REconomy Roadtrip – Sustaining Dunbar, a sustainable model for others?

Published on August 6, 2012 in Blog, Energy, Food, Transport

Dunbar is a small seaside town about 30 miles south east of Edinburgh. Having played a role in the historic wars of our island (once a safe haven for Mary Queen of Scots), it more recently was the birthplace of the ‘world’s first environmentalist’ John Muir before his move to America. It has around 8,000 residents.

Agriculture remains important, but fishing has declined. It has a large cement works and Torness nuclear power station nearby. Most of the workforce commute to Edinburgh or further afield. A large Asda opened out of town about 6 years ago with a significant impact on town centre trade.

Dunbar high street

The high street is mainly local independent shops, with a harbour just below. Philip and Janet tell me that Sustaining Dunbar (SD) started in 2007 along the lines of many Transition towns.

Unlike most, they decided early on to set up the organisation as a development trust – a charity and a company limited by guarantee.

They intended to develop the organisation as an umbrella organisation that could not only support a range of volunteer activity (eg. household canny challenge – based on original Transition Streets ideas, Connecting Dunbar transport, Incredibly Edible, Worms Work and Energy Advice – all linked off SD homepage) but also nurture and spin out new enterprises that were in line with SD/Transition’s aims.


Strategic from the outset

This is the first place I‘ve seen that began with such a strong intention to be a development company for the local community. Funding from the Scottish Climate Challenge Fund has been a strong enabler for all of SD’s work, including creation of ‘Dunbar 2025 – Local Resilience Action Plan’  “a 15 year action plan for building a vibrant, low-carbon, localised and resilient economy”.  About 1,500 local people were interviewed as part of its consultation. I think it’s a very impressive document with clear, viable action plans for food, energy, transport, health and enterprise, including targets, participants, milestones and consideration of external factors.

For another 2.5 years, the Climate Challenge Fund will continue to fund key roles such as an overall manager (3 days per week), a Household Canny Challenge co-ordinator/facilitator (3.5 days pw), a full-time transport advisor role (job share), a food advisor (1 day pw) and a compost/wormery advisor (1 day pw) and a home energy advice worker (full-time jobshare). While this may not be enough to realise all of SD’s big plans, it’s a significant start. They are well aware this time will pass quickly, and gaining their own financial sustainability is critical.



In terms of enterprises, so far SD has created The Bakery a community owned co-operative. It has around 525 shareholders, each committing at least £50 for 3 years. The minimum investment was just dropped

to £20 to ensure everyone has the chance to participate. Some of the money was used to renovate the premises and shareholders get 10% off all products, helping ensure a constant stream of customers.

A café also contributes to income, and high value pastries are selling like hot cakes. Challenges have included hiring staff that share the same sustainability (and long fermentation, ‘real bread’) principles and that support the community-owned nature, but this has now been resolved (they hope!).

Much more management time has had to be spent than originally planned but clearly things are on track now, the Bakery has been short-listed for UK Bakery of the Year hosted by Jason Donovan no less. More importantly, the Bakery is on a firmer financial footing and now servicing its loans and looking to grow the subscriber base further.

Spare Wheels is a car club and as the website says, “We buy them, insure them, tax them, repair them & clean them…. you drive them”.

Established as a community interest company (CIC) [SD mini] they had a start-up grant of £25,000 from the Scottish Government’s Developing Car Clubs in Scotland fund, which purchased 2 cars and installed the in-car booking system.

Spare Wheels car club

The scheme is administered by the national charity CarPlus, who are on hand for advice and support, and is part of the Common Wheels network. The scheme is financially sustainable and looking to grow its customer base and number of cars.

While the Bakery and Spare Wheels are separate enterprises, the Dunbar Community Energy Company  is a trading subsidiary of SD. The main intention of this energy enterprise has always been to raise funds for SD’s charitable activities. It has just completed a feasibility study for a 500kW community owned wind turbine on Cocklaw just south of Dunbar – currently the site of a redundant  500m TV mast – and is about to submit a planning application., This work has been financed by a risk free loan from the Scottish Government’s CARES scheme (blimey, I wish there was this much funding around in England!).

They are still investigating finance options which can give a reasonable income stream in the early years, when the investment in local low-carbon infrastructure will be most needed. Raising finance for the main capital spend through a community shares issue may be part of the finance mix. While a small part of the anticipated revenue may go towards SD core costs, the intention is to create a local investment fund to enable the implementation of SD’s Local Resilience Action Plan. All profits will be donated to SD as the parent charity but it is intended to set up a panel of representatives from the local community (including local community councils) to decide on spending priorities.


The winds of change

However, the talk of wind turbines has also stirred up some strong anti-wind feeling with a small group of local individuals, possibly already out of sorts over turf given it includes some political players. This has resulted in a rather vicious smear campaign against individuals in SD accusing them of all sorts of dodgy doings, including paying themselves large salaries, which even made it into the national press. We had a good chuckle at this one – oh to be a fat cat!

But of course this has been a horrible, painful thing to endure and leaves its mark. The people concerned are committed to carry on and I admire their stoicism but my heart goes out to them – as if our work isn’t already facing enough barriers. They have learnt a lot from this, of course, and are now getting advice on media training and also setting and communicating clearer boundaries around their work. I ask what support is offered to individuals to help them deal with issues like this, but there is nothing formal in place (in Totnes we have a group of local counsellors and body workers who offer significant time for free to key TTT workers, a fantastic support structure I have personally benefitted from enormously).


Taking on contracts

The new Dunbar community centre

Dunbar Community Kitchen is another fledgling trading subsidiary that’s been made possible, in part, thanks to the commercial kitchen and café space at a lovely new community centre. SD won the tender to run the kitchen and café, and is negotiating a profit share agreement with the council to cover rent. The aim is to train young people and longer term unemployed and offer work experience and practical skills training, hopefully from September this year. It will from part of SD’s food hub project and secure the catering kitchen for community events and courses.

We talked about the questions of reciprocity – that is, the potential pay back made to SD from a spun-out enterprise – that helps SD to keep going. They have drafted a ‘memorandum of understanding’ between the boards of their trading subsidiaries and the main SD Board that clarifies who decides how profits are distributed, and there is potential to use something similar for associated/spin-out enterprises.

SD have also created OurLocality web platform. It provides simple web presence, for free, for any local organisation, project, individuals or businesses. This also has a funded option that aims to generate some income.

Janet Barnes and Phil Revell of SD

The thing that strikes me most strongly about SD is their strategic approach, driven mainly by one or two key founders. They have been successful with winning significant funding (as well as delivering a range of volunteer led projects, Transition always needs both sides of the coin I think) and their ability to present a coherent, well thought through and consulted strategy is enabling them to build a strong track record.

I have seen a strong interest in how to be more strategic, and to secure funding/income, from other places I have visited.

Janet and Phil will be talking a lot more about this at the REconomy Project Day on the 14th Sep in London, especially in the strategy section, so come along if you can, else you can download their strategy using the link above.

I leave Scotland feeling even more inspired and looking forward to seeing what SD do next…