Wedmore’s war on climate breakdown

| 2nd April 2019
Wedmore green group sign
Robin Whitlock
Green Wedmore is a community group that has big ambitions when it comes to tackling climate change.

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In the apparently peaceful Somerset village of Wedmore, something is stirring. Actually, more accurately, something has been stirring since 2006 - a vibrant community action on climate change. 

You might expect to find a hardworking community of people across a number of typical, or maybe atypical, trades and occupations, given Wedmore's location on the edge of the Someset Levels. 

Yet, something else, something actually quite urgent and important, is driving this community now - climate breakdown.

Climate breakdown

We’ve already had some pretty strong warnings here in the UK about climate breakdown. The heatwave of 2003 killed more than 2,000 people in the UK alone from heat exhaustion. Brogdale, a hamlet beside the M2 motorway in Kent, experienced an all-time record high temperature of 38.5 degrees C (101.3 degrees F).

We’ve also had horrendous floods right across the country, including on the Levels. Seabirds around our coasts have been adversely affected by rising sea-surface temperatures – increasing by around 0.2-0.9 degrees C per decade since the 1980s – impacting food supplies and habitats, resulting in reduced breeding among kittiwakes for example. 

Food supplies for the UK’s human population have been hit too, as crops suffer after last year's extreme weather.

It is now becoming very clear that people all around the world need to act right now to stop climate change. In 2006, a group of people in Wedmore decided to start doing just that.

Multiple successes

Steve Mewes, who works for Somerset Wildlife Trust, said: “We had a street fair here in Wedmore. Soon after I moved back to the village, I set up a stall, chatted to people about green issues and ran a questionnaire around the village to gather people’s thoughts and the core group came out of that really.

"We had a public meeting of about, I suppose, 40 people. We got the key people who wanted to get involved and take action. We took it from there.

"So, that’s where we started really, and we’ve always had an ethos of just getting things done, not talking about it but actually getting on doing things, and that has kept us going for the last 13 years”.

Steve has kept an old list of things that Green Wedmore has done over the years since it first formed. These activities include freecycle days where people gather together to give stuff away that they don’t need anymore. The group has also run five produce markets; created a local cookbook; held repair cafe’s; launched a plastic bag-free project way before the issue of plastic pollution became so widely known; held a green fair and movie nights at which it has provided environmental support and advice; took part in an open eco-homes scheme; ran a scheme where the group bought about 300 fruit trees to sell to the public; held an energy cafe; held twenty-two litter pick-up days; written forty articles for the local magazine; organised a pass-it-on book sharing scheme; held talks for local groups and installed an electric car charging point in the village. 

Green Wedmore also set and manage two community woodlands and a community orchard. It has supported a solar power project on the first school academy and recently has been trying to initiate a ‘Warmer Wedmore’ scheme in which the group has been trying to find a local way of organising a fuel poverty project - a local way of replicating the Green New Deal basically.

There have been various solar PV schemes along the way, with solar on the village hall linked to a Tesla battery. Add all that up, and Wedmore’s breathtaking achievement in the realm of environmental activities would probably be fairly hard to match in communities of a similar size.

Well organised

The group is well organised. It has a quick thirty minute business meeting every month, usually held on Monday evenings in the local pub, following which there are speakers or a longer discussion about particular issues.

It doesn’t set itself particular targets, mainly because it has usually found it fairly difficult to apply reliable measurement systems. However, this will change with the Zero Carbon Wedmore project that the group has just recently embarked on, led by local resident Sonya Bedford whose day job is Head of Energy at Stephens-Scown LLP in Exeter, and who is thus very experienced in this particular area. 

One of the really amazing things about Wedmore is that it now has a solar farm helping to provide clean renewable energy to the village. The solar farm was developed by Wedmore Community Power Cooperative. Although it isn’t linked legally to Green Wedmore, Steve says that the people on its board are often the same people in Green Wedmore (Steve himself is currently the chair!). 

Green Wedmore secures funding in a number of ways. Although the community solar farm has been really useful, helping to fund a a benchmarking report on Zero Carbon Wedmore for example, most of its money has come from general fundraising, such as selling of recipe books at fairs, or local things have been made or just applying for odd bits of funding here, there and everywhere. It also helps that the group actively tries to keep everything as low-cost as it can.

Sonya said: “In some ways it is a slightly different model to a lot of other community groups in that we raise money as cheaply as possible to do projects, and then generally don’t take any returns back. Particularly going forward when there’s no feed-in tariff, we will just raise the money to achieve a project and then gift that to whoever is benefitting from that project, because it all contributes to our Zero Carbon target anyway.

Grant funding

Sonya continued: "For the village hall solar, there was a variety of funding. Some was grant funded, some of it was donations, some of it was corporate donation such as from Next Energy.

"Going forward, it is going to be even more important to get the grant funding because there won't be any subsidies.

"Even though there’s little return for investors at the moment, we have been successful in getting some grant funding from the community power coop to take the Zero Carbon project on its next step to feasibility study done, which will hopefully unlock some further grant funding to build more stuff.

"Once we’ve got the facts and figures at our fingertips about how we reach our targets and what we can do to get there quickly, we can then apply for more grant funding or government funding to get there.”

Political influence 

The biggest challenge for the village was the solar farm. Steve said: “We were very lucky in that there was about 70-80 percent local support at the planning application, which is almost unheard of in the renewable energy business. There was some local opposition but they are mostly talking to us by now."

Any community that gets involved in climate-related activities faces the risk of, sooner or later, running into local or national politics. Green Wedmore has adopted a somewhat flexible position on this.

Steve continued: “The only thing we’re really strict about is focus on the community of Wedmore. We have a close relationship with our local MP, James Heappey, we make a point of meeting him regularly. He came to our group soon after he was nominated as a candidate in 2013, when he was fresh out of the army and perhaps a little new to climate change. 

Sonya thinks Heappey’s language has definitely changed over the years that Green Wedmore has been meeting with him. To his credit, Heappey continues to meet the group even though it is unlikely to attract any votes from this quarter.

However, the real political influence from the group has emanated from Zero Carbon Wedmore which Zero Carbon Britain has been citing as an example of what zero carbon projects can achieve.

None of the other projects supported by Zero Carbon Britain has achieved as much as Wedmore has and Sonya believes that’s where the group’s influence has been really evident on a national basis.

Zero Carbon

Sonya explained: “I joined the group two years ago, as an interested person living locally. I’d been following the progress of Green Wedmore for a long time, out of interest in what was going on.

"I’ve been studying up at the Centre for Alternative Technology, Green Wedmore kindly paid for me to go on the Zero Carbon Training and I came back and we launched 2045 zero carbon target for Wedmore.

“We decided that we would deliver five teams of zero carbon, which are transport, energy, health, food and wellbeing.

"Wellbeing is quite an unusual one, because it encompasses all those and its not part of the tenet of Zero Carbon Britain but its really important because we live in a really nice place, and we want to keep it nice and keep everyone healthy and happy.

"We started mapping out what we’re going to do under those teams and everything we’ve done or want to do in the future, all contributes to one of those things getting us towards the target”.

Next steps

From that, the group began new projects, including a retail scheme, more traditional work around more renewable energy and looking at additional woodland.

Steve has been helping to run an extremely successful food trail project which is going to be bigger and better this year, focusing on local food and local producers to try and increase the amount of activity there. 

Sonya said: “The next step will be to properly map and do a feasibility study around how we get to the target, whatever target that is – probably 2030 or if we can get there quicker, and then map out what needs to be done, compared to our carbon use and emissions use within the village. 

The thing that really comes across from Green Wedmore is how amazingly positive it all is. Sonya says that’s why the wellbeing side is really important, as people really enjoy being engaged with a group that’s doing something positive and the group actively tries to make it as easy as possible to get involved.

So keep your eyes on this particular community, as it sets out to demonstrate what can really be done when people get together.

This Author

Robin Whitlock is a full-time freelance journalist specialising in climate change and renewable energy. He is a correspondent for Renewable Energy Magazine and regularly writes for other magazines on similar subjects.

 

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