Monday 20 August 2012

REconomy comes to Norwich

Last month Fiona Ward of the Transition REconomy Project came to Norwich as part of a UK roadtrip. Chris Hull (Norwich FarmShare) and Simeon Jackson (Economics and Livelihoods group) showed her the city:

Norwich is a beautiful city, second only to London in importance until the industrial revolution. Within the city boundary live 137,000 inhabitants, but ‘greater Norwich’ – which includes the urban fringes – is more like 230,000.

I learn from Chris that it has a strong shoe making history along with textiles and weaving, and “the most esteemed flint knapped wall” in the whole of the country, if not the world. I am no green building nerd but even I was impressed with this.

Now employment is mainly in the service industries, especially public sector, insurance and finance. The city has the largest open-air market in England, established by the Normans around 1074.

The town centre is the usual mix of chains and some independents. A group of local businesses got together and formed an organisation, then created Norwich Lanes, a lovely collection of independent shops.

I wonder what other stories are out there about independents collaborating to fight back against the chains – not something I hear much about, but then again, I haven’t been looking for them.

I meet with Chris and Simeon in a local coffee shop – I am eating a LOT of cake on this trip – and hear more of the history of Transition Norwich and the main business it has created called Farmshare. This Community Supported Agriculture scheme (CSA) was in part inspired by the food section of Transition Norwich Resilience Plan, which explored whether Norwich could feed itself.

Members weigh their share at the food hub

8.5 acres are rented from a local farmer, and 2 growers produce vegetables and salad crops for around 100 members of the co-operative.

The members commit to pay for 1 year’s supply of fresh seasonal produce, which is brought weekly to the down town food hub (a space rented from Bicycle Links, another social enterprise), where the members weigh and bag their own share of the produce.

A ‘small’ share – enough for 1 person – costs around £4.50 a week, paid as a flat monthly fee. Some produce may be bought from other local suppliers to meet gaps. Members also give some hours of time per month, and can do work shares to reduce the cash cost e.g., designing the marketing materials.

The aim is for 150 members which will ensure the scheme breaks even, hopefully by October. It was started with around £30k of help from the Local Food Fund (now suspended) that helps pay wages and also bought a tractor and a van. The plot now is roughly the size of the old market gardens that ringed the city, and have an apprentice scheme in place. It’s not officially organic but grows without artificial fertilisers and pesticides.

And for your table this week…

Visiting the hub in the heart of the city, I can see how this provides more than just a food pick-up point. It’s a social time for people to chat, and to speak to the growers and have that direct connection to the people who are working the land to grow their food. Farmshare is starting to invite other small producers to come along, providing them with another direct outlet to consumers. Sharing the space with another social enterprise also raises their profile.

The meeting rooms there will be used for giving the classroom bits of the growing skills training courses that will be run. This enterprise had the help of the East Anglia Food Link (website being re-worked), a group I will follow up with on my return. It feels important that food strategies are held at appropriate scale including community, region and nation and I am interested to hear more about this regional level work.

Simeon is keen to re-start the Economics and Livelihoods Group, and to initiate some work in one or two of the more deprived parts of the city. He has run a visioning session in an area with lots of empty shops that is currently cut off from the rest of the city by a large derelict building. The approach has been included in a Communities Living Sustainably bid, and if successful this should help ensure the work continues.

T-Norwich found that the energy that was in the initial group has tailed off, with most of it going into projects like Farmshare and also the T-Norwich blog and Carbon Conversations training.

Visioning was done here in St.Augustines

This has left a bit of a vacuum in the centre, and now they are re-igniting things with a Phoenix group – getting people back together to refocus and see which direction to take next, planning some open events etc.
This is emerging as a theme from several of the places I have visited, an initial group that forms, meets for a while, and then puts energy into projects and new enterprises. Then there is an awareness that the centre has diluted, and timing feels right to put some attention back on it.

T-Norwich has no strategy at the moment for how to develop the local economy, but there is interest in learning what others are doing around this, and how such an approach might work to re-ignite things, and bring new people and new energy into the fold.

This model would need to include the means by which people could be resourced to co-ordinate and deliver this work, and which legal structures might be needed to enable this. This need is coming through loud and clear from all places I visit. Fiona Ward

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