Oxfordshire’s Community Action Groups (CAGs) This is a story awaiting its historian, but meanwhile…. Once upon a time in Oxfordshire… a far sighted council, concerned about the increasing quantity of waste, and the increasing cost of collecting and disposing of it, had a plan. The council appointed one relatively low paid officer to work on the issue by setting up local Community Action Groups (CAGs). At that time, in 2001, the county council offered each community action group a one-off sum of £250 (enough to print some leaflets and hire a hall for an initial meeting) and the support of the dedicated council officer. The only stipulation was that one objective of each newly formed CAG should address the issue of waste reduction. In 2004 Resource Futures (https://www.resourcefutures.co.uk/project/communityaction-oxfordshire/) took on the running of the CAG project after the county handed it over to them (and paid a management charge) due to their expertise in the area of community engagement in waste reduction.
So when did all this start? What drove the success of a scheme which 20 years later has generated spinoffs worth many millions of pounds? The first Oxfordshire CAGs, with names such as ‘X Environmental group’, were indeed concerned to reduce waste. The CAGs set up swap shops, organised Christmas tree shredding events and litter picks, They also laid on activities such a compost making courses, apple juicing opportunities and tree planting. They involved children, families and schools. And, for the council, they duly totted up annual estimates of how much weight of material they had collected which would otherwise have gone out in household rubbish bins/landfill. But none of that generated millions of pounds. Something else was powering change - something going back a couple of generations.
Today’s eighty year olds remember a different world - WW2 and the rationing which long outlasted it. Even in small gardens, people grew vegetables and fruit trees. Out door privies, cesspits, compost heaps, bonfires and clotheslines were the stuff of their childhoods. And allotments. Some, of their parents in the 40’s and 50’s, had heard about ‘no dig gardening’ and adopted it with enthusiasm, the older and more rheumatic they became. And then in 1962 came the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, followed, after a long interval, by the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the Seattle WTO conference in 1999 and the Copenhagen COP in 2009. These all sounded the alarm across the world of the wide range of issues, economic, social justice, and above all, environmental, which taken together, now constitute the Climate and Ecological Emergency. COP 2009 turned out to be a game changer. The failure of the world leaders assembled that year in Copenhagen, to agree on what needed to be done, even with pressure from thousands of ordinary citizen climate activists gathered there from across the world, sent those activists home, clear that nothing would change unless they turned to their own local communities for help. The realisation that top down government would not act to avert runaway climate change was devastating. Activists realised action would have to come, bottom up, from the people. It was sheerdesperation that sent them home to galvanise their families and neighbours.
This back story is important in understanding the account below, from the Oxfordshire CAGs website: ‘Community Action Groups (CAG) Oxfordshire consists of over 80 groups across Oxfordshire who are at the forefront of community-led climate change action, organising events and projects to take action on issues including waste, transport, food, energy, biodiversity and social justice. Started in 2001, the network is the largest of its kind in the UK, running over 4,000 events per year, attended by around 80,000 local residents and contributing over 50,000 volunteer hours to the county.’ (https://cagoxfordshire.org.uk/ )
In the period between 2001 and 2009 the focus, in Oxfordshire, remained waste/recycling. But post 2009 saw the expansion of the number of local Oxfordshire CAGs with a range of new, more specific, names - such as ’Low Carbon X’ . The change of focus boosted CAG activity - and income. Groups now offered, along with the continued interest in recycling/waste reduction, advice on measuring and reducing personal and community carbon footprint. Some CAGs, in more affluent areas, were able to encourage individual members to spend their own money on insulation, and various forms of energy generation such as solar panels and ground heat source pumps; CAG members committed to using their cars less and to travel by train not plane. They made dietary changes, away from meat and dairy. They supported local veg. box schemes and set up Farmer’s Markets. And they talked to their neighbours.
By the time of the 2015 Paris CoP, the CAG movement in Oxfordshire had fully established its credentials as a successful strategy to promote ‘low carbon’ community action of all sorts, increasingly with the support of district and county councils. The CAG movement in Oxfordshire spawned the highly successful Low Carbon Hub, which has just extended its ’target to reach £2.5 million of new investment by 31 March 2021’ (lowcarbonhub.org). And as a bonus, lest we forget the original objective of the CAG movement, Oxfordshire today has the best record for waste reduction and recycling of any council in the country. This is real ’people power’ working with local councils.
But better still, the movement described here in relation to Oxfordshire, is an established national movement in towns, cities and villages across the UK and dates from a similar period. Totnes Transition Town, for example, was launched in 2006 (transitiontowntotnes.org) - three years ahead of the infamous Copenhagen COP 2009. Across the country, local communities are taking control of the agenda to respond to the climate and ecological emergency. The story of the Oxfordshire CAGs can stand for many of them: a gripping story of achievement, hope, and the power of ordinary people to create the future they want to see. Postscript Having shared the draft of this account with one or two people who were involved with the Oxfordshire CAG movement from its earliest days, it is clear that there is enough available information available to interest a local historian. For further information please contact firstname.lastname@example.org