Workshop 6: Sholver Imagines
Reading time: 8 mins
It is the sixth workshop of the Oldham Energy Futures project, and things are starting to feel real. All the discussions and thoughts of previous workshops have come together at this point to explore the question of what, in Sholver, the community can actually do. What possibilities do the local landscape actually hold? What kind of positive change would a community energy scheme be able to bring to Sholver? What funding is available? Who would do this work? And what organisations might need to be brought on board to turn a community energy project from a possibility into a reality?
As in Westwood, our community group in Sholver split into two, reflecting the emerging themes and pilot project ideas coming from discussions in the workshops. Participants chose which workshop session they wanted to spend the day focusing on; Transport or Renewable Energy.
In the Transport group, the morning session started with facilitator Lorenza setting the scene on what transport meant in the context of Oldham Energy Futures, recapping the topics we had previously discussed in workshops, including pilot project ideas.
The recap gave the group an excellent base to start the day’s discussions, reflecting on our learning journey so far and barriers in transport that the group had previously identified, leading to lively discussions about what the pilot projects could be for Sholver. Throughout the workshops, the group had keenly felt that a Transport pilot project had to enhance the local area and put Sholver ‘on the map’.
Thinking back to the barriers identified by the group, the main ones were:
- Lack of local, accessible shops connecting the top and bottom Sholver.
- Poor signage and very few clear, accessible footpaths for walking.
- There are no benches along key walking routes to offer a rest point to anyone who may wish to walk more but find the topography challenging
- Not always feeling safe when walking from bus stops to home in the evenings, especially due to poor street lighting in the neighbourhood.
- Heavy traffic on Ripponden Road makes walking difficult due to car fumes.
- Poor public transport live information and inadequate bus shelters to protect against the weather.
One participant said: ‘Currently if you live in this area, you have to use a car or have access to one.’
The group also shared public transport experiences compared to other cities they’ve visited such as Manchester, London, and Leeds.
Using the data maps on the Oldham Energy Futures website, Lorenza supported the group to focus on possible pilots that would connect or incorporate places identified as necessary to the area.
‘People buy cars, not to save money because running a car is expensive, but because it’s more convenient.’
Thinking about what could be a ‘stepping stone’ project, as Lorenza explained this being smaller impact projects that bring you closer to more significant change overall, gave the group impetus to think of solutions to the barriers;
- Bus shelters with live information screens, which told you when the next bus was coming would be a simple change that could give people the option to use public transport rather than drive, by keeping users informed.
- More frequent buses into Sholver and the surrounding areas making shopping easier for those without a car.
- Work to re-establish walking routes that may be overgrown or in disrepair, allowing people easier access across Sholver.
- Benches along footpaths so that there were spaces to rest or enjoy the views of the area, encouraging people to walk more.
The solutions discussion also led to thoughts about vandalism and a general agreement that there was little in the way of activities for young people.
Lorenza shared examples of cycling safety training to get younger people involved in the projects; this was positively received by the participants, with suggestions on bike trails for families and children to use.
Whilst car fumes and heavy traffic on Ripponden Road is a barrier to people walking; once the group explored possible changes, such as footpath widening, smoother walking surfaces and benches, the group felt that time and effort should go into strengthening the footpath alternatives, as a way to encourage people to move around Sholver.
Following a quick tea break, the group settled round to hear from Mike Callaghan at Leap Car Club about the project based in Scotland near Glasgow, which supports communities with e-car hire through affordable membership.
The group thought the project was exciting and innovative; however, they couldn’t see how a similar scheme could work in the area. The general opinion seemed to be that a focus on improving the public transport infrastructure would benefit more community members.
As the morning session came to a close, Lorenza asked the group to think again about what pilot projects they felt were important in the short and long term.
In the shorter term, re-establishing walking routes and encouraging more community walking whilst a more extended project could be a campaign to improve transport access and improve shelters.
After a convivial lunch, the group reconvened with a second guest speaker Matt Topham, from the We Own It campaign group, who zoomed into the workshop from Leeds. Matt’s slot was perfectly timed following the morning conversation. He talked the group through his experience on the campaign for Better Buses in Greater Manchester and the changes that are happening from the campaign’s actions.
In some ways, it was heartening to hear from Matt that Sholvers’ public transport problems were not an outlier in shared experience; the themes of bus times and confidence in bus services running were common in other areas in the country.
The group was especially interested in knowing more about the role of Transport For Greater Manchester (TFGM) in improving public transport and how they could influence the changes needed to improve the area.
Following Matt’s presentation, the group reconvened again to reflect on the day’s discussions and decisions; Lorenza agreed to invite TFGM to the next workshop to help the participants in Sholver work out their next steps, and the direction the pilots should take.
We start the workshop by launching straight into the detail of community energy projects, with a call to Agamemnon Otero of the Solar Gardens project in London. Solar Gardens is an initiative that literally ‘grew’ out of the work of an organisation in Brixton called Repowering. Established in 2011 Repowering had been a pioneer in community energy in the UK. They started by funding and installing solar panels on local tower blocks. With the money raised from selling the electricity on these solar panels, they funded a range of community projects. Getting the project together and getting the panels up on the roof had itself been a way of building a local community and training young people up through this community work. But once Solar Panels are up on a roof they don’t need much attention. This is where the idea of Solar Gardens came in – small popup gardening projects that could be funded by revenue from solar generation. With gardening – which requires weeding and pruning, watering and building involving lots of different people – the community-creating potential of solar energy was given a new lease of life.
But how does money flow from solar panels to a community? This was something everyone in the Sholver workshop was interested in knowing. When Repowering first started out, the government-supported solar panel schemes by agreeing to pay a guaranteed price for each unit of electricity generated by the panels. This fee was called a Feed-In Tariff. When the initial cost of buying solar panels was high, the feed-in tariff was also quite high, but as the cost of solar panels dropped so did this tariff, until 2016, the feed-in tariff was discontinued. Early community energy projects could get financial benefit from solar panels, particularly large installations of lots of panels, by banking the money that they made through feed-in tariffs. Now that feed-in tariffs are gone, things are a bit more complicated.
The payback for the electricity generated by solar panels nowadays – about 5p per unit – is not a lot to support community activities. However, one way of getting around this is to sell the electricity generated by solar panels directly to organisations that are paying a lot for their electricity already. These are often schools, businesses or community centres. Agamemnon talked the group through how this works and how, with large solar panel installations, there can still be a healthy payback for community groups – £20,000 to £30,000 over the life of a project.
After thanking Agamemnon, the group then turned their attention to what all this would mean in Oldham and in particular in Sholver. Andrew Hunt from Oldham Council was invited to talk about some of the initiatives that Oldham Council are currently involved in, including the Northern Roots Eco-project, and a proposal for a new heat network in the city centre and explained how supportive the council were of community energy initiatives. Andy then shared some tips for the community to consider:
- This project is your own – think firstly about what your community needs.
- It should be fun! Even though it can be hard and there is a lot to learn.
- Dealing with landlords can be tricky. Don’t be intimidated by large organisations – sometimes organisations don’t know what they are doing either when it comes to climate change.
- Get help from experts.
Focusing on the first question of how to make the project their own, the workshop participants had some suggestions of things they would like to do. One person suggested using the money to draw attention to the problem of bad insulation in people’s homes in Sholver. Another pointed out all of the things that they already have in the community – a community garden, an allotment, a nature reserve, a pond, and 35 acres of land. The challenge however is how to pull people in the community together and how to find willing volunteers to give their time to these projects. Reflecting on how difficult this was, another participant characterised trying to galvanise community support as ‘flogging a dead horse’, whilst later discussion of these community spaces pointed to persistent problems of vandalism which had left the areas looking tatty and uncared for.
‘It is always windy up here!’
After a short coffee break, we come back for session two, where we turn our attention from community energy in general to the potential of a wind turbine on the community-owned land discussed above. As several of the participants point out ‘it is always windy up here’ and this is confirmed by a mapping tool that we are shown which also shows that there is enough wind near Sholver for a wind turbine. This session is led by Kate Gilmartin from the Rural Community Energy Fund who has years of experience and expertise in community energy projects and helps the community consider what might be feasible on their land or on land nearby. Kate shares some useful examples of other communities that have installed wind turbines – a project in Southport linked to a leisure centre and a project in Bristol on the edge of the town. We then start to talk about whether a project like this could work in Sholver.
Here initial enthusiasm for a community-owned wind turbine is discussed in the context of other key issues – Is there an organisation that could buy the energy? Is the land far enough away from houses? Would a local farmer be interested in letting the community use his land? Could community-owned spaces be designated as land appropriate for wind development to help any future planning application? Who owns the land around the Sholver area? Would a wind turbine have community support? Could it be a spectacle that could draw people to the neighbourhood? How much money could it generate? How would it be funded in the first instance? There is interest in the project, as one participant puts it ‘we have to do something’, though there is also a good dose of realism about what is likely to be possible to do. As we break for lunch the participants reflect to each other about what they think could imagine working best – ground-mounted solar, a group of small wind turbines, a turbine on a local country park, or solar panels on people’s houses. With images of energy dancing in our heads, we sit and eat our packed lunches before launching into our final afternoon session.
The afternoon brings us back to the question of solar panels. Although solar energy isn’t as obvious in Sholver as the ever-blowing wind, a map of the area produced by the Oldham Energy Futures project team, shows the solar potential of the buildings in the neighbourhood. Roofs that are promising for solar are coloured dark blue, whilst other less promising roofs are coloured red. The group is asked to explore the map and we set about identifying those buildings which look like they might have the potential to be places for community solar panels.
This is a bit of a tricky exercise as there is an unfortunate data gap covering a large part of the community. However, we do manage to identify two schools, blocks of flats, rows of houses, a couple of pubs, a doctors surgery, a cluster of shops, and an evangelical church as possible sites for solar panels. In the white area with no data, one person mentions that there is a large nursing home and it looks like it has a south-facing roof. This is just the kind of building that might be promising for a community energy project – a high user of energy, that doesn’t necessarily have the capital to install its own solar panels, whose roof is of good enough quality, faces the right direction and who might be willing to be part of a community project which would lower their energy bills as well. Although it is off the data-radar, the nursing home is added to the list.
‘Why can’t we just put them on individual homes?’
Then one of the participants asks a question that has been niggling her: ‘Why can’t we just put them on individual homes?’. Kate Gilmartin explains some of the practical complications of doing this – particularly when houses are owned by a mix of individuals, registered housing providers, and private landlords, but looking at the rows and rows of houses with south-facing roofs, she also says she is inclined to agree. Why not try to get people on board with a project to collectively purchase solar panels for the community’s benefit?
We end the day by stepping back from the detail to consider whether people in the workshop are enthusiastic about being involved. Everyone around the table says that they are, with a slight hesitation due to already being overloaded with activities and work. Different people like the idea of different things. One says that she wants to find a way to think more about insulation. Another says she can see a turbine on the nearby Besom Hill, or a solar array on Sholver’s community-owned land. Another says that she is not against a bigger, more audacious project proposed earlier on, which would involve putting six turbines on land a few miles away from Sholver, but she warns ‘I don’t think they’d like us coming up there – it just doesn’t seem the right thing to do”.
As the meeting ends, one of the participants makes an important point. Being involved in the workshops they have all become very aware of all the work that is going on in Oldham but they didn’t know anything about it before. In the neighbourhood, there is a general sense that the council and housing association don’t do anything and are not to be trusted. This is a challenge for thinking about a community energy project in the neighbourhood and points to the real importance of getting people on board, and ultimately ‘winning hearts and minds’.
The group will share their complete set of ideas through a Local Energy Action Plan or LEAP, a vision for the future of Sholver’s energy, ready for stakeholders and citizens to pick up.