New beginnings – a personal account of organising a Transition Roadshow

I’ve been meaning to get back into the habit … no, not the habit: the discipline … of writing up my adventures on this blog.  We hosted the 4th National Transition Roadshow a few weeks ago, and if that doesn’t deserve an honest, down-to-earth write up, I don’t know what does.

The Roadshow was probably the main thing I could have been writing about over the past few months, on top of solar panels on Ashlyns School roof and the end of my tenure as leader of Transition Town Berkhamsted.  I could have filled pages writing about BP and Shell publicly calling for a price on carbon emission, the G7 committing to phase out all carbon emissions by the end of the century and the growing movement to divest funds away from the fossil fuel industry.

Roadshow mapBut it’s the Roadshow that’s getting the star treatment.  Transition Network is the charity that grew out of the first Transition Town, in Totnes, that takes an overview of all things Transition (communities getting on with the job of moving off fossil fuels, basically).  A little less than a year ago, I was sitting next to my life-dominating computer when I had one of those mild panic moments I get when your distracted brain raises a little hand and reminds you about a deadline you’d been determined to forget.  I had been in touch with the local Transition Towns about an opportunity to apply to host one of the three Roadshows they planned instead of the usual single annual conference.  Of course, while there had been general interest, no-one had put their head above the parapet.  Haddenham had, I only found out later.

Deadline an hour away and no time to cast about for thoughts, I got to work and cobbled together a last minute application.  At least I’d done it.

A week or two later, I was taking a break over a cup of tea.  I got a phone call from Amber of Transition Network to let me know they had chosen our application.  We were to host a national Roadshow.  Yeah.  Gulp.

We were chosen for two main reasons – we had an established network of local Transition groups, and we had plenty of experience of running reasonably large events.  Both certainly made the job easier.

We wasted (a) little time in getting a meeting organised with people from the local Transition Towns, and the debate started as to where we would host the Roadshow, what it would contain, when and so on.  We only got mired in the trap of endless circular ramblings that consensus decision making can bring for a couple of hours.  After a few conversational laps we settling on holding the Roadshow on 19 April in Berkhamsted, sandwiched between eco fairs in Milton Keynes and Tring.

We tried to keep the number of meetings down, so people didn’t need to give up too many chunks of their weekends travelling around Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire.  A lot of cake got eaten and tea drunk.  Eventually, we settled into a pattern where we in Berkhamsted did a big chunk of the organising, with particular assistance from nearby Tring on publicity, and the other Transition Towns pitching in with volunteering on the day and running workshops.

Chatting in the eveningThe experience of running similar, if slightly smaller, events in the past helped keep me calm as the big day approached.  I could have panicked that ticket sales didn’t look great, but knew that people often book late or turn up on the day.  OK, I did panic just a tad.  We could have got into a stew about all of the little things that needed organising, but knew most of what needed to be done and just got on with it.  Certainly helped a lot on that score that the lovely and brilliant Emma Norrington ran around like a highly organised chicken with head fully intact and got things done.  It was a drain on time during lunches and evenings for us.

Given that, when the day came, I was expecting to feel a great relief at the end of the day, a kind of end of term moment.  The night before we had gone out for a meal with the founding fathers and leading lights of the Transition movement, and then I’d stayed up quite late with co-founder Ben Brangwyn printing programmes and maps.  So on the day, after the relief of seeing people starting to flood in a little after the official start time, I hit a bit of a wall of fatigue.

The most thought-provoking and action-inducing workshop for me was on something called REconomy, which means enabling and starting-up businesses and social ventures that are financially viable, don’t rely on volunteers, deliver real social benefit and reduce carbon emissions.  It also discussed how money leaks out of a local economy via national chains, so it was a little ironic after the workshop when I collapsed into Costa for a bite to eat and a refreshing drink.

The rest of the day was a bit of a blur, as the workshops continued into the afternoon, and we made our way up the hill in Berkhamsted to the Centenary Theatre for the evening’s entertainment.  I was again hungry when we got there, but by the time I had walked to the town centre and back to get some cash, the food ran out.  I found out later that because of an over-order for the last event, we had adjusted requirements down.  Trouble was, so did the caterer.  And then they had to run off to hospital due to a family emergency, and we were stuck ordering Papa John’s pizzas.

All that was left was then to listen to the figurehead of the movement, Rob Hopkins, relay stories of the frankly jealousy provoking amazing projects and achievements that other Transition Towns have managed, where people actually get paid for doing this work, and then to be entertained by the rambling humorous poetry of Matt Harvey.  Oh, and I sat on a panel to answer questions from the audience, a task of which I felt I made a complete Horlicks.

At the end of it all, I didn’t feel the expected elation.  No, I was deflated.  Although we did have a reasonably good turn-out of people from all over the area, from London to Ipswich, and certainly weren’t out of pocket, not many people from outside of the Transition group came from Berkhamsted.  I had been to council meetings, Rotary club, Chamber of Commerce networking events, but few new people came along to find out what we were all about.

That feeling of disappointment abated over time, as I started to receive thanks and congratulations from those who did come along.  Evidently, the day had been a success from their perspective.  And then a few more newbies turned up to our monthly social, which happened to be our AGM.  Then there was the inspiration and example of REconomy, which has given our group new direction.  We can set ourselves up in such a way that people can be employed to help take Transition forward, and by building on socially and environmentally responsible enterprise we can start to have a real impact.

Thank you to both Emmas, Philipa, Anna, Bridget, Christine, Barr, Michael, Vicky, all the Johns, Peter, Jeremy, Claire, Madela, Sarah, Samantha, Wendy, Leslie, Sue, a smattering of Pauls, Bruce, Denis, Rob, Michael (the other one), Amber, Ben, Hilarie, MK Christian Foundation, Karen, Richard, Greg and Lindsey for all your support, time, enthusiasm and general help in organising the Roadshow.  It would have been rubbish without you.

Less work means more

Funny how life works out, isn’t it?  The business is going through a lull, resulting in more time for organising a workshop for Global Power Shift, getting the next steps on the B-Hive sorted, developing an idea for tackling misinformation in the press and moving to a farm…

An email went round in my business circles recently, stating that the Department for Transport had identified a potential problem with the software I have specialised in.  I felt a little down for a few days, as the work dried up, but realised what an opportunity had opened up.  I now have a few weeks of time on my hands to devote to the other aspects of my life.  The opportunities for the climate change work are opening up.  Glad to have more than one iron in the egg basket.

The disparate group of young activists involved in the UK team of the Global Power Shift are starting to get organised, and I’m giving as much support as I can.  Would you believe I am almost the grandad of the group.  I am helping organise a weekend away to allow them to spend a decent amount of time together to develop the general direction of opening up the climate change movement to a more diverse and non-traditional cross-section of people in the UK and to sort out their own governance.

The date for this weekend is 26/27 October, which coincides nicely with a trip to Wales to see my folks.  We’ll be taking the kids to a Halloween party at the Leisure Centre my mother is running in her retirement.

With Transition Town Berkhamsted, we’re starting a series of talks called the Ashlyns Lectures.  They will be one per school term at the local secondary school.  We had comedian Mark Stevenson lined up for 5 Feb, but then had the opportunity for Polly Higgins to come in during late Jan, which seemed a pity as it would be too close to Mark’s talk.  But as luck would have it, Mark had to postpone, which opened up the door for Polly.  The real coincidence was that Mark suggested a revised date for his talk, which happened to be the already-booked provisional date for the third Ashlyns Lecture on 21 May.  Thank you Mr Fate, whoever you are.

You may have noticed that climate change is getting more press recently, in the run up to the release of the 5th IPCC report on 27 Sept.

Don't let them do it to you

Don’t let them do it to you

  This has led to a spate of factually inaccurate, misleading and biased articles appearing in the primarily Murdoch-run papers and news channels.  We shouldn’t allow this propaganda to get out there unchallenged.  While jogging in the woods it came to me that we could set up an easy mechanism for people to make official complaints about these articles, based on the science.  It’s early days, but conversations with John Cook at Skeptical Science, Avaaz, The Tree, Friends of the Earth International and The Climate Reality Project seem to be going somewhere fast.  Watch this space.

The lull has also offered me the chance to organise the next steps on the B-Hive town consultation I have been involved with.  The architects are meeting tonight to pull together the ideas of the townspeople.  I’m also setting up a meeting of all of the Transition Towns in the area to get ourselves organised – that’s 20 Oct.

Then there is the potential community purchased of Ballspool Farm in nearby Kings Langley.  I’ll get involved with that if it looks promising enough, to help lead to my dream of creating a self-contained community of like-minded individuals which treads lightly on the environment but is also capable of living through any kind of breakdown in society.  Yes, that could easily happen.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke

Life getting in the way

I have to admit that I am struggling to keep all of my plates spinning.  The business is being much more successful than I could have hoped, which means that to keep the Transition Town, UK Power Shift, allotment and family nourished of my time requires me working early and late, burning the candle at both ends.

My allotment.  The shed is in the neighbouring plot.

My allotment. The shed is in the neighbouring plot.


It is a crucial time of the year for the allotment, with all manner of life enjoying a little more warmth and trying to sprout up.  It is my job to try to make sure that the life that makes the best fist of it is edible.  Last year was my first year with an allotment, and I did a great line in slugs.  This year the plot is surrounded by a wall of garlic, with slug pubs and organic pellets ready to keep out those that make it through.  Slug pubs are glass jars buried in the ground, with a little roof overhead, with a little beer in the bottom – the terrestrial gastropod molluscs can’t resist a tipple.

The weekend just gone saw an all-day open meeting at the local Hospice to discuss community building in Berkhamsted.  The focus was on an interim and then long-term solution for a community centre in the town, which it lacks at the moment.  The centre of the town is also being developed in the upcoming years, with the location of the old Police Station, Library and Civic Centre up for grabs.  We want to organise what is known as a “charrette” (intense design meeting) involving as many of the townspeople as we can muster to make sure that the space meets our needs and not just want the council think it needs.

The other major initiative discussed on the day is called “My Compassionate Street”.  There is recognition that in 20 years’ time there will be as many people who are great grandparents as there are that are children, parents and grandparents combined.  I’ll try to grab the source and graphics on this for a future post.  So who is going to care for them?  My Compassionate Street will help us form those close neighbourly communities where we can help each other rather than rely on assistance from outside.  This will also enable collaborative consumption – where a street might buy a ladder and a power drill, rather than each household forking out and storing said items themselves.

I’ll stop there – I need to get on with some business work.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke

My year ahead

It was the Annual General Meeting of Transition Town Berkhamsted (TTB), and so time to think to the coming year and what we plan to achieve.  We are as always on the cusp of either collapsing due to burn out or on the verge of making that major breakthrough in getting a significant proportion of the people in Berkhamsted behind us.
TTB Logo
In terms of practical achievements that will take us forward, there ought to be a few.  There is the Community Growing Project where in return for volunteering with the local charity Sunnyside Rural Trust people have the use of a large polytunnel and surrounding ground to grow vegetables.  With a partnership with the Town Council to make use of and improve currently unmanaged space we could potentially open this up and start something like Incredible Edible in Todmorden.  This would sit alongside the transition-led Dacorum Local Food initiative, which is mapping out local food and making it more available and attractive for everyone in the area.

At the AGM we heard from TiK (Transition in Kings Langley), who have made some exciting steps forward in creating a limited company GUCE (Grand Union Community Energy) for the locally owned generation of renewable energy.  They have done a quick survey of Berkhamsted and I am excited about the opportunity to build on what they have achieved and bring it here.  There are plenty of potential sites, in particular schools such as Westfield and St Marys.

I’m quite keen to start up a series of competitions, at least among the members of TTB, for our own personal reductions in energy use, driving, consumption etc.

Alongside what we’re doing with our hands is what we are doing with our voices.  There is the engaging of other groups and organisations in the town to find our common aims and to form a community.  The third Building Community day is tomorrow, where we will be discussing the creation of a community centre and the development of the centre of the town to be a hub for people to enjoy.  We will also be talking about a burgeoning initiative called My Compassionate Street, looking at bringing back neighbourly support for those that need it.

There are projects kicking off with the local secondary schools, Ashlyns and Berkhamsted School.  Ashlyns are to start their own active sustainability group and are hosting high profile talks with TTB, one each term.  We’ve got Ian Roberts (author of Energy Glut) lined up for 16 October, and Mark Stevenson (pragmatic optimist) for 5 Feb.  Berkhamsted School has a massive Duke of Edinburgh scheme, and we will be chatting to the Year 9’s as they start out to enrole them in volunteering for TTB – in particular in setting up a series of films.

And then there is the Positive Money talk coming up on 11 June, which I’ve written about previously.

As for me, I have been re-elected Leader of TTB for a second annual term.  I plan to complete the strategy and firm up the structure of the group as soon as possible – I want to start getting my hands dirty.  I’ll be splitting my time between TTB, the Global Power Shift, my business, allotment and family.

What have I been up to?

Berkhamsted_Castle_Jan_2007

Berkhamsted Castle – we could make more of this

It’s been a while since I have given a real update as to what I’m actually doing, which is remiss of me.  I’m going to change the balance of my posts so there are more about what I’m up to and fewer that sound more academic.

So, what have I been doing?  I’ve spent some of my time working on the strategy of Transition Town Berkhamsted (TTB), which is still a work in progress and needs the others involved to give their pennyworth before it is made official.  I’ve also been networking with organisations and individuals involved in the area, to discuss my ideas and help refine them.  I’m getting somewhere with that.  And of course I’ve been researching a little for the posts and responses to comments.

Berkhamsted is a commuter town, with a predominantly right-wing political outlook.  It is also quite large, with a population of 16000.  Unfortunately all of those things lead to it not having a great sense of community.  This makes it that much more difficult for the town to move forward in a meaningful way into the uncertain future.  We need to strike the balance between talking and engaging with local organisations, such as schools, and us taking the initiative, rolling our sleeves up and getting on with it.  There is some debate about that.  When the strategy is sorted I’ll put some more up about it on here.

The other difficultly in making a difference at a local level is the overall sense of apathy and denial on the issue of climate change, which is why I also want to work at a national level to help us overcome that temporary obstacle.  I say temporary because it is inevitable that nature will let us know in no uncertain terms that it doesn’t care whether we believe or not in climate change: it will just get on with dealing out the consequences.

My self-appointed job is to help us realise what we need to do before nature rubs it in our face, by which time it will be too late.  The idea is that we put together the toolkit required – credible information about the reality of climate change, plus information and support for people wanting to take action at home or in their towns or wider.  Then to launch it all with a big fanfare and bring the issue back square up front.  I certainly am not going to do that myself, and it is encouraging to find that a lot of organisations are already working closely together.

I’ll be posting more often from now on, so will explain more in a few days.

Please do let me know what you think.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke