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Archives for January 2011

Green capital: can Bristol's eco-warriors finance the Big Society?

Dave Harvey | 08:00 UK time, Sunday, 30 January 2011

Veg box at The Community Farm

"This is an invitation to invest in a very unusual project. The returns are social, rather than financial."

Phil Haughton is making the pitch of his life. In the boardroom at Bristol's biggest investment house, Hargreaves Lansdown, he's trying to sell shares in a community-run organic farm.

"This is a chance for business to contribute to a project that will benefit the whole of society."

The city wizards listen attentively, and politely. I can only guess what they're thinking.

They look after £19.9 bn of people's money, and their job is simple. To make it grow. Saving the planet or feeding Chew Magna is not in the brochure.

But the share offer has done astonishingly well. It closes at midnight on Monday 31 Jan, and with two days to go, they already have £62,250 in the bank and another £22,750 pledged.

This is a "community benefit society", and if Mr Cameron's 'Big Society' is to mean anything, we should expect a lot more of them soon.

Working on The Community Farm, Chew Valley, Somerset

The idea is simple, but radical. Raise £100,000 from small investors. With it, buy an existing, profitable organic veg box scheme and the kit to farm the land. Then the Community Farm, as they call it, will grow veg for up to a thousand households. Any profits go back into the farm, and support an education centre.

"We've already had hundreds of people investing £50 or £100," Mr Haughton explains.

But why the need for an army of small investors, rather than a bank loan or city finance?

"We're trying to re-connect people with the land and how their food is produced," explains Mr Haughton's partner, Luke Hasell. He owns the land, which will be rented to the new business. "We hope the Community Farm will become a model for a new way of agriculture."

It's been described as the agricultural revolution in reverse.

Take a big farm, and share it out amongst the people who live around it. Have everyone come and help with the sowing and the harvest.

And for it to succeed, Bristol's eco-warriors must put their money where their mouths are.

For years now we've heard complaints about food miles, about global farming hurting the poor and cooking the planet. Campaigns against supermarkets are always popular in the west country. But until now, no-one has asked the green campaigners to invest their own cash in an alternative.

Nick Schofield

"I think it's a great opportunity, I really want to help this thing fly." Nick Schofield has put his money on the table. A retired teacher, I meet him out on the farm, pulling kale stalks out ready for the new season planting. Is this, I ask him, really an investment? Or is it actually a charitable donation?

"It's an investment, for sure. We need to get this off the ground, and it's a lovely thing, to grow veggies locally and get everyone involved."

The army of volunteers will help solve a practical problem. Growing a wide range of veg to fill a box scheme is hard, on a small farm. You either need lots of expensive kit, or lots of labour. Bringing people back on the land is not only revolutionary, it's also cost-effective. But there is more to it than that.

"Working with people breaks down all those barriers," explains Phil Haughton. "We're engaging a huge diversity of people here. People are hungry for a change now, they can see the world is broken, food security is a massive concern. Just this week the UN warned that we may not be able to feed ourselves in 30 years. This is one little project that says, here's another way of doing things."

So, were the money men at Hargreaves Lansdown convinced? They hear a dozen pitches a day in the boardroom, but they've never heard a sell like this one.

"I'm not sure this is really an investment," says Ben Yearsley, Head of Investor Relations. "You might like the local production, the whole food supply thing, but that's a different argument. I don't see where the returns are."

Mark Dampier, the firm's head of research, takes a slightly different view. "I think it's a good idea, but I'm unhappy with this phrase 'not for profit'. It suggests profit is a dirty word, and it's not. I don't see why you shouldn't run a good company, sell me healthy fresh veg, and make a profit. If I invest, I want to see a return."

If the conventional funds won't back schemes like this, they must rely on alternatives. Already one ethical fund has committed £19,000 to the farm.

Across Bristol, the networks are buzzing as the deadline looms.

Will Bristol's eco-warriors back the farm? Come back here for updates from Tuesday morning.... or read more on their site here.

What do you think of alternative finance like this? Would you invest your own money in a social enterprise, where the aims are to make a better world, not a bigger dividend?
Update Tues 1 Feb 08:00
The farm has now signed up over 200 investors and reached £96,000. It's thought this is the largest single amount of capital raised in a share offer for a community agriculture project. The board has also extended the deadline for new investors, which they are allowed to do under the rules. It is now open until Feb 10.

Can Bristol weather the storm? Go figure...

Dave Harvey | 18:10 UK time, Sunday, 23 January 2011

Sometimes a number tells a story. As Bristolians wonder what 2011 has in store for them, some number-crunchers may have a story to tell.


It’s not a bad story. In fact, parts of it make quite cheery reading for Bristolians, at least in comparison to other cities round the country. 

The storytellers work for an outfit for the Centre for Cities. They take all the numbers produced by Britain’s ten biggest cities, and crunch them to death.  

In words, they say things like this:

“Cities such as Bristol and Edinburgh are well positioned … to build on their diverse industrial base and high skills levels…”.

But I prefer the numbers.

Numbers like 74.2, 17 and 32.4

There, I knew that would get the pulses racing. 

What story do these numbers tell?  

74.2 is the percentage of Bristolians, of working age, in work.  

We often talk about unemployment numbers, but it is working people who will bring the UK out of prosperity. And when the Centre for Cities drew up a table, guess who’s at the top of it?

 

 

Rates of Employment in UKs biggest 10 cities outside London, from Centre for Cities

 

This is a table on which you want to be at the top.

Here's one where you want to  be firmly towards the bottom.

It shows how much cash in a city comes from welfare.



 

Welfare spending in Britain's top ten cities

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

17 is Bristol's second special number. You can find it second from bottom in this table. Only Edinburgh gets less of its cash as a welfare handout.

Some of these numbers are jaw-dropping. Did you realise a quarter of Merseyside’s total income started out as a benefit cheque? Astonishing. 

Clearly, with benefits being squeezed, cities that draw more cash from welfare will be squeezed too. So Bristol has a little more insulation. Its shopkeepers and hairdressers can relax just a little, knowing that fewer of their customers depend on benefits.

So much for two numbers. Bristol has more people working, and fewer claiming.

Are you asking why yet? 

The answer, in a number, is 32.2

What on earth is that? It’s the percentage of Bristolians with high level qualifications ( NVQ 4 or above).

In Birmingham that number is 22.4%.  In Gloucester, it is even lower – just 18.8%.

 The A400M Wing Assembly Facility, at FiltonIt means more people work in places like this, Filton's aircraft factory, than in many other cities. And so they are better paid. And their businesses are more likely to grow, less likely to be beaten just on price.

So, Bristolians are better educated, more likely to be in work, and less dependent on welfare.

In words, the Centre for Cities puts it like this.

 “Buoyant cities like Leeds and Bristol, which have been fast-growing and have lots of private sector jobs, are best placed to lead the UK’s recovery.”

Stories with words often have a twist at the end. So here’s a number twist.

3,100

That’s the number of jobs likely to go in Newport, just across the water, as public sector cuts take effect. The calculation was done by clever chaps at the Office of National Statistics, based in, erm, Newport.  1,700 people work there, and they face a 50% cut themselves.

So they should know.

Scrambling to survive: Egg Farmers caught by new Euro rules

Dave Harvey | 15:55 UK time, Monday, 10 January 2011

 

 

Caged hens at a Somerset farm

 

Does this look cruel to you?

Four hens to a small cage, standing all their lives. For many, battery hens became the first battle of the ethical food war. But for Pete Wood, who runs this small family egg farm in the Chew Valley, it was a case of ignorant townies missing the point.

“I think Free Range Eggs won’t last,” he tells me. “They’ll fall victim to disease, just like they did in the 60s. That’s how the cages came in; you put the birds in cages, the disease disappears overnight.”

A caged bird, in other words, is a safe bird. Safe from all but two of her pecking companions, safe from foxes, most of all safe from diseases like red mite which can run through a free range flock like wildfire.

“But but but but!” I can hear you shouting at your computer.

“They can’t flap!”
“They can’t scratch!”
“They have to stand on sloping chicken wire all their lives!”
It could be the cry of any hen lover, free range farmer or just casual fan of Aardman’s Chicken Run movie. In fact, these are the words of Joyce D’Silva, a campaigner with Compassion in World Farming.

It’s an argument that’s already run for 25 years, and shows no sign of stopping.
But Pete Wood, and thousands of egg farmers in the West Country and beyond, have lost.

Next year, his cages will be illegal. Across Europe, conventional cages will be banned from Jan 1 2012.

Not that this will see every bird running free across the Chew Valley or the Mendips or the Cotswolds. No, there are new cages, licenced by Europe. They have much more space, take 60 birds each, and have creature comforts.

New
Perches.
Nestboxes, like this one in the picture.
Even plastic scratching areas.

But they’re expensive. Pete Wood has been quoted £250,000 for one henhouse. He has four, and his farm is small. One egg man I spoke to in North Dorset has shelled out £10m for his “enriched colony”.

So what? I hear you cry. It’s the price of progress, and when bearbaiting was outlawed, people lost work.

What really irks farmers like Mr Wood is the belief that other European nations won’t be as law-abiding as the UK. Already France and Spain have asked for a ‘derogation’ for two years. Animal welfare experts believe inspection will be light. And eggs from these hens will compete with Mr Wood’s eggs in the British market.

So far, it’s the usual story of British farmers having to follow new Euro laws to the letter, while their Mediterranean competitors shrug them off.

But there’s more to eggs than, erm, eggs.

A quarter of the eggs we ate last year, some 2.6 billion eggs, went into processing.
Cakes, meringues, sponges, mayonnaise, dips; think about it, eggs are everywhere.

Another third, over three billion eggs, were eaten in restaurants, cafes, and B&Bs. When you last stopped for an egg and bacon roll, or woke up to the full English on a weekend away, did you ask for free range?

If Mr Wood is right, the Great British Breakfast might soon feature Spanish eggs alongside the Danish bacon.

Free range hens in Somerset

Understandably, many farmers are now ditching cages altogether. Down the road near Wincanton, I meet Dan Wood, who has decided to go 100% free range.

“That’s the way our market is going,” he explains to me, “more and more shops want local, free range eggs they can trust. So that’s what we’ll do; we’re businessmen in the end, and free range provides a clear market to work in.”

It’s a familiar story. Go upmarket, sell quality free range eggs to the local, independent shops and farmers can stay ahead. But if they try and play the global market, Britain’s increasing welfare standards may price them out altogether.

 

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