PlanLoCaL: A ’renewable energy action area’ for North East Somerset

Somerset’s last coal pit closed in 1973, but is the area now about to witness an energy renaissance?

Project duration: May 2011 to July 2012

It seems unlikely now, but North East Somerset was once a significant coal-producing area: part of the Somerset Coalfield that stretched from the Mendips to south Gloucestershire. But can energy-generation play a role in the area’s future?

CSE is working with local people in North East Somerset to help develop community-driven renewable energy and energy efficiency. We believe that the area is well-suited to developing community-owned renewable energy businesses, and that such schemes could generate cash for the local community, boost skills and employment, and strengthen neighbourhoods.

So far, the local councils of Midsomer Norton, Radstock, Camerton, Peasedown St. John, Paulton and Timsbury have expressed an interest in getting involved and in joining a process to determine how much renewable energy the area could produce. Other ways that we hope these, and other councils in the area, could become involved include:

  • Communicating the potential benefits that renewable energy could bring, including income for investment and employment
  • Encouraging the communities to make their own decisions on the energy projects to be pursued
  • Helping decide on fair ownership models and re-distribution of the profits

But since, at its core, the project is about local people taking ownership of renewable energy infrastructure in their area, we are seeking to engage with local people and to get more community groups involved. You can read about how we’re going about this, including dates for consultation events in November 2011, here.

CSE’s head of Local and Community Empowerment, Rachel Coxcoon, is managing the project.

“The localism agenda provides a great opportunity for local people to decide how they will contribute to the fight against climate change and ensure secure and independent energy supplies for the future.

“We already know that community-ownership of renewable energy infrastructure can generate viable (and in some cases substantial) income streams. But what has yet to be attempted is to support communities to do this in a strategic way across a wider area.

"Our experience suggests that communities in North East Somerset are well-placed to both develop a series of renewable energy projects and to decide themselves how the profits from those new businesses should be re-invested – in youth facilities, footpaths, cycle paths, village halls or facilities for the elderly for example.”

CSE’s role will be that of the facilitator, working in partnership with local communities who will in due course take on leadership of the project. This is why it is so critical that local residents are behind the idea and build on it with their own energy and enthusiasm.

Building on the findings of focus groups

In late 2010, CSE ran a series of focus groups across the area to gain an understanding of how local people view the area, their communities, and how they have developed and changed over the years. The main findings were that:

  • People have a sense of local identity, reaching down to the level of individual villages and towns, and are keen to maintain this
  • There is a feeling that the area has been let down twice – once by the closure of the mines and again by the recent decline of the printing industry
  • People are concerned that there are limited opportunities for young people. Opportunities to develop retail and business are limited by poor transport and unclear policies
  • There is a suspicion of ‘regeneration’ programmes that appear to have come from outside the area – people would like greater control over local investment
  • Transport links are poor and roads unsafe for walking or cycling
  • There is not enough decision-making power locally – decisions are felt to be made by the local authority, rather than elected representatives of the towns and parishes

The focus groups also explored whether the former mining area could develop a new specialism, as an area recognised for its renewable energy generation expertise. The initial response was very positive; people responded well to the idea of more self-determination, and were quick to suggest how the profits of energy generation might be invested.

As Rachel noted: “Many of those attending the focus groups, including parish councillors and local business leaders, weren’t aware of the potential income streams offered by renewable energy, nor the new payment mechanisms such as the feed-in tariff and Renewable Heat Incentive. Once they saw that the economics potentially stack up, and saw the link between investing in renewables and wider investment in the area, they became quite interested.

“A particular area of investment might be the energy efficiency of local housing; fuel poverty in this area is relatively high.”

But there were also a range of questions and concerns raised by the focus groups:

  • Are renewable energy technologies proven, and are they safe?
  • How could it possibly be affordable?
  • What are the risks, what can go wrong?
  • How will it work, how will it all get started, and what support will be available?
  • Will there be sufficient support locally to make it happen
  • How will it be decided who benefits?
  • If it’s such a good idea, why isn’t everyone else doing it?

“Hearing these concerns will help us pitch the idea of a Renewable Energy Action Area appropriately,” said Rachel. "They will also help inform the content and structure of the consulations that we are undertaking in Midsomer Norton, Paulton, and Peasedown St John in November [see here for details]"

Funding for this project which is part of CSE’s PlanLoCaL suite of projects, comes from the Department of Communities and Local Government.

© Copyright Maurice Pullin and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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