Here is the second of my monthly pieces for the Guardian’s Live Better Challenge:
When Gail Jackson put an invitation through every door on her street in St Albans, inviting her neighbours round to her house to discuss doing Transition Streets, she didn’t really expect any of them to come. “I ended up with 11 people crammed into my front room. I didn’t know what to do with so many people,” she recalls. She showed them a two-minute video about this community-level green initiative, and asked if they would like to try it on the street. Everyone put their names down. “When do we start?” they said.
The government’s flagship Green Deal has proven a flop, with 150,000 assessments turning into less than 1,000 people actually taking up the offer of a loan for energy-efficiency measures. “A more effective Green Deal rollout would have started from the bottom rather than the top,”commented Andrew Dobson, professor of politics at Keele University. That informal, tea-fuelled get-together in Gill’s front room offers a powerful taste of what a genuine national push for energy conservation might look like.
Transition Streets began in Totnes in Devon, after the town was selected as one of 10 low-carbon communities by the Department of Energy and Climate Change in late 2010. It went on to win the prestigious 2011 Ashden award for behaviour change. Neighbours get together on their streets, meet seven times in each other’s homes, work through an information pack, and take practical steps to reduce their energy, water use, travel and so on.
In Totnes, around 550 households have taken part, in 63 groups. Each household has, on average, reduced its carbon emissions by 1.2 tonnes, saving around £570 a year on household bills. Over half of those involved were on low incomes. Yet a detailed evaluation of its impact found that the key benefit that people identified was feeling more connected to their neighbours. Many had so much fun they went on to set up other projects, such as a community cinema. Greg Barker, minister for energy and climate change, visited the town and enthused about Transition Streets, saying “community engagement and personal engagement are clearly the key”.
From Totnes, Transition Streets has spread. It is happening in Wiltshire, Dorset, Herefordshire and Berkshire. It is being rolled out by local government in Brittany. In Australia, Transition Newcastle’s Transition Streets Challenge was recognised in the New South Wales Sustainable City awards. In January this year, Suffolk Coastal district council announced it would be funding Transition Streets locally. This week the Belgian lottery funded a substantial rollout of it there. It was also mentioned as best practice in the government’s recent Community Energy Strategy.
Ten Transition Streets groups ran in St Albans in 2013, and the plan is to do the same this year, to engage another 200 people. Its first year was funded by Big Lottery, and this year by the Co-operative and local councillors. St Albans is also the first place to be running Transition Streets in a school, the local Sir John Laws School.
From Jackson’s experience, why does she think it works? “I love the community aspect,” she says. “I love working with neighbours to get results. People loved meeting in each others’ houses. It provided a focus in order for us to get together and it built relationships that continue”.
On a street, most people have the same kind of houses, and therefore the same challenges in terms of insulation, the same recycling challenges, the same sized gardens, the same immediate neighbourhood issues. A more top-down approach is unlikely to produce such shared interests.
What impact has Transition Streets had in St Albans? An evaluation conducted at the end of the first year found that, among other things, participants had carried out insulation and other energy-efficiency measures, installed double glazing, reduced shower times, recycled more, and started growing food, cycling and walking more. Participants saved around £380 a year and 0.8 tonnes of CO2. One participant said: “It helps you have a sense of wellbeing and community, and helps you appreciate the street a bit more.
Can anyone do it? According to Jackson, all you need is “a small group and a small bit of funding”. The small amount needed fits neatly with the starter level of grant support offered by Awards for All, which has enabled many Transition Streets initiatives to get started.
Could the government decide to roll it out nationally? Its power though comes from the fact that it is genuinely bottom-up and led by the communities themselves. “It would be a bit scary to think of government getting their hands on it,” Jackson says. “It’s a solid, old-style community engagement technique, and as a way of meeting government aims it’s perfect. But it needs to come from a community base”.
Find out more about Transition Streets here.