Powering Up: reflections on partnership work in creating local energy action

19 February 2021

Our Powering Up project has been exploring ways to kick-start and support community-led energy action in lower income communities.

In our last blog entry, we described how the project had to adapt during the pandemic, and spoke about setting up an Energy Champion initiative across Swindon. This has gone well and we’re hopeful that as the project draws to a close, the energy champions will be a base from which more community energy activities can spring.

In this blog we want to share what we’ve learnt about the role of partnership work in building community-led energy action.

In all three Powering up neighbourhoods we worked in, partnerships have been crucial to our engagement, especially as we were essentially outsiders in these communities.. We have worked with councils, agencies, schools and voluntary organisations, and there are benefits and challenges involved in each case.

Schools

Schools are a key community hub and can be a fruitful avenue through which to engage with the wider community, for example by running school-based activities. However, schools have tight budgets and limited time so it’s important that your project goals and engagement fit with the curriculum and the school’s priorities. There needs to be a benefit to the school such as financial savings, or helping them achieve a certain accreditation, like achieving Eco-Schools Green Flag status.

Councils

Councils also face resource and capacity constraints. However, they can be a critical partner for projects – for example, ensuring your project links to broader council initiatives, or linking you to other relevant stakeholders. This kind of partnership works best when the council’s priorities are aligned with your project aims. For example, is energy and fuel poverty big on their agenda? Are they already quite community focused? Are they a housing provider and do they have targets for engaging and supporting tenants?

Target key individuals within councils who may be more inclined to work on a project with you as it fits their remit – housing officers, community development officers, energy or climate change officersand neighbourhood wardens. In Swindon we have successfully engaged with the council through their Affordable Warmth officer, their Adult Learning provision, and through their climate emergency work programme – so there may be multiple opportunities for collaborative working.

Voluntary organisations and community groups

Our experience of working with local networks in Swindon – such as Swindon Climate Action Network and the Penhill Street Reps – has highlighted the benefit of developing relationships with groups that are deeply embedded within the local community. They provide an opportunity for finding volunteers to get involved in your project, for spreading the word about what you’re doing, and also to access more vulnerable people who are difficult to reach otherwise. These groups might also be running events and activities on which you can piggy-back in order to meet more people in the community.

And here are some of our key learnings from across our partnership engagement that we hope will useful for others delivering similar projects:

  • Identify useful partners early on through desk-based research, social media, and attending events. Be thorough with your research – some smaller community groups have a very low profile! Try to find out who has a close relationship with, and a strong on-the-ground presence in, the community you are hoping to work with, and what that relationship looks like.
  • Make contact early on, and keep making contact. It’s best to hit the ground running at the start of your project so make touch with key partners early on; but you will inevitably meet more as you progress through your project and get to know the community better. We also recommend that you keep making contact with potential partners – even if they haven’t expressed an interest in your project earlier on. We have many examples through Powering Up of partnerships that seemed a dead end at the beginning of the project but which suddenly flourished two years into the project!
  • Learn the relationship history. You don’t want to step on any toes or re-ignite any old conflicts, so find out about the history of the relationships between communities and local institutions and organisations. Is there any risk of conflict by getting involved? Is there any baggage being carried that could disrupt your project goals?
  • Do some research into previous projects and interventions. This may be useful to get some advice from stakeholders of past projects, and understanding what worked well and what didn’t.

And a final comment – the Covid-19 pandemic has emphasised the vital role that local institutions and groups have in supporting communities, particularly in connecting with more vulnerable, and sometimes digitally excluded members of the community. This is something that anyone wishing to develop community-led projects will need to increasingly bear in mind as they engage with communities.

Previous blog posts ...

November 2018: Powering up! How’s it going so far ...
May 2019: Start small to power up ... 
October 2019: Powering Up! Moving from delivery to co-creation and capacity building
February 2020: Barriers to engagement and the energy disconnect
October 2020: Powering up! The project goes into lockdown ...

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