This post is by Richard Benwell, head of government affairs at WWT.
Defra’s 25 year environment plan names 2019 as ‘a year of green action’, helping people to participate in improving our natural world.
It’s easy to be cynical about government reliance on community action. Surely it’s a way to hive out responsibility to the ‘big society’? Certainly, social initiatives sometimes amount to little more than warm words; other community empowerment plans, like the National Citizen Service, have been criticised as a waste of money. But the story of community renewable energy tells a different tale.
On an old airstrip in Oxfordshire, part of a mixed farm down the road from my home, stands Westmill Solar Co-operative. This was the UK’s first solar co-operative and, with a capacity of 5MW, it was once the largest of its kind anywhere in the world. It shares its site with Westmill Wind—five community-owned turbines—and together they’ve attracted over 10,000 visitors so far to learn about renewable energy. Each year, they power thousands of homes with clean energy. What’s more, the site has been managed with nature in mind, with wildflowers and wildlife flourishing amongst the panels. The project is owned and managed by co-operative members and, for many of us, Westmill is an emblem for the contribution local communities can make to climate action.
Across the UK, hundreds of communities like Westmill are generating hundreds of gigawatt hours of clean, local electricity and there is a huge appetite for more.
So, what makes the difference between community cop-out and real community contribution? What elevates a social empowerment policy from a hashtag to a movement? Our experience at Westmill suggests government has a formative role to play, using policy to create an enabling environment for community environmentalism.
The government as a movement builder
The Westmill recipe has three ingredients: understanding, incentives and certainty. Each can be applied to make ‘Green 2019’ a success.
We often think of government as the target of a movement, rather than as a movement builder, but there’s no doubt that policy played an important part in developing understanding about climate change. The Stern Review gave credence to the rationale for action; the Committee on Climate Change gave public prominence to the problem; the creation of the Department of Energy and Climate Change demonstrated the link between the way we power our homes and the future of our planet. Westmill was dreamt up in 2010, at a time when the idea of climate action was growing. As a result, our original share offer was hugely popular. Over 1,500 local people were ready to pledge their cash to an innovative scheme.
The second ingredient was confidence that government action wasn’t a fad. The need for certainty is often cited as a core requirement for business investment. For community investment, the need is even greater. Encouraging people to buy into a co-operative takes time. Legal certainty provided by the Climate Change Act 2008 was an important reassurance that the government’s climate commitments would last, beyond the current parliament.
Third, the government backed up its community call to action with a financial framework that made climate action affordable. Without the contribution of long term contracts for feed-in tariffs, Westmill Solar would never have been viable.
Through law and policy, the government was able to inspire and support citizen-led action. Each of these elements is instructive for natural environment policy.
Three important triggers for action
So how could the 25 year environment plan and new laws help to grow community environmentalism?
First, the government should play its part in raising awareness. Regular public reporting on the urgency of environmental issues, linked to their importance for the economy, health and wellbeing and future generations, is essential to inspiring action. The new statutory body for the environment could play an important role in this.
Second, to commit time or money, people need confidence that successive governments will remain committed. An Environment Act, setting long term goals for nature, would be an unequivocal signal to communities and businesses that environmental policy is more than an electoral gimmick.
Third, financial support can catalyse community investment. Replacing the Common Agricultural Policy with a new system for public money for public goods will be crucial for nature, but we should also aim for a system that rewards private investment in public goods. The government can certify green investments, bring groups of people together and structure long term contracts to repay people’s investment in nature.
But, for me, the thrill of Westmill is this: our members have never been content just to build a solar farm and sit back to enjoy the returns.
Year after year, the members have given time and a growing share of the financial returns they receive to support other community and climate benefits. Westmill’s community fund supports education, other community renewables and trials in the direct supply of local clean energy. And we’re looking ahead to other exciting possibilities like battery storage. With the delight, conviction and participation of local people, community environment projects can bring a diversity of benefits that no public or private sector scheme could ever achieve.
So, from our little patch of Oxfordshire, we wish Defra every success for Green 2019 and hope that it uses its powers to inspire and support many more Westmills across the country, with all kinds of environmental improvement in mind. It’s action like these, on our doorsteps, that will help the UK in leading the world towards a greener future.