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October 21, 2009

Arrochar and Tarbet – village champions

Congratulations to the community of Arrochar and Tarbet for being crowned Scotland’s Calor Gas Village of the Year.  To mark the 10th anniversary of the competition, Calor commissioned the country’s leading sustainable development consultancy – Forum for the Future -  to visualise what village life might look like in 2016

Village of the Year, Village of the Future
Little Greenham

As the prestigious award celebrates its 20th anniversary, Little Greenham, this year entering the competition for the first time, wins €50,000.

To the unsuspecting visitor, Little Greenham might not look like much. It’s not the prettiest village in the shire, with a major road running right through it. The village has built a large housing estate and a wind farm in the past decade and there are plans afoot for even more new homes. But this village of 2,500 people – up from 1,900 just 10 years ago – has beaten national competition to come first in the Calor Village of the Year Award, 2016.

Little Greenham
Fact File
Population 2,500
Annual CO2/head zero
Cars per household 0.7
Local food consumed 52%

Competition judges are  looking for more than thatched cottages and tidy rose beds. “We’re interested in communities that have worked together to overcome the challenges of rural life”, says judge Jeremy Taggart. “Villages where people feel they belong, where there is a sense of direction for the village, and an ambition for where it could be in 10 or 20 years time.” Little Greenham has that in spades. The village has been at the centre of a whirlwind of change in the past decade, and it’s been vital to cultivate a sense of identity. “People are proud to come from Little Greenham,” says villager Darren Andrew, 14, sporting a “Little Greenhammer” t-shirt left over from the last village festival.
Mavis Butcher, 81, a resident at the recently renovated elderly care home, says this is down to the hard work of the parish council, which has taken full advantage of the new powers made available to parishes back in the two-thousands. So, how has Little Greenham done it? One reason is that the village is so forwardlooking. “We’ve got a vision, written down, of where we want to be in 20 years’ time. It took ages to put together and practically everyone in the entire place was involved in one way or another”, says resident Thom Lazzier.
The vision is featured on the interactive touch-screen noticeboard next to the bus stop, as well as online. The competition encourages forward-looking vision, this is one of the set criteria for judging villages. Other criteria include participation, business opportunity and sustainability. Little Greenham was one of 3,000 villages that entered the competition this year – three times the number in 2006 – and won the county prize before being put forward to the national competition.

The Toad Show
In their report on Little Greenham, the judges drew particular attention to the Toad Show, a festival which originated as a sausagemaking competition (‘toad’ is a local name for sausages). The festival died out in the mid-twentieth century, but the parish council revived it in 2012, and it is now thriving. “Twenty-thousand people came to last year’s Toad Show over three days,” says festival organiser Amy Birtwhistle. “Of course it’s about much more than sausages. There’s a funfair, music and a great deal of lovely, locally produced food.” According to Mrs. Birtwhistle, the festival has put Little Greenham on the map and attracts visitors from across the region. It has also helped to revive some of Little Greenham’s traditional food production. A five acre field has been set aside by a local arable farmer to grow vegetables for the show and for the village.

Villagers pay an annual subscription which gives them an unlimited amount of vegetables for their own consumption. Thirty families are now self-sufficient in potatoes, carrots, cauliflowers and onions. Because of the Toad Show and the vegetable field, the village is well on the way to attaining the Government’s goal for British villages to be 60 per cent self sufficient in food. But a few years ago the picture was not so rosy. “Toads go back a long way at Little Greenham. The only pub in the village is ‘The Toad and Turbine’ and the old manor house, now an elderly care home, is still sometimes known as Toad Hall”, explains local butcher Liz Burley, 49.

But her butchers shop closed in 2007, and she remained unemployed until the Toad Show was revived. “In that year, I signed a deal with the main pig farmer to be the exclusive sausage maker using the Little Greenham pig breed”, says Burley. The business is now thriving: sausages are sold at the farmers’ market that tours local villages and towns, as well as over the internet, and are delivered to people around the county as part of a local organic box scheme. Price €4.50

Local opportunities
Liz Burley’s business has been helped along the way by an innovative project to support small businesses, called the Little Greenham Share Scheme. Shares of a new company are sold and shareholders receive dividends not in money but, in the case of Burley’s Butchers, in sausages. The scheme has given villagers – and nonvillagers too – a stake in the success of a local venture. It also encourages villagers to buy more sausages and to promote them among their friends and family. For Liz Burley and John Donald, the pig farmer she works with, the scheme has made all the difference.

Money from selling shares was supplemented with a grant from the parish council. John Donald, 42, says, “a few years ago, I was in serious debt and on the verge of either losing my farm, or taking European funds to grow biofuels. I wanted to stay growing food on my farm. Because of the festival, the share scheme and Burley’s sausages, I could.” The same scheme has been used by others. For example, Jenny Martin has set up an energy microgeneration consultancy advising on how homes and small businesses can reduce their energy use. Shareholders receive discounted advice on their energy use and have first refusal on buying cheap, locally-produced energy.

Changing faces
Little Greenham’s proximity to Big City has presented the village with some of its greatest challenges. The regional spatial plan earmarked Little Greenham as a ‘growth village’ and since then building work has been virtually non-stop. One large housing estate has gone up, and another is on the way. The parish council approved the first development of 300 houses, but using new powers insisted that 40 per cent of the new homes were affordable and made available to local residents first. The council also ensured that the houses were completed to the highest possible environmental standards, so that average CO2 emissions per head in the village didn’t increase. The second, much larger development was opposed by the council, but driven through anyway.

Councillor Pam Isleworth, 39, says, “we just felt it was too much, too quickly. We needed time to adjust to the changes.” But once the new estate looked inevitable, the community decided to welcome the new homes as an opportunity. Councillor Isleworth again, “we just knuckled down and made the best of it. Little Greenham won’t be so little anymore, but we have no regrets.” The village runs regular ‘new faces’ evenings at the village hall, and every new arrival receives a ‘Welcome to Little Greenham’ pack “not just stuffed through the letter box but delivered by hand by a neighbour.” The welcome pack includes a Little Greenham smart card, used for discounts with buses and taxis, and to register CO2 emissions and the amount of food being bought from local sources. Real efforts are made to include everyone in decisions that affect the village, with regular opinion polls on local matters. And, as competition judge Jeremy Taggart says, “there’s a combined crèche and oldies club at the village hall to make sure that everyone can participate in village social life. It’s incredibly important to village life that people are included, no matter their age or background.”

Going places
Many of the new Little Greenhammers work in Big City, which normally would be a problem for the village CO2 emissions. But these are kept to a minimum: there’s an electric car pool, managed online, and this has cut car ownership from an average of 1.4 per household in 2006 to 0.7 per household today – much lower than the average for rural areas. For non-drivers, there is a small electric taxi service run by volunteers, taking pensioners and the village youth to Nearby Town and back, free of charge. And then there’s always the train station, eight miles away by bus. In another striking victory for local activism, the station was reopened after literally decades as a little-used warehouse followed by dereliction. A consortium of local villages previously served by the station lobbied the Shire Trains Company, eventually signing a deal in which the consortium guaranteed a certain number of passengers. Put together with match funding from the Regional Development Agency, this is enough for the four-times-aday service to break even.

According to Jerzy Dobavic, 38, manager of the Greenham District Railway Centre, the deal would never have been signed without renewed backing for rail from the Government. But it was the enthusiasm of the village consortium that had most impact, he says: “We had to guarantee that people would use it, and to be honest we weren’t confident we could do that. We had to make sure, and that’s one of the reasons why we combined the railway station with a telecentre, drop-in office and meeting place. Now most weekdays we’re full. A handful of small businesses are based here and many others come just to use our video- 7 conferencing kit – they love it.”

This approach to local transport has been copied by other villages in the area and further afield, whether there’s a train station nearby or not. Telecentres work at bus stations just as well. Even when at work in Big City or elsewhere, Little Greenhammers are never more than the click of a mouse away from their village. Little Greenham II is the online, virtual replica of Little Greenham, where people can meet, catch up, shop, do business or just find out what the village is up to.

Fit for the future
Not only has the village changed, but the world around the village is changing too. Rainfall in the Little Greenham area has been below average every year for the past eight years. In 2010, just 40 per cent of expected rain fell. At the same time, torrential downpours are more common, meaning that less water is absorbed into the ground. The village has had to adapt to near-drought conditions, and to keep gardens growing every single house has a water butt attached to the guttering to collect rainwater for reuse. There is also a new village pond, designed to be as resistant as possible to drought. “Our pond does everything the experts say it should to conserve water.

We’re very proud. It’s deep, is surrounded by bushes and long grass and it’s right in the shade of trees,” says resident Arnie Tibble. The pond attracts a variety of wildlife, especially during dry summers. “Last year, we even spotted a pair of wild beavers – hundred of miles from where beavers were first reintroduced!” Little Greenham has responded vigorously to the challenge of climate change. In 2011, it won an award for going carbon neutral.

This was achieved through a combination of energy efficiency in homes, use of renewable electricity and finally through the purchase of carbon offsets. But today there is no need for offsets: the village is not only self sufficient in energy, but sells electricity back onto the national grid. Councillor Isleworth says “I firmly believe that progressive villages should be showing the way to the nation on adapting to and mitigating climate change. We have the opportunity to be completely selfsufficient in energy, using natural resources such as waste from agriculture.

We wanted to be an example and that’s why we spent so much on the wind farm.” There was oppostion to the wind farm, but now it’s more accepted. Arnie Tibble: “Lots of us were sceptical to say the least about the wind farm. A lot of money for little benefit and a total eyesore. I still don’t think it’s pretty but I agree with most Little Greenhammers now – it makes us feel safe. We own it, we control it and it means we don’t worry so much about getting the energy we need.” Every year the villagers conduct a survey, helped with information from the village smart cards and the Little Greenham II website, to estimate CO2 emissions per person. The survey includes all local businesses and takes into account travel and shopping.

The village hall was renovated in 2012 using national lottery funding. The latest, most efficient solar panels, using nanotechnology, were fitted on the roof and on the south wall, and now the village hall is able to sell energy back onto the national grid. The revenue from this innovative venture, along with money from the wind farm, goes directly into parish coffers, and funds other local environmental activities. One such project was the planting of a village wood, on a scrap of semi-derelict land once occupied by an abattoir. The woodland, two acres in area, is free to access for all, including the pigs of John Donald’s farm, which enjoy the yearly crop of acorns.

Little Greenham is a case study in how villages can adapt to a changing world and still be vibrant, prosperous communities. But this year’s Calor Village of the Year is far from precious about its success. Visits from villages across the county and further afield are common: Little Greenham is spreading the message. And to cap it all, Councillor Isleworth announced today that Little Greenham II, the virtual counterpart to the real village, is now twinned with a similar virtual village, Harapur (meaning Green Village in Hindi) in rural Northern India. As Thom Lazzier says, cradling a pint of beer outside the Toad and Turbine, “it’s not paradise – nowhere is. No force on earth could separate my cousin from his vintage Ford Mondeo! But it is a great place to live. I wasn’t sure at first about entering the Calor Village of the Year award, whether the effort would be worth it, but it’s done us the world of good, it really has. It’s helped bring us together, and realise what we’ve got.”  Which all in all, is quite a lot.