Sustainability & the City: What Can We Learn from the South Downs Green Fair?

The 2018 South Downs Green Fair at The Sustainability Centre. Image credit Penny Rose.

Reclaim the News participant and part of our new Community Reporting team, Helen Salsbury, reports on the annual South Downs Green Fair and what Portsmouth can learn from it. Additional reporting by Sarah Cheverton.

Portsmouth is the most densely populated city in the UK. This brings its own problems such as over-crowding and air pollution. The city also has one of the lowest rates in the country for the recycling, composting and reuse of household waste.

This year’s South Downs Green Fair run by the Sustainability Centre near East Meon provided many examples to inspire Portsmouth people – and the council – to become a greener city.

The Sustainability Centre was created in response to a consultation run by East Hampshire District Council to create a vision for 2020. CEO of the Centre, Christine Seaward, said hundreds of people met in discussion groups to ‘see what we would like the 21st Century to be, [to] imagine and predict some of things we might be doing differently.’

People talked about ‘biodiversity and waste and business [etc.] One of the things that the community came back with was…we need to have a centre to inspire people to live life differently, to really carry the message that we’ve been thinking about for new generations coming through but also people who are wanting to learn more about green stuff.’

In 1995, the EarthWorks Trust charity was gifted 55 hectares of land and buildings in 1995 that previously belonged to the MOD as the Royal Navy Signal School, HMS Mercury, which became the site of the Sustainability Centre. Along with the land and buildings, the District Council seconded a ‘Sustainability Officer’ to the Centre for two years, and a number of volunteers supported the project. The annual Green Fair raises money in support of the Centre’s work.

‘From the start we had to be self-sufficent,’ said Christine.

22 years later, the quantity of projects, courses, events and partners shows how far the Centre has come, including: forest schools, courses and stays for adults and children, natural habitats, a natural sewage system, green funerals, bee-keeping, solar projects, and a vegan/vegetarian cafe.

Nearly 3000 people attended this year’s Green Fair in May 2018, which featured music, stalls, children’s activities, talks, demonstrations and community activities such as Tai Chi, yoga, and ballet.

‘Sponsors make it possible for us to offer all the free activities,’ said Christine. ‘We like to run [it so] that if people pay at the door and then if they bring a picnic the rest of the day is free. It’s a really important ethos that we’re not forever asking people to put their hands in their pockets, because that means it’s open to all.’

The Fair aims to ‘demystify’ what sustainability means and show that embedding it in your life can be easy, pleasurable, and natural.

‘We want people to come and have some immersion in sustainability. You come, you do it, you like it, you take it home with you. And suddenly you’ve learnt something or you’ve been inspired by somebody else to really take it into your heart and your life. But the education side of it isn’t just talks. We hope it’s everything. From who is here, how we select our stands, what we expect of our stall holders, what we ask of our caterers, and the activities that we run.’

Stall holders at the Fair are selected using the principles set out in their Green Charter, as follows:

  • Caterers that use organic and locally sourced produce
  • Fairtrade and ethical approach
  • Use recyclable and low waste materials
  • Where possible support small local and community businesses

Organisers also make informed choices about suppliers, e.g. who collects and processes their waste.

This year’s talks at the Fair focussed on house and garden, including eco-houses, and permaculture and vegan/vegetarian gardening. Visitors had the opportunity to talk with permaculture experts, architects who have been involved in redesigning houses on ecological principles, and people who’d converted their own houses.

The Centre is actively involved in the UK permaculture movement – a framework for creating sustainable ways of living. Award-winning magazine Permaculture is based at the Centre, and the team regularly deliver a wide range of courses in various aspects of permaculture.

Permaculture talk at the South Downs Green Fair. Credit Penny Rose.

The Centre aspires for the Green Fair to become a zero waste event. They avoid single use items wherever possible, and use straw bales for seating, which are returned to the farmer for use as bedding (or used for the rescue hens). Children visiting enjoyed clay modelling activities, with the clay being returned at the end of their play to be reused by the next child. Waste items are also reused as art materials, or composted.

Clay modelling at the Green Fair. Photo credit Penny Rose.

The Centre worked in partnership with Nifty Bins on the Fair to provide a colourful and educational array of recycling bins alongside a ‘waste separation array’, which encouraged people – with the aid of volunteers – ‘to separate different waste streams at source.’ The majority of waste was recycled, only 1.5 domestic-size bins of waste remained at the end of the event.

Christine Seaward said, ‘Given we had nearly 3,000 people here, and 5-6 caterers and a bar, I think that is incredible. What is also incredible is that people who were putting things in the bin were putting it in the right place.’

Before and after the Green Fair. Photo credit Penny Rose.

One of the challenges of being set in a rural location is that the Sustainability Centre is not on a public transport route, despite campaigning for a bus route to be adjusted to incorporate the centre, and trialling a mini bus system. Instead, the Centre encourages people to keep the Green Fair a low carbon event by lift-sharing, walking or cycling. Visitors can use the Centre’s Facebook page to encourage visitors to connect with one another to arrange their journeys, and people grouped together to charter mini-coaches.

Christine said that the Centre’s purpose is to ‘help people have better information and therefore make better choices. Because if we don’t know then we may well be making a very bad decision. We cannot be…no impact. So what we need to do is be mindful and informed of the impact we’re having.

‘In the end people can get quite…poleaxed by…too much conflicting information, they start with the intention to do good and end up confused and depressed and then no action follows, no change follows.

‘I want to…be an effective agent for change. That means that you…inspire people, you enable people and you connect people. And then things will change.’

Given the city’s current performance on areas like recycling, there is much at the Green Fair to inspire Portsmouth.

Tamara Groen, co-editor of Portsmouth Green Party’s Shades of Green blog said Portsmouth City Council could do more on recycling, including ‘a kerbside collection that collects more than the basics’ for recycling waste.

‘…glass and mixed plastics can be recycled in Pompey, just not at kerbside. There is nowhere in Portsmouth to recycle food waste and food/drink cartons like tetra paks. If all these items were able to be collected…the percentage of household waste sent for reuse, recycling or composting would naturally increase’, said Tamara.

There are other reasons people aren’t recycling as much as they could:

  • Lack of information. Confusion as to what can and can’t be recycled
  • Lack of hope that it makes a difference
  • No space
  • Doesn’t make them feel good
  • Doesn’t engage their interest

Government funding cuts have also had an impact on environmentalism and sustainability in Portsmouth.

Sue James, a former member of the Portsmouth Climate Action Network (PCAN) formed in 2006, said the group were instrumental in creating dedicated posts in the council, which are now gone.

“I used to be involved with the Portsmouth Climate Action Network which was formed in 2006 and we did a delegation to the Council which resulted in the appointment of [a]  Climate Change officer – that changed to Principal Climate Change and Sustainability Co-ordinator later on. That was probably 2007. [The Co-Ordinator] had an assistant and seemed to be well funded.’

Although the role of Climate Change and Sustainability Co-ordinator no longer exists, some of the responsibilities of the role have been reallocated to different posts. Clare Seek, who co-ordinates the Portsmouth Repair Cafe, said:

‘… central government cuts have had an enormous impact on councils and everything is very stripped back now. There are still posts that look at things such as air quality and encourage active travel (mainly around the health agenda), but those roles used to exist previously as well, when [the Climate Change and Sustainability Co-ordinator and assistant] also were in post.’

Portsmouth Liberal Democrats committed in their election manifesto to make Portsmouth a ‘Greener City’, including exploring kerbside glass recycling collections, addressing congestion through a Sustainable Transport Fund, and establishing ‘a panel of Portsmouth people to advise the Council on how to make the city greener and plastic-free.’

Cllr Steve Pitt, Deputy Leader of the council, announced in May 2018 that recycling bins had been introduced along the seafront. In June, the council announced a new wheelie bin scheme that aims to encourage more people to recycle in the city.

However, recycling collections across Portsmouth could still be improved, including offering residents household collections for glass recycling, as provided by Southampton City Council, and offering recycling bins in public parks and open spaces, as well as along the seafront.

Perhaps the biggest lesson Portsmouth could take from the Sustainability Centre’s Green Fair is the return of the Portsmouth Green Fair in Victoria Park, which PCAN began in 2007 with council funding.

Sue James said, ‘A working group was set up [in the council] to come up with a climate strategy for Portsmouth and to monitor it and we also spent a long time on working out a publicity campaign. They paid for things like a thermal map of the city which disappeared, produced an exhibition for schools and gave us money to run a Green Fair each year.’

Portsmouth Green Fair has not run in the city since 2015, the only trace of it left a page on PCAN’s website.

However, there are opportunities for Portsmouth people to get involved in community projects aiming to make a positive impact on the environment, including:

Do you know of any local environmental groups or projects we’ve missed? Have you taken part in one of these groups and want to write about it? Let us know in the comments below or contact us on Facebook or Twitter.

This story is part of our ongoing series from our #ReclaimTheNews team, a group of local residents trained in investigative journalism in partnership with The Centre for Investigative Journalism. The group now forms S&C’s Community Reporting team. Expect more stories from them in the coming weeks and help spread the word by sharing their articles with your friends and networks.

This article was updated on 3rd August 2018 to add Final Straw Solent into our list of local projects, following reader feedback.