Guest post: Community engagement at Coleshill

 By Jo Trussler 

Editor’s Note: The still recent planning reforms have placed some heavy responsibility on the shoulders of local communities, in the form of neighbourhood plans. There are already some emerging examples of success, where communities have brought a wide range of people together to form a holistic view of planning. However, it won’t always be easy – people have busy lives with their own families and careers utmost in their minds. This means that real efforts will have to be made by some to engage the communities in their neighbourhoods.

Local communities are often greatly significant to National Trust properties, particularly where a large number of people are our tenants. This makes community engagement a very important part of our work. A great example of this is the work we’ve done with the residents of Coleshill village, Oxfordshire, as part of the Low Carbon Village project. We’ve invited Jo Trussler, the Low Carbon Village Project Coordinator at Coleshill, to share her experience of working hand-in-hand with residents to help them lower their carbon consumption.

Over the last three years, as part of the National Trust’s vision to reduce our carbon footprint, we’ve been working with tenants in two National Trust owned villages to do just that. The Low Carbon Village projects, funded through a partnership with npower, took place at Coleshill, where I have been the Project Coordinator, and Wallington in Northumberland.

The projects gave us knowledge of installing energy saving measures in older buildings and the types of issues that are inherent in listed buildings and conservation areas. Most importantly, we learned about how we can reduce carbon use within our communities through decisions they make, how to encourage people to be part of our goal, how to lead a community to become more sustainable.

Coleshill community members
National Trust Magazine, John Millar

The project at Coleshill, which finished earlier this year, saw a range of energy saving measures installed, including a full programme of loft insulation and draught proofing, with some properties benefiting from a new boiler. Every tenant was given the opportunity to take part in a number of ways, including using a free energy monitor and water saving devices, having access to smarter driving lessons and a community fund, working in the community orchard and becoming a beekeeper. The project also funded low energy lighting and monitors in the village shop as well as a biomass and solar project to provide heating and hot water to the estate office, holiday flat and village shop.

From the beginning of the project was the need to get the community on board was key. Many were sceptical – a very honest and open approach was therefore needed, along with regular communication and engagement opportunities. This was done through a number of events and a newsletter was hand delivered for each month of the project. One important lesson learnt was that community engagement can only be measured in years; it takes time to build up trust and to get people engaged with such a project.

Finding everyone’s motivation

It’s important to recognise the ‘starting point’ of communities in terms of understanding and caring about the issue. An energy survey was carried out at the beginning of the project to get a baseline carbon footprint. The same survey was done at the end of the project and showed an overall carbon footprint reduction of 18%; however, it was clear that telling someone their about their carbon footprint was not always a strong enough motivation. The motivations for being part of the Coleshill project ranged from being the highest carbon footprint in the village, learning a new hobby like beekeeping, meeting new people in the community, being part of a community project, being interested in new energy gadgets and technology, being less wasteful, saving money and last but not least, doing something to save our environment. To get people to be involved, there must be motivation. The Coleshill project was kept diverse, and we made it easy for people to participate. There were events at different times of day and night, at different locations and there was a constant supply of new areas and things to take part in. There was plenty of communication so people always knew what was going on.

Of course motivating people to be part of a project is just part of engaging people with a project. An outline of the stages we went through looks something like this.

1) Convincing…making the case for people to get involved and make a difference. We presented ideas to the community at different times, in parish council meetings and at an evening in the village pub.

2) Informing…sharing decisions with everyone, listening to their feedback. At Coleshill, we used newsletters, a survey, emails and talking face-to-face to communicate with residents.

3) Consulting…involving people formally or informally in decision-making. We set up a community focus group – a ‘sounding board’ group of 6 volunteers from within the community – and used a survey to get ideas and feedback.

4) Partnership…providing solutions through joint working. We collaborated with an existing community compost site.

5) Sharing…jointly identified issues with joint solutions. Again, community focus groups and emails were used, and we shared resources with the compost team.

6) Delegating…transferring some decision-making to community groups. This was developed by handing over responsibility for the orchards to community members.

7) Supporting…supporting community led initiatives, providing access. Coleshill community members continue to be actively involved in beehives introduced by the project.

Community beehives at Coleshill

Within the project, there were some great successes which are now running themselves – the community beehives, for example, now provide honey for the village shop. However, within any project, there has to be a leader – someone to put up their hand and take responsibility. This is often hard in a community project; however, my role as a part-time project coordinator was funded by the project. This was what took it from a simple list of energy saving interventions to being community led, where people were encouraged to make changes themselves. It also gave a platform from which to try new ideas which ultimately launched the project into something much more and something that provides useful outcomes for all community engagement work.

Forum for the Future carried out people centred research into the project and from this, five recommendations have been put together to help other communities who may wish to start up a project of their own. These recommendations can be found in the People and Places report. There’s also a short film about the project you can watch on the Low Carbon Villages website.

There’s support out there for communities who want to take on their own projects. The Community Development Foundation runs several grant programmes, and Volunteering England has a great bank of resources and advice on working with volunteers.

For further information about the Coleshill project please contact Jo Trussler, Low Carbon Village Project Coordinator.


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