cag history

CAG Oxfordshire (Community Action Groups Oxfordshire) consists of almost 100 groups across the county working at the forefront of community-led climate action, organising events and projects to take action on issues including waste, transport, food, energy, biodiversity and social justice. For its first 18 years, the project was managed by Resource Futures, an independent, ethical, environmental company. Then, in 2019, CAG Oxfordshire became an independent organisation: a 'Community Benefit Society' owned by the member groups of the network.

 

Where it all started

Many community groups start out as an idea shared by a couple of people over a drink in a local pub or café. In Bristol, Resource Futures were exploring how to foster community action at a local level and began a series of local projects to do this, as well as developing a toolkit for others to use.

The idea was one of empowerment, equipping individuals and groups demonstrating passion and commitment to build more sustainable communities with the tools, skills and know-how to be more impactful. Through dedicated support in a specific region, the aim was to help promote local sustainable behaviours and build more resilient communities vital to tackling waste and responding to the climate emergency.

 

“I wanted to start something that explored how to foster that community action at a local level, and we were successful initially in getting government funding and it was called “waste reduction in the community”.

Jane Stephenson, Chair, Resource Futures

 

 

Developing the model

In Oxfordshire, a very forward-thinking waste manager took a waste truck and dumped the contents in the high street to get people talking about waste. From there, the Community Action Groups (CAG) Oxfordshire Project was started.

 

With funding from Trust for Oxfordshire’s Environment (TOE) to help kick-start local environmental projects, the network got off the ground in 2001.

In 2004, Oxfordshire County Council became the network’s main funder with an Oxfordshire-based team from Resource Futures running the project. 

The focus was initially on waste management and reduction, with organisations working to reduce plastic use, reuse, recycle, and educate the public.  As the years went on, the project began to diversify, and over time a broader environmental and social framework came to the fore. 

As time went on, we began a push to bring social enterprises into the network, and to support existing groups to look at becoming social enterprises. This was partly to diversify the network, but also to move away from a reliance on grant funding, and to support groups to recognise the value in the work they were doing. From having no trading CAGs in the network in the early days, we now have 20 social enterprises as members and are an eScalate Enterprise Support Hub providing support for enterprising charities, social enterprises, purposeful businesses and social entrepreneurs through workshops, events and peer to peer groups.

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Spreading the word

Recognising that we needed a voice that went beyond the network, and that we needed to get others involved, we began to publish an e-newsletter to provide consistent messaging to climate organisations, partners and funders across the county.

“So many people were interested in what we were doing the staff team could have spent half their time just responding to requests for information from other councils and organisations all wanting to know how we were funded and how Oxfordshire had become such an exemplar of community action.”

Peter Lefort, CAG Oxfordshire [2011-2015]

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The newsletter helped to formally acknowledge the human element of the network, that being part of something bigger and the resilience that that brings is very important. In September 2011 we launched the first edition of The Key, Oxfordshire’s sustainability newsletter. It is still going strong with the mailing list growing all the time. This month, August 2021, we’re on edition 245.

As the network grew in numbers, we realised we needed an additional source of information for member groups and established a second newsletter, the Network Update (NU). The NU goes out fortnightly to all our member groups and includes news from across the network and our collaborate groups, as well as information on opportunities and resources, training and workshops. 

 

Quantifying the network’s impact

In order to demonstrate the value of the network and gauge its impact, CAG worked with Resource Futures to develop an impact modelling tool specifically for community-based networks. Funding for this was secured in 2013 and the Community Impact Modelling Tool was rolled out in 2014.

The resulting Resource CIT was developed to calculate the impact of what CAGs were doing, and to quantify the return on investment for funders. It also helped to make sense of what the network should look like and what support was needed.

“Developing Resource CIT shifted the trajectory of the network and opened it up. It allowed it to be less restricted, and not just focus on waste. It was an evolving process and with general growth, the network became stronger, groups became more sustainable, and we saw the first groups start to have part-time paid staff.” 

Peter Lefort, CAG Oxfordshire [2011-2015]

At around this time, the need for efficiency savings meant that funding for the project was threatened and Resource CIT played a leading role in quantifying the value of the network and its impact. Combined with a highly positive campaign to demonstrate the benefits of the network to the county and its communities, and a hugely supportive response from local citizens, funding was secured for its continuation.

“Putting a financial value on work we were doing was very important; it showed value for money and allowed us to secure our funding and broaden our focus which really moved the network on. It brought in people interested in issues other than waste and a younger demographic, which in turn started a movement towards social and climate justice.”

Simon Kenton-Lake, CAG Oxfordshire [2007-2017]

 

Inspiring sustainable behaviour change through community action

As the network evolved and developed, it had increased relevance for community groups. By seeing what was being done elsewhere, more groups were formed and more groups began to collaborate with each other. 

Our first collaborate group was set up with the community gardens in 2014 to see who could work on interlinked projects and learn from each other. By getting people with common goals into a system of sharing skills and expertise, relationships between groups grew organically with less input from the staff team. In turn, this strengthened the network as a whole by enabling collaboration and ensuring more is achieved than if groups worked alone. 

“Our aim was always to create a network with internal resilience that was strong enough to survive even without the presence of support staff. The feeling of being a part of a network and not on your own, that’s hugely important. That sense that you’re not the only one taking action. The collaboration and common purpose foster a sense of solidarity.” 

Simon Kenton-Lake, CAG Oxfordshire [2007-2017]

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“One of the strengths of CAG Oxfordshire is how it offers the space for the evolution of new ideas. The collaborate groups do this really well. Often in community groups everyone is at capacity. It’s hard enough to keep a group going, but there’s real strength in feeling part of something bigger. It builds resilience and helps to navigate uncertainty, which has a huge impact on what happens in a local area and heightens the sense that change is possible. I see the absence of this in a lot of other places.”

Peter Lefort, CAG Oxfordshire [2011-2015]

 

Soon after, we began our Skill Shares and network socials which allowed groups to come together more formally. It was a slow, evolving process but each step brought us closer to our goals. 

In 2007, members from Low Carbon West Oxford got together to address the issues around climate change and flooding in Oxford. In 2011 Low Carbon Oxford North launched ONCORE (Oxford North Community Renewables) and in December of that year, members of both groups came together to form the Low Carbon Hub, early pioneers of community-ownership of energy in the UK who have now grown into a leading national organisation.

 

"The CAG project really does show the power of collective action of everyone coming together for a common cause: to take local action on the global issue of climate change. We’re really pleased to have worked closely with the CAG project and individual low carbon groups over the years.

 

Our work at the Low Carbon Hub grew out of lots of people working hard in their local communities tacking climate change. And now we are so proud to be part-owned by 36 low carbon community groups, from across the county, who are all putting people and communities at the forefront of the drive to create a zero carbon energy system.

 

As we’re entering our 10th year, we continue to work hard to build a better energy system, one that is good for people and the planet. And we’re so pleased to still be working alongside the CAG project."

Dr Barbara Hammond, CEO, Low Carbon Hub.

Another strategic priority at this time was to increase the diversity of the groups themselves, including bringing more groups run by young people (including students and working with Student Hubs) and supporting young people to establish groups, as well as more ethnically diverse communities. This led to a much stronger, more diverse network, and was noticeable at Skill Shares and CAG Socials where it was no longer 'the usual suspects'. The value of different perspectives, skill sets and backgrounds this added to the network was recognised by all the groups.

Our success wasn’t unnoticed, and in 2016, using the CAG Oxfordshire model,  Community Action Groups (CAG) Devon was established to pilot a new way of working in Devon to support communities and individuals to deliver community waste projects.

Positive environmental action

 

CAG Oxfordshire began its new life in a strong position; 2018-2019 has been its most impactful year to date with groups across the network holding over 4,000 events, with 80,000 attendees, and contributing 51,000 volunteer hours (equivalent to 31 full time staff).

In April 2018, the council-funded Replenish Project was established, which aims to tackle the issue of food waste by sending a team of Food Waste Ambassadors to public-facing events in order to provide people with practical tips on how to reduce their food waste and start composting.

Setting out on our own

 

In December 2019, CAG Oxfordshire started a new chapter in our history by stepping out on our own to become a Community Benefit Society. Since then we have operated as an independent and democratically accountable network - cooperatively owned by the groups and social enterprises that are our members. Part of this was a desire for the organisation to be Oxfordshire-based rather than managed by a national organisation.

“There was a strong desire from member groups to see key strategic decisions about the future of our network and the work we do decided by board members that are democratically elected by the groups themselves.” 

Marta Lomza, Chair of CAG Oxfordshire 

Since then, we’ve gone from strength to strength. The network has now got close to 100 members groups and despite the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, 2019-2020 saw the network holding 5,016 events and activities, and generating over £1.3M in funding and income. Over 52 tonnes of food (equivalent to about 52 small cars!) was diverted from waste, going instead to community fridges, larders, and other emergency support schemes to meet the needs of the community through the lockdowns. 

The power of community action at a local level

 

Community action at a local level is something that we’re passionate about. Groups have delivered hundreds of projects over the past 20 years, working with thousands of residents across the county to improve their local community and improve their environment. Some examples of the good work done by Community Action Groups since 2001 across Oxfordshire include:

  • In 2009/10 Low Carbon West Oxford installed solar panels on local industrial units to produce energy for the local community and businesses.

  • In 2011 funding was secured to develop a reuse and sustainable living centre in Bicester – this has become Bicester Green, a place for sharing skills and repairing items that would otherwise have been thrown away.

  • Broken Spoke Bike Coop in Oxford was set up in 2013/14 to provide workshop space, cycling and bicycle mechanics training courses and provide information for those interested in cycling.

  • In 2017/18 Oxford’s SESI developed its detergent refill franchise offer, enabling residents to refill household cleaning products from a large number of locations across the county, dramatically reducing plastic usage.

  •  In 2019 the number of Community fridges in Oxfordshire grew with the launch of Abingdon Community Fridge and Witney Community Fridge, saving food from being wasted and helping local residents.

  • Talking Shop in Sandford-on-Thames has set up a community café and market that supports local food producers, reduces waste, and tackles social isolation. They won a national award from the Plunkett Foundation for this work.

  • Groups across Oxfordshire have run ‘Swap Shops’ for many years, where people can exchange items they no longer need or want. Some years these have saved over 25 tonnes of stuff from going to waste.

  • Sustainable Wantage opened ‘The Mix’ a community space run aiming to provide practical ways to live more sustainably and to bring our local community together. They have run hundreds of educational workshops and are now setting up a ‘library of things’.

  • In 2020, in response to the pandemic, new reuse projects were introduced, notably, laptop repair and giveaway schemes run by Sustainable Wantage and Sustainable Didcot, where a total of 97 old laptops were donated to the groups were refurbished and given to school children who did not have computer access at home for home learning. Additionally, Broken Spoke Bike Coop, Cyclox and Windrush Bike Project were involved in the Bikes for Key Workers scheme, which saw an impressive 1,433 bikes repaired by CAGs and donated to key workers during this period.

 

The positive impact of the network cannot be overestimated. From tree planting and waste and traffic reduction to community growth and improvements to wellbeing, the network demonstrates that a more sustainable way of life is possible, and is already happening.

 

“It has been such a pleasure to see what the dedicated members of the local community can achieve when they come together and focus on what matters to them.”

Jane Stephenson, Chair, Resource Futures

“As the climate and ecological emergencies intensify around us, we also face social injustices in our own communities and widening global inequalities. It's easy to feel overwhelmed and despondent when faced with all of it. But against this backdrop the work of community action groups across Oxfordshire continues to grow and strengthen, and wider movements for change are building. The positive action, imagination and perseverance of the CAG Oxfordshire network is both building a more sustainable future and tackling the immediate challenges we face, like poverty, cold homes, dangerous air pollution. The network gives me hope that we can build an Oxfordshire where all people and our planet can thrive.”

 

Henry Owen, Lead Coordinator, CAG Oxfordshire

 

CAG TIMELINE

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CAG Oxfordshire Infographic created by Freepik