK and chair of the CLS Learning Partnership, said: ‘Communities Living Sustainably has powerfully demonstrated what local community organisations can achieve when they’re given the right support and resources.

‘Not only have the 12 projects delivered practical change on a whole range of fronts from flood resilience to food production but they have also generated a legacy of toolkits, resources and good practice that will help other groups follow their lead.

‘Whilst we celebrate these achievements we need to recognise that communities don’t have all the answers and need to work hand in glove with local authorities, social landlords and public bodies to bring about lasting change. Public spending reductions and a lack of government policy have the potential to undermine community action in areas such as energy efficiency and the management of green spaces.

‘What CLS proves is that there is no shortage of appetite and ideas among communities and that, with the right support and encouragement, grass roots groups can tackle deep-seated social issues and wide-ranging environmental challenges. There is a responsibility now on those in a position to support and fund this work to think creatively about how to harness this potential.’

Austin Macauley

Austin Macauley

Editor, Environment Journal

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