Ask not what your country can do for you

By Andy Irwin

Andy Irwin argues that social change isn’t going to come from Westminster, we (the people) have to drive it. He talks to an activist in Staffordshire about a new environmentally responsible social enterprise designed to alleviate fuel poverty and reliance of fossil fuels in the area.

The steamroller of unrest ignited by austerity and widening social inequality that some predicted would come chugging through the streets of England in the midst of the London riots in 2011 never came. What we had had instead was a series of low key protest marches that went by largely ignored by media giants who didn’t want to write another story about people marching through London (or to London) on a noble quest to no avail. In an article for TLE earlier this summer, I wrote about the factious nature of Britain’s left-wing and its anodyne protests marches: another loud speech from Owen Jones here, a truism from Diane Abbot there, fourteen different brands of socialism selling its t-shirts and peddling leaflets – little discernable social change ensued.

I argued that protests of this kind achieve very little, and that view is shared by a growing number of green and ecological activists in the UK who are turning to positive community action and innovation to create measurable social change. I recently interviewed a friend of mine who is involved in just such a project near Stoke-On-Trent, one of England’s most economically deprived and neglected areas. Carl Brindley is part of Staffordshire Environmental Energy Networks (SEEN), a new social enterprise manufacturing carbon neutral pellet for biomass heating systems. Over a pint of ale in our favourite local pub, I asked Carl what his thoughts were on the austerity march in June:

“You get 50,000 people turning up to protest, but nobody actually doing anything about anything…expecting the people who clearly don’t understand the issues you are protesting over to listen, because you make a loud noise is simply shifting responsibility. If each one of those people were there for four hours, that’s 200,000 hours of community work. If Russell Brand made himself CEO of the World Change Company and got 50,000 people to sign up to something meaningful, he actually could change the world.”

He made the point that if the march against austerity cost each person £20 to attend (travel, food etc) then the protest itself cost approximately £1 million. Putting it in these terms might seem cynical, however he does make a good point about they way in which power responds to protest:

“This has been done to death, protesting about the system. The people at the top don’t do anything; they can completely ignore it all and carry on with their lives while the people who protest have to go back to managing their lives.”

According to Oxfam, one in five people in the UK live below the poverty line. Over 20 million meals were distributed to people living in food poverty in the UK in 2013/14. The Energy Bill Revolution – which calls on the Government “to use the money it gets from carbon taxes to make homes more efficient” – estimated that at the start of 2014 there were more than 2 million children in England alone living in fuel poverty, a figure backed up elsewhere. These numbers are incomprehensibly, offensively large.

According to Carl, SEEN aims to reduce reliance on fossil fuels for energy consumption in local businesses and homes. The group has taken pieces of old machinery and readied them for production; they will then take waste wood produced by tree surgeons (meaning it is sustainably sourced) and give the surgeons a better price for the waste than they would otherwise get. The tree waste goes through the machine and comes out as pellets which can then be supplied to biomass boilers (which need to be installed) and burned for heating.

The energy is cheaper to produce than gas and SEEN’s aim is to install the boilers in premises, and home owners will be able to sign contracts making monthly payments for wood pellets. Waste wood that doesn’t make it through the machines can be turned into gas to power their production line. I ask Carl what impact he believes an enterprise like this can have:

“I think we’re a few months to a year away from supplying boilers commercially, but eventually we’re hoping to service a few hundred homes – we’ve spoken to landlords about what we’re doing, fuel efficiency is a big concern and people are interested when we talk about the project. SEEN is hoping to service a 20 mile radius around Stoke, with the ambition to have a measurable positive impact on fuel poverty in the Stoke area.”

I challenge my friend that this is just another business, an innovative and more ecologically responsible business for sure, but a profiteering enterprise nonetheless. “We’re in this to change the world” he replies. “One of us has re-mortgaged their property to invest in this, while people have been working for us for nothing we believe in it that much. It’s a social experiment and we’ll control our own means of production, paying any new staff we do take on a living wage’. What about the competition, I ask? “We want to see other people doing this…we want to demonstrate corporate social responsibility, we want energy independence and security – the objective is to reduce reliance on fuels, not profits”.

At the time of writing, SEEN is almost ready to begin production for sale and distribution, the enterprise is almost ready to go. I ask Carl what his motivation is personally, he answers rather as I hoped he would:

“This kind of thing is disruptive; we want to disrupt the conventional corporate way of doing things. We’re a group of individuals frustrated by the lack of change in society, the lack of uptake.”

He argues that we need to drive social change ourselves, and not wait for Westminster to deliver the next round of its anaemic brand of stasis disguised as change. Public perceptions of the political establishment are critically low, the appetite for conventional party government as a cure for social problems has dissipated – particularly amongst the young.

At SEEN, Carl works closely with the founders of the North Staffordshire Green Party, “we’re political people” he says, “but more importantly, we’re activists – why talk about something when you can do something to solve the problem?” The social problems we face in the UK demand greater action and investment (of time as much as money) from its citizens. We can’t wait for the system to change; we have to change the system.

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