A beautiful old high street on a hill, surrounded by green – the market town of Lewes makes me feel instantly at home. The town is buzzing with excitement as the Olympic torch is about to pass through. There’s about 16,000 residents, most of them on the street today. The largest employer here is the public sector. I notice a good number of chain stores, but quite a few independents holding their ground.
Juliet meets me in Café Nero – the only coffee place she could think of off the top of her head with WiFi which I needed for some urgent internet access. We then went on to the lovely local organic Pleasant Bakery for lunch. But things like this – which include the thorny topic of opening hours – make me wonder if independents need or want help to see the importance of understanding customers’ needs, and meeting them at least as well as the chains (I know a lot of independents do offer free WiFi and open late).
To fight off a Costa Coffee attack in Totnes, a whole campaign has emerged to protect the local cafes, starting with a local coffee competition that improved the quality of coffee in town, something needed to help stage a strong defence. (Update: this campaign just lost the battle, but hopefully not the war!).
Anyway, I met with 7 members of the Transition Town Lewes Enterprise Group (TTL – Enterprise) of which Juliet is the co-ordinator, and also Martin and John from Brighton, previously part of the now defunct Transition Brighton group. TTL – Enterprise started in October 2011, and has been meeting roughly every 2 weeks since then. As Juliet wrote in a recent post about business and livelihoods groups in general, they see their role is to:
1. Identify and where necessary ‘pump prime’ enterprises that can contribute to a low-impact, low carbon local economy.
2. Provide support for young and start-up enterprises in whatever aspects they find challenging – informed by an Enterprise Survey.
3. Locate skills and resources across the community – for example by establishing an Enterprise Resource Bank to enable skills and resources to be easily located and shared across Lewes.
For the Pump Priming, there’s a fledgling draughtproofing enterprise (based on the Belsize Park /Brixton model). The approach here was to present this as an idea for a new enterprise, and offer training. A number of people applied, and someone was selected to take this forward.
Given that passion and sense of ownership are key to successful enterprises, I think it’s interesting to see how this approach works out – the idea that a Transition town can identify specific enterprise opportunities, and then recruit someone to take them on.
I wonder if this idea can become that recruit’s own passion, and if they can have a full sense of ownership, independence and commitment to its success, or if it remains the responsibility somehow of the Transition town.
Another model of course is that people come forward with their own ideas, based on their own passions and interests, and then the Transition town offers some support and encouragement. It’s great to see places experimenting with different approaches, maybe we need a mix of both.
The Lewes Pound was an early project for TTL, and the connection to a local business, Harvey’s Brewery, has been important. Today around 15,000 Lewes pounds are in circulation, accepted by approximately 150 traders in the town. Plenty of initiatives are in motion to encourage further uptake, including a recently finished pilot cashback scheme where, typically, shoppers receive back 2 Lewes Pounds for every 20 spent.
The Lewes Food Market is a spin out of TTL. It is run by Lewes Local Community Interest Company (CIC), established in 2010 with the broad aims of developing sustainable local food systems and making it easier for Lewes people to buy high-quality, seasonal food directly from local producers each week. It complements the thriving monthly Lewes Farmers Market.
The Ouse Valley Energy Services Company (OVESCO) was one of the earliest Transition energy companies to get started, and can boast the UK’s first ever community owned solar power station, on the roof of Harvey’s Brewery depot. They also installed PV on a school and have a large but secret project at an early stage.
The Better Banking Group (first one of these I’ve come across) was set up to explore how to give local people an alternative to the big banks.
Having discounted the possibility of setting up a community bank from scratch (at least for now), the Group is strongly involved in promoting the East Sussex Credit Union, as well as educating and raising awareness about the banking system.
Colin Tingle of the Lewes & Ouse Valley Eco-nomics group (L&OVE) is part of TTL and especially interested in valuing natural capital and eco system services – see the relevant REconomy section or this BBC article for more info.
John mentioned Brighton Community Agriculture which is up and running, currently providing lamb through its sheepshare project.
Resourcing the economic transition
The range of skills in the group is extraordinary, and much has been achieved by TTL but resource issues were again a big topic of conversation. How can the significant amount of effort that is involved, if the group’s dreams are to be realised, be resourced? How can people get compensated for leading and enabling an economic transition of the scale that’s required?
One interesting thing I note is that we are seeing some enterprises emerging that are supporting Transition activity, and that offer fee-based services. For example, Martin has set up a coaching/training/facilitation social enterprise called Decision Lab that aims to help Transition places and groups in particular to work well together. Nick Osborne from Glastonbury has Response-ability that also does work around group skills, and offers training to Transition groups. I’m sure there are plenty of others out there.
My own work is in this sphere too, I am paid to work on the REconomy Project thanks to funding. I created the project proposals and funding bids, and it pays me and other team members though on a part-time basis (which suits us all).
But the big question I think is how can someone(s) be paid to lead and co-ordinate this work for the Transition initiative? This is a hot topic for Totnes, and we (our group of 8 local strategic organisations that are taking responsibility for helping our new economy emerge) have identified our top priority is to fundraise for a 3 year full time post. Is this a replicable model for every TI? That remains to be seen. If all of us working in this space can show a good story of Transition driving tangible economic shift, then possibly this will help support the case for similar funding elsewhere.
Questions remain about where this money can come from in a world where traditional sources of funding for economic development are drying up.
At the same time there are opportunities to explore other means, including community based funding models – if the community is benefitting from the economic stimulation, how might they help resource this work?
For example, if we have 3,000 local businesses in a town (like in Totnes district), and we can demonstrate the value we bring them, then £10 each per year would pay a full-time person, near enough.
In the same town, there’s 10,000 households – how can we win their support and help them crowd-fund our work? If we can show our relevance and our real impacts in our towns, then unlocking the resources may be easier than we think…
Main image: my visit with the TTL Enterprise Group plus Brighton visitors.