Celebrating 20 years of Oxfordshire’s community action groups

Project earns council a place on climate award shortlist while members mark anniversary with exhibition

For 20 years, Oxfordshire County Council has supported Community Action Group (CAG) Oxfordshire, helping expand a network of grassroots projects to tackle climate change.

There are currently 98 groups in the network – the largest of its kind in the UK – working on low carbon transport, energy, biodiversity, social justice, food and waste, ranging from running repair cafes and community fridges to developing community-owned solar farms. The community engagement that they generate – involving around 80,000 people – is the cornerstone of Oxfordshire’s climate strategy.

Councillor Pete Sudbury, Oxfordshire County Council’s Cabinet Member for Climate Change Delivery and Environment, said: “It must be clear to all of us that climate change is here, and its impacts are accelerating. All of us need to move fast to help make big emissions cuts in this decade. CAGs are a vital springboard for the action we need at grassroots level and we need to expand their numbers, nurture them, and accelerate their growth to make the impact we need across the county.

“The county’s residents are incredibly innovative – by funding and supporting CAG Oxfordshire, the council is helping communities achieve their own climate ambitions and shaping the collective journey to zero carbon and ‘One Planet’ living.”

The success of CAG Oxfordshire recently led to the council reaching the final of the Association for Public Service Excellence awards. It was shortlisted in the Best Climate Action Initiative category.

The council acknowledged the climate emergency in 2019 and published its Climate Action Framework in 2020, committing to reducing its own emissions to net zero by 2030 and creating a thriving, zero carbon Oxfordshire by 2050 – if not sooner.

Solutions for net zero will be increasingly community-based, such as local energy generation, energy-efficient retrofitting and electric vehicle charging – and CAG Oxfordshire encourages bottom-up action on climate and helps residents shape the solutions for their areas.

The Committee on Climate Change, which advises the government on emissions targets and reports to parliament on progress, recognises that more than half of the emission cuts required rely on people and businesses taking up low-carbon solutions. Top-down policies have more impact if they are focused through local knowledge and networks.

The CAG team helps community groups get started, grow and connect. Along with practical advice on structure, governance, funding, and health and safety, the team facilitates networking to encourage peer-to-peer learning and collaboration. Together, CAGs in Oxfordshire run over 5,000 activities per year and contribute more than 50,000 volunteer hours. CAG members are brought together by a shared vision: resilient and empowered Oxfordshire communities working together so that people and the planet can thrive within ecological limits.

In 2001 the CAG project was started to support communities to develop their own local and countywide action on sustainability. It has been a long-term investment to build a culture of sustainable behaviours from the bottom up.

The contract between the council and CAGs reflects the long-term relationship. The agreement is agile enough to be led by the community’s energy and opportunities. It was this responsiveness that allowed the groups to adjust their approach and deliver innovative solutions during the pandemic.

The council’s partnership with CAG has also fostered relationships between the community and council services, including collaborations on funding bids.

The CAG network has continued to grow, adding 13 new members in 2020 – a significant success during the pandemic and a recognition of the benefits CAG delivers for community groups.

During the pandemic, CAGs supported community groups who wanted to respond with initiatives that supported both climate action and communities hit hard by COVID-19. The relationships supported by the network have allowed collaborative projects to flourish. For example:

  • To promote cycling and support key workers to travel to work safely during the pandemic, three member groups in the CAG network collaborated to provide bikes for key workers. More than 300 bikes were serviced and repaired by volunteers before being donated to key workers.
  • In response to the national lockdown in March 2020, seven community groups running community fridges and food-related activities made thousands of deliveries of meals and surplus food parcels to ensure the vulnerable, shielding and self-isolating had secure food supplies. In the first 10 weeks of the crisis, 6,400 deliveries of over 36,000kg of surplus food were made, involving over 200 volunteers.

To mark the 20th anniversary, members of CAG Oxfordshire are putting on a free exhibition entitled ‘From the Ground Up: Stories of Climate Action’ at the Old Fire Station in George Street, Oxford, until 9 October.

It features 20 stories from the groups, including avant-garde musical compositions inspired by the sounds of melting glaciers, a library where you can borrow candy-floss makers, disco balls and bunting rather than books, and art made with inks from oak galls, pottery made from recycled egg cartons and photographs that don’t harm the earth.

Henry Owen, lead coordinator at CAG Oxfordshire said: “The stories in this exhibition show what’s possible when communities take action to tackle the climate crisis. They’re not just building a more sustainable future, but also tackling the immediate challenges we face, like poverty, cold homes, and dangerous air pollution. The news can often be bleak, and these stories are an important reminder that we can achieve a lot when we act with care for each other, and don’t wait for permission to start building a better future.”

In the run-up to the UN Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow in November and incorporating Big Green Week (18 - 26 September) and Recycle Week (20 - 27 September), this exhibition and series of events is an opportunity for Oxfordshire residents to engage with grassroots projects.

The CAG network’s ethos is to make Oxfordshire a safer, fairer, greener, more sustainable place to live, work and visit. They are champions of the ‘circular economy’ – where unwanted items are utilised rather than disposed of – which is how we should aspire to live. They hold repair cafes, workshops and swap shops in the community.

Alongside the exhibition, there will be practical workshops on themes such as natural pigment making, climate conversations and bike repairs as well as repair cafes and poetry nature walks. Full details on the exhibition and events can be found on their website.

The exhibition runs at the Old Fire Station until 9 October (Wednesdays to Saturdays, 10am - 4pm) and admission is free.