Coalfields Special 4: Putting the green back into the Valleys

John Osmond reports on a social enterprise that is challenging a culture of grant dependency

The brainchild of Gwynfor Evans, variously a teacher, youth worker,  round-the-world traveller, and latterly a Communities First organiser in Blaenau Gwent, Green Earth was founded as a voluntary social enterprise in 2005. Its objective was to mobilise community action around environmentally-related projects, from tree planting and woodland clearing to improving social housing landscapes and developing gardens for primary schools. As Gwynfor Evans put it:

“We collaborated with organisations like the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, the Groundwork Trusts and others. However, a major focus for us was to demonstrate that a lot of the kind of work they were doing could be done much more effectively and cheaply. We wanted to challenge a culture in which organisations utilised grant money for projects as if they were in the business of repairing cars using insurance settlements. We reckoned a lot of money was leaking out of the system as a result. We wanted to show that communities could get a better deal.”

The Coalfields Regeneration Trust in Wales

Three early evening seminars to debate the work of the Trust and the future of community regeneration in Wales are being organised by the IWA in Merthyr, Neath and Wrexham on Monday 14th, Tuesday 15th, and Wednesday 16th November. For more information about the seminars and to register to attend, which is free, click here. The IWA’s Review of the work of the Trust can be found here.

Although supported by Communities First in Blaina, where Gwynfor Evans worked part-time, initially Green Earth was an entirely voluntary enterprise with only a handful of people contributing. In the first few years its turn-over was no more than a few thousand pounds, rising to around £10,000 in 2007 and 2008.

By now Green Earth was beginning to win small contracts for projects from local authorities across the Heads of the Valleys, the Forestry Commission, Keep Wales Tidy and various community groups. However, without an administrative infrastructure, with its own dedicated office the nascent social enterprise was struggling to establish itself on a firm footing with the prospect of developing a sustainable business plan.

The breakthrough came in December 2008 when Gwynfor Evans applied to the Coalfields Regeneration Trust for a £10,000 Bridging the Gap grant to establish an office and employ a full-time administrator. The job was earmarked for Johanna Reames, an unemployed Blaena Communities First volunteer. When they were successful with the application she was taken on for a year at a salary of £7,000, with the balance taken up by office and on costs, though Communities First provided free accommodation. As Gwynfor Evans explained, processing the application was relatively straightforward and only took six weeks:

“I think the Coalfields Regeneration Trust was sufficiently impressed with what we had already achieved on a voluntary basis, especially as we had received an Environmental Award from Blaenau Gwent County Council. They could see that we had potential for developing the business and took a calculated risk.”

It paid off. Within a year Green Earth had increased its turnover three-fold to more than £30,000 and was earning enough money to employ Johanna Reams without grant support, though at this stage she remained the social enterprise’s sole paid employee. Nonetheless, it represented a step-change in Green Earth’s operation. As Gwynfor Evans recalled:

“Having Johanna running our office full-time was a huge leg-up. We could operate on a more professional basis and it put us in a much better position to make contacts and apply for contracts, especially with local authorities. For instance, we took on Blaenau Gwent’s schools bio-diversity programme.”

Green Earth also began tapping into the Future Jobs Fund’s work experience programme, training young people aged 18 to 25 in a range of skills such as  operating chain saws, excavators and other equipment. Moreover, once in post Johanna Reames immediately set about making a further, successful,  application to the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, this time for a much larger amount of £100,000 from the trust’s Main Grants fund. This was to enable Green Earth to invest in a range of equipment to enable it to take on a greater range of work. This included a mini excavator, a four-wheel drive vehicle, a dumper truck, wood chipper, generator, chain saws and other power tools. Commenting on her experience in making the application Johanna Reames said:

“It was a quite a difficult, complex process but it was made clear I could always pick up the phone to sort out issues, and they were very helpful in the Pontypridd office in allowing us to extend deadlines and so on. They also made several visits to us so they fully understood what we were trying to achieve.”

In all the process of awarding the grant took six months before the grant became operational in the Autumn of 2009. However, the success meant that Gwynfor Evans, along with two colleagues, could start working for Green Earth on a full-time paid basis. At the same time Green Earth rented a factory unit from Blaenau Gwent council on a Brynmawr industrial estate, where the operational side of the business – the housing and maintenance of vehicles and machinery and so on – was based. The business’s turnover rose above £150,00 for the first time during 2010.

During 2010 Green Earth applied to the Coalfields Regeneration Trust for a further grant of £60,000 a year for three years to enable it to employ more people to expand the business even further. However, on this occasion they were unsuccessful. As Johanna Reames put it:

“I think the timing of our application was difficult for the Trust which was facing significant cuts to its funding by the Welsh Government in the wake of the election of the Conservative-led coalition government in London and the general atmosphere of looming public spending cuts. Also, I think the Trust judged that as a business we were now up and running and that we could probably sustain our own operation.”

This proved to be the case since at this same moment an alternative opportunity opened up for Green Earth. Due to Blaenau Gwent Council’s decision to vest itself of its social housing by creating a stock transfer vehicle, Tai Calon, Green Earth was presented with the opportunity of taking on the contract for providing all of its environmental services. Tai Calon, which was incorporated in mid 2010, is responsible for 6,300 homes in Blaenau Gwent, with significant environmental services needed, including grass cutting, garden maintenance and looking after community spaces.  A large contract for providing these services was negotiatied between Tai Calon and Green Earth, involving significant further capital investment in equipment and hiring more staff. In effect Green Earth became a subsidiary operation of Ta Calon as a result, though it continues with its own operational identity. Green Earth now employs 13 full-time staff and is looking forward to expanding its operation still further, based on the sustainable foundation of an established amount of work with Tai Calon.

Looking back at Green Earth’s rapid development from a tiny voluntary organisation six years ago to today’s substantial social enterprise, Gwynfor Evans identified the Coalfields Regeneration Trusts support as critical. As he said:

“Sometimes things come at the right time, and if you don’t succeed or make a decision at that moment you never get a second chance. The two tranches of funding we got from the Coalfields Regeneration Trust were vital in enabling us to take a step forward at key moments. The Bridging the Gap grant was important in enabling us to put ourselves on a more professional footing. Without that I doubt that we would have had the confidence to make the application for the bigger Main Grant from the Trust that enabled us to invest in the equipment we needed to take the next crucial step in developing the business. And without creating the profile we achieved on the back of that we wouldn’t have been in a position to negotiate our present relationship with Tai Calon.”

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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