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Cross Sector Partnerships and Transition Towns

Roz Brown in conversation with Dave Prescott of Transition Hay-on-Wye

The need for broad community involvement is frequently recognised by TT groups, and is certainly advocated by the founder of the movement. But many TTs struggle to identify and work with existing community organisations to forward the process of meeting the global challenges of climate change and peak oil.  One TT group in Mid Wales proceeded from the outset to foster this collaboration and work with and through other organisations. In this interview, Dave Prescott tells the story of Transition Hay on Wye.

Q

Can you say something about your current role in Transition Hay-on-Wye, and your background in cross sector partnerships (and what that means)

A

I’m part of the ‘initiating group’ for Transition Hay-on-Wye and my role is a mix of keeping people updated via the newsletter and linking with new groups. So far this has mainly been the Chamber of Commerce and the Hay Festival. My professional background is

in cross-sector partnership and responsible business practice, and I think the cross-sector partnership element in particular is interesting in the context of Transition. Cross-sector partnerships have emerged over the past couple of decades following the recognition that the world’s major social, economic and environmental challenges aren’t going to be solved by any one sector acting alone. The skills, resources, networks and experiences of different sectors can be brought to bear to create interesting and creative new responses. (‘Sectors’ in this sense refers to business, government, civil society, academia, etc.)

Let me give you one example in my professional work and then a more speculative example in the context of Transition. There is a cross-sector partnership called the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative which is based on the idea that companies operating in oil- or mineral-rich countries publish what they pay to governments in the form of taxes and revenues, and the governments publish what they receive, in a process that is monitored by civil society groups. That’s the idea anyway. It’s resulted in these extraordinary conversations about oil revenues taking place between – here’s a hypothetical but plausible example – the government of Angola, ChevronTexaco and the Open Society Institute.

 


It goes without saying that these partnerships are incredibly difficult to manage and keep on track and there are few examples that I can think of that have achieved their stated goals. Often, however, the process of bringing together these disparate elements is valuable in itself, rather than everyone operating in their silos. Returning to the very local level once more, we (Transition Hay-on-Wye) ran an alternative transport day last year in collaboration with Herefordshire and Powys councils, Sustrans, local businesses and environmental groups. It’s a very local and modest version of cross-sector partnership between government, business and civil society, who all recognise that the challenge of sustainable rural transport is too big for any one organisation to solve alone. We had a good turnout and it was an interesting day, but for me the fact that it happened at all was the most positive sign.

 

I will give you one other example which is also in line with Transition and Permaculture. Reflecting on the Copenhagen travesty, Franny Armstrong (director of The Age of Stupid and co-founder of the 10:10 campaign) argued that it will be necessary for leading representatives from government, the scientific community, and civil society to collaborate in order to ensure something more meaningful happens at the next climate talks in Mexico. I paraphrase slightly here but the point is that this kind of non-traditional coalition will be absolutely essential. Franny Armstrong might not describe herself in these terms but she is playing the complex role of a ‘partnership broker’, a kind of catalyst who is trusted by all parties and helps to keep the conversation on track.

Back to the very local level again. We’ve just developed our plan for 2010 and for each item listed we are doing it ‘in collaboration with’ one or more existing local groups. For me it’s totally in line with various Permaculture principles including ‘Integrate rather than segregate’ and the idea that every element supports multiple functions (and vice versa).

Q

When and how did the Hay TT initiative come about?

A

Simon Forrester and Phoebe Boulanger both expressed an interest in setting up a Transition group via the Transition Towns website. Simon knew me from participating on a local parish plan group so he invited me to come along. Phoebe knew Bob Hilton so she brought him along. We held a screening of ‘The Power of Community’ introduced by the county councillor for Hay, Gareth Ratcliffe, and as a result two more people joined the initiating group, Ainsleigh Rice and Christine Turnbull. I would say our activities started in earnest in around January of last year.

Q

Why did Hay decide to use a cross sector approach to form the basis for how it would operate?

A

I wouldn’t go so far as saying that the group uses an explicitly cross-sector approach, rather, it’s something I’ve been harping on about since the start because I think it’s the only way we’re going to get anywhere. For me it boils down to the fact that as a group of six individuals there isn’t a great deal we can do, but if we collaborate with existing groups and, over the longer term, encourage other existing groups to recognise that Transition is something they can be thinking about and acting on, then we have a chance of creating meaningful change. Now you mention it though, maybe I will propose to the group that we are more explicit about working in partnership and what this means in practice.

Q

Can you describe how a cross-sector partnership approach has worked in practice.

A

I’ve been working with the Chamber of Commerce for about six months now. Initially my idea was simply to present to a group of chamber members an overview of what we’re trying to do and why, and identify where there might be opportunities to collaborate. In practice, it was quite difficult to drum up the support, and the turnout to the event was fairly small -  just under 20 people. However there was a very good quality discussion and the outcome was a general agreement that it would be a good idea to try and do something more sustainable with trade waste instead of paying to have it driven to the other side of Powys for it to be crammed into the remaining space in the landfill pit. A follow-up meeting took place about a month later with presentations from Cwm Harry Land Trust and the Brecon Recycling Centre.

Having sown this seed, and knowing nothing about technical issues surrounding trade waste, I then stepped back from the collaboration in the hope that someone else would come forward, preferably among the Chamber’s membership, to drive things forward. At the moment we’re at the point where there’s general agreement that it would be good for something to happen – it just takes some hero somewhere to step forward and do it. Which is what so much of this stuff seems to come down to.

It has been a real baptism of fire for me, after years of writing and theorising about cross-sector partnership, to actually get into the nitty-gritty of trying to set one up. You immediately get into issues of who is responsible for what, who is leading the process, who is paying for the process, and on and on. These things are not insurmountable but they certainly require (among other attributes) a thick skin and a good sense of local politics.

Q

What advantages do you see for using existing groups as an integral part of any TT movement locally?

A

I should maybe say that I can’t claim any credit for the originality of this idea - working with existing resources is definitely something the Transition Network recommends for all groups. Also I wouldn’t say we’re ‘using’ existing groups so much as trying to encourage other groups to look at how the challenges of peak oil and climate change might be of direct relevance to them and what creative and practical steps they might take to respond. You can get away with about 30 seconds of talk about issues like ‘climate change’ and ‘peak oil’ and then you have to bring the debate pretty quickly down to an everyday level. So just as the discussion went straight to trade waste with the Chamber of Commerce we might find that the interest coalesces around, say, a seed swap with the Black Mountains Lions Club or – to take another totally random example – the local scouts might get really excited about cycle-powered generators. The trick seems to be getting pretty specific pretty quickly without losing a sense of the scale of the challenge.

The other way we’re working (or the way I’d like to see us working) is to support other groups on their existing Transition-related projects. For example the Hay Festival is buying a thermal imaging camera which allows you to see where the heat is being lost from buildings; this information in turn lets you know where you need to put your insulation. We have an embryonic ‘energy group’ with individuals who can act as liaison points with the local community, they can go out and actually take the photos of public buildings and houses (with permission obviously) and give advice on energy efficiency measures.

Q

How do you see the future shaping up for Hay TT?

A

I don’t think there’s such a thing as a typical town but I think Hay is even more atypical than most. It’s a very diverse place with a strong agricultural presence combined with this influx of people like me from off who are attracted by some combination of the quality of life, the scenery, the festival, the books. The two constituents don’t always see eye to eye but in general, from a Transition point of view, in many ways there’s a lot of resilience already due to the sheer mix of skills and experience in the local area. Community noticeboards are groaning under the weight of flyers and posters, to the point where it’s very difficult for us to get people’s attention.

However, on the other aim of Transition - reducing fossil fuel dependency - Hay isn’t doing so well. The local economy is totally dependent on tourism, which in turn is dependent on people driving here in their cars, as the public transport system is so underdeveloped in rural areas. To give you a really practical example of this, the carbon footprint of the people and speakers who travel to the Hay Festival is ten times as high as the carbon footprint of the Festival itself. And the Festival is just one tourist draw in the year - there is stuff going on constantly. So sustainable rural transport is definitely going to be a challenge around here in coming years.

When we ran our alternative transport event last year we found that people got very excited by the transport issue: everyone has something to say about it, from nostalgic complaints about the closure of railway branch lines, to the lack of buses, to the perceived poor upkeep of footpaths, to the fact that most people drive everywhere in their cars most of the time. I think there’s a growing sense that something needs to change but at the moment cars are just so convenient and there’s nothing else that comes close. That’s a big one for Hay in my eyes, but having said that I don’t think we’ve found the issue (or the way of presenting the issue) that has really captured local imagination in a way that I think would be necessary for real change to happen. I’m thinking here of the example of places like ‘Incredible Edible’ Todmorden in Yorkshire, which aims to be self-sufficient in food by 2018, or Findhorn in Scotland, which has the enviable problem of trying to figure out what to do with the massive revenue flows from its community-owned wind turbine. What combination of factors spurred vision on that scale? That’s what I’m really interested in.

Q

Do you think it is possible to integrate local organisations successfully into TT activities in communities where this did not happen from the outset, and what might be the barriers to doing this?

A

I don’t think there’s any reason why groups can’t be brought in once Transition activities are up and running. We’re constantly looking for other groups to work with and we’re doing it in the context of our ongoing awareness-raising activities -  which is one of the first steps in the 12-step Transition process. Partly this is a pragmatic response to the difficulty I mentioned earlier about trying to get people’s attention in a busy place like Hay – that is, if people won’t come to us, then we’ll go to them – but partly it’s an effective way to get into the detail of discussions in an atmosphere where people are at their ease. Rather than expecting people to show up to a cold parish hall and stand up and speak about difficult issues and risk mockery, silence or League of Gentlemen-style community ostracism, we go to pre-existing gatherings where people are used to talking in front of one another. A couple of members of the group recently went along to a local Women’s Institute meeting, for example, and the WI were sympathetic towards our aims in a way that they might not have been if we’d simply expected them to come along to one of our public awareness raising sessions.

Q

Do you have any advice to offer TT groups who want to get some co-operation going with local groups?

A

I’m not sure I’m in a position to give advice as it’s such early days but one thing that successful Transition groups (and I’m thinking here of places like Brixton, Stroud, Lewes and Totnes rather than Hay) seem to have going for them is a willingness to look beyond the usual suspects for collaboration. Here in Hay I would see it as a great day when we had the Freemasons and, say, St Mary’s Football club collaborating on a local food project. Or the local booksellers teaming up with Hay & Brecon Farmers to issue a local currency. Seriously. Then we’d really be making progress. It’s a matter of someone having both the balls and the spare time to get people excited about responding to the massive problems of the day.

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