Updated: Sep 12
Climate hubs, Climate Centres, whatever you want to call them, are springing up all over the country. They are the response of communities across the UK to global inaction on the climate crisis, and an acknowledgement that to avoid the worst of the climate crisis it's now urgent that we take action ourselves, whilst constantly pushing governments to create ambitious policy appropriate to the scale of the threat of the climate crisis.
What Is A Climate Hub?
Climate hubs are community-led spaces that aim to bring together residents, businesses, local authorities, universities, churches, and schools, to build a climate action plan that can protect the future of the towns, cities, and communities we belong to, whilst helping to mitigate the global climate crisis. This involves trying to reach out past the 'usual suspects' to engage as much of your community as possible in building a plan to avert and adapt to the worst of climate change.
Best case scenario, climate hubs can help drag global governments along at the pace set by communities. Worst case, they help us begin building frameworks that remodel how we live and work in the face of a changing planet, and build adaptation and resilience in our communities and locally-focused economies which can be self-sufficient in the future.
This article is a long read, but we hope it helps you set up a community-led climate hub. BUT! The most important take away is that nobody else knows what’s right for your community. There are lots of groups around the UK who can offer advice - and we’re all here to support each other. So this is how we created ZERO, and the lessons we learnt, but only your community knows what will work best in your area.
ZERO's timeline: notable events in our climate hub journey
We've broken down some of the stages of how we got ZERO up and running to help other communities who want to protect their futures. Won't lie, some of these phases are not very glamorous! But they are critical in establishing a robust plan, good governance, and project longevity. These are listed below as follows:
Finding A Building
Affording a premises
Type of lease
Why Start a climate hub?
1. Top Tips
Do it your way! There is a blossoming support network of UK climate hubs, who can offer great advice. Look to see who's doing stuff in your neighbouring towns, or online. But nobody else knows what’s right for your group or community. Make decisions based on what your community wants & needs.
Don’t rush into anything! Build your strategy first. Then stick to it. Regardless of what’s going on around you, or what offers you get, if something doesn’t feel right with your overarching aims, don't rush into it in the hope it’ll pay off. It took us 18 months to find a building, but we made the right choice in waiting.
What if you never get a building? Or what if the landlord triggers a break clause after 6 months? Think about what you can do right now to begin building a community climate action plan, and accept that the project is about more than any one building - it’s about a commitment by your community to mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis.
Find your role - what your hub looks like will vary town to town. What exists locally? What can you help to expand? What doesn’t exist that you can get off the ground? What a hub looks like in Guildford compared to, say, far more progressive Brighton or Bristol, can be wildly different - and in fact probably harder to define the more projects already exist locally. Don’t reinvent the wheel, find the right place for your project in your community.
Build a framework - Know what your goals are. Build a framework early on - with input from your community. Build a solid group of people committed to the project, from across a range of groups. This will not only help the ease of networking, but you’ll get the active people from other groups involved, and maybe sidestep the usual trap of lots of work falling on a few people. Once you have a framework built on community input, keep consulting until you think you have a well defined strategy. A strategy is not just a list of goals, you should be able to lay out how you’ll achieve your targets.
Get Into The Doughnut - Doughnut Economics is a great place to start thinking about how your community can remodel how to live and work within planetary boundaries. What are the existing issues in your area? What are the popular solutions to them? And what’s your place in a global crisis? All questions that Doughnut Economics Action Lab can help with! The workshops form a great basis for ongoing input into your action plan.
Deciding what your objectives are is a critical part to this type of project. We saw this as having 2 distinct phases. If you're trying to build a community-led climate action plan, like we are, then you'll need one particularly important ingredient - community input! Without that you're just a bunch of people telling the rest of your community how to live; a tried and tested recipe for failure.
But you need to get established enough to be a legitimate organisation and gain traction in your community. So it can be tricky knowing how to start moving forward whilst managing to set up your governance structure and legal entity. So we decided on our long term objectives and built a framework we thought could achieve them, before fleshing out the framework with input from the Guildford community. You can take it, leave it, or tweak it depending on your current position.
a) Decide on your overarching objectives. This could be a mission / vision statement, it could be official charitable objectives, or a clear list of goals. Our charitable objectives can be found here. It should be a high level statement, which makes clear what you're about, but which room to be flexible and adaptable, because it should be shaped by the needs of your community.
b) Build a loose framework. Whilst your objectives should be clear and committed to, your framework can be tweaked as you progress. You should intentionally keep this light and flexible, because it should be guided by ongoing community input. But you will need to be able to demonstrate to potential partners that you have a robust plan, to ensure buy in. Emphasise that you will tweak it depending on the direction the community takes your project.
c) Begin consulting. We did a lot of 1 on 1 Zoom meetings (it was lockdown, not much else was going on!). These can help to get unguarded input from local organisations that you might not get in a more public meeting, and can be really valuable in collating and addressing people's concerns and obstacles. We also held 2 main public invitation input sessions.
d) Bring in new folk. There's no chance you'll all agree on everything. That's totally fine, what's important is to learn to 'disagree well'. More brains are critical in terms of good planning, as well as diversity of opinion. genuine consensus is built from diverse opinion. So use the times you consult the community on the direction of your project to try to recruit more people into an operations team.
3. Building Partnerships
This, in our opinion, is by far the most critical aspect of building a community-led climate action plan. It might sound silly given this article is about community climate hubs, but this is even more important than securing a building.
There are tons of things you can do without a building. But without an expansive network focused on change you’re going to find yourself beyond capacity very quickly. It took us well over a year to even begin negotiating a lease. We spent that time network building, strengthening our governance, organising a Great Big Green Week climate festival, and getting as prepared as we could to hit the ground running.
Effective network building requires a lot of work, which is constantly ongoing. It’s sensible to set up a team around networking, so that contact with different parts of your network is well distributed. Speaking from experience, we didn’t do this, because one of our team already had many contacts with people, and it’s been a challenge to work backwards in trying to distribute the contact list. One thing that can help is a Networking Diary which the team can access. Keep it updated with the main networking conversations the team have on a daily basis. It’s a bit of a pain, but you’ll likely be writing notes during conversation anyway, so just write them straight into the networking diary.
Reach Out Nationally
There are lots of other communities building projects like this across the UK - we've had nearly 30 come visit ZERO to chat! All the groups are autonomous, but try to support each group through resource and experience sharing, knowledge and networking exchange, and practical advice for overcoming obstacles. Regardless of your model, whether you're already up and running, sharing and learning from other groups can be hugely beneficial for all of us.
Even if you don't need support, think about how you can support other groups. If we're all trying different approaches and strategies, and sharing successes and failures, it makes the process of finding successful ways to remodel how we live and work easier and faster.
4. Legal Entity
There are different sorts of legal entity you can register as. The 3 main options you have are:
- Charity, or Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO)
- a Community Interest Company (CIC)
- not-for-profit company limited by guarantee
We only looked at the first two options, and don't know much about the 3rd, so we won't talk about that!
There are advantages to both options.
Community Interest Companies
The advantage of a CIC is that it’s very quick to set up - you could do this in 24 hours. Speed can be extremely useful, because you can't get a bank account without being a registered entity, and you can't make funding bids without having a bank account!
TIP: The 'Big 5' High Street Banks (Barclays, HSBC, Natwest, Santander, Lloyds) have pumped billions into the fossil fuel industry since the Paris Agreement! You may want to look for a more responsible bank... Ethical Consumer offers good advice on this sort of thing.
You can set up as a CIC and register later as a CIO if you need to, although that can add extra difficulties as you need to transfer all the CICs assets into the new charity. Another advantage of a CIC is that as a company there are far fewer regulations on how you generate funds through sales, whereas with a CIO everything you do must align with your charitable objectives.
Charitable Incorporated Organisation
This takes much longer to set up than a CIC. For us it was about 4 months. It depends how busy the Charity Commission are. Some groups recently have got through the process in less than 2 months. It's possible that the more applications for this type of project they receive the more familiar they are and more confident the charitable purposes are legitimate, and so approval is becoming quicker. Who knows.
The thing which made our decision, and which will probably be very important to you, is whether the council will grant full business rate relief to a Community Interest Company, or only a CIO. For us it was the latter. However, we have long term plans which also played a role in our decision.
It's important to research the limitations of each, and how they align with your goals, both short and long term.
4. Finding A Building
The obvious first step here is get out into your town, village, or city, and see what empty buildings are out there! Buildings that have been vacant for a while are a great bet because there are loads of stakeholders who are going to want them filled - be it the landlord, council, or Business Improvement District, none of them want empty shopfronts.
We're in a former New Look right in the town centre
There's a few options for your search. You may as well try them all.
a) Go through a private landlord
Walk round your town, find the vacant premises, and note down the contact details on the commercial agents' boards. You now have 2 options. Call the agents and try to arrange a viewing - at this stage you're probably better off not saying you're a charity or community group, just get through the door. Alternatively, you can go through the Land Registry to find the owner. After you register, you can pay £3 per search to get the Title, which includes the owner. Then find their contact details and approach them directly.
b) Find a council building. District / borough and county councils own a LOT of buildings. They might be part of a portfolio (eg. the county's pension fund), or part of the council's operations, but there's bound to be a building or two that you might be able to convince them to let you use. Most councils are currently not great on community-facing climate engagement, but they need to be, and not only can this help improve their climate plans, but you can take a lot of difficult work on consumption, waste, and behavioural change off their plates. So there's good reasons for them to support you.
c) Use a pro. There are some organisations and individuals who find buildings for 'meanwhile use' as their job. They're well linked in to networks and can potentially save you a lot of time in your search. They can also be a last option if you've exhausted all other avenues. These guys are an example of an agent who specialises in finding meanwhile leases for charities. The CEC network has useful links that can help you too, so if this is an option you're looking at be sure to message them.
5. Negotiating A Lease
If there's one area you need professional help, this is it! You may be able to do this yourself if you're lease is really simple and with a landlord you know, but negotiating a commercial lease can be extremely overwhelming. Many legal firms will take on work for good causes pro bono (free of charge), as part of their social responsibility plans, which in turn help them attract new clients.
We would have been completely lost without the amazing service of Clyde & Co Guildford. The lease negotiation became far more complex than they realised, and they were extremely patient and helpful throughout. Cannot overstate how much stress it will save you to find a commercial property lawyer willing to help you.
Affording A Premises
'How can you afford to pay for this place' is one of the most common questions you'll get. The simple answer is that as a brand new organisation you probably couldn't! But this is why long-empty buildings should be your primary target. The landlord will have been paying business rates while the space has been empty. this could be tens, or even hundreds of thousands of pounds. That's a sting for any landlord. The power of your proposition is that you can save the landlord these costs.
When you move into a building the business rates will be your responsibility. But, as a charity and possibly a CIC you get a mandatory 80% relief on your rates. On top of that, it's up to your district or borough council if they'll give you a discretionary 20% on top of the mandatory relief. This means that you can be 100% relieved of business rates, meaning you pay £0. Removing the rates from the landlord is the carrot to entice them to give you affordable rent.
This is why your choice of legal entity is extremely important, and why you must understand whether your council will grant you 100% relief as a CIC, or if you need to be a CIO, and should be an important consideration in your goals, because the 20% will likely depend on how closely you align with your council's vision. You should be able to find a document on the council's website which breaks down exactly who and what they will grant relief to. Find it and use it before you go too far down any dead ends!
NOTE: You will have to pay business rates up front when you move in - at least we did. You can't apply for relief until you're physically in the building. So it is a bit of a gamble - albeit you should be confident from your research as to whether you'll get the full 100%. You're BID might be able to give you additional guidance. You'll get a rebate if/when you are granted relief, but you should be prepared for this, and calculate in advance of a shock how much you'll need in reserve to pay this, until they confirm your rate relief. See 'Break Clause' below for how you can protect your organisation in the event you don't get relief.
Type Of Lease
There are different ways to get yourself into a building. Some climate hubs are operating on a pop-up basis. This is a great solution for short term projects, but does reign in your ambitious plans somewhat.
What most of us are working on is a meanwhile lease - of which there are a few types. The type ZERO is operating on is a 'full repairing lease'. For a company this would mean fixing the premises up to a nice shiny state, but as a charitable tenant you can add a clause to ensure you're only expected to leave the building 'in at least as good a state as you found it'. This is extremely important to ensure, because you don't want to inadvertently spend your entire lease refurbishing and not building a climate action plan!
Your landlord is likely to want a break clause if your lease is longer than 6 months. Their goal is to let the building for profit, so you're in a bit of a hoist by your own petard situation, whereby polishing the space up makes it more appealing to potential tenants.
You need to be prepared to move at short notice. Try to ensure you get at least 8 weeks notice on any breaks. Make your displays mobile enough to move without damaging them or the fabric of the building. And remember, as disappointing as it’ll be when you have to leave your first home, the project is about way more than any one building - it’s about your community’s commitment to climate action.
A tenant's break clause is also something you should add to the lease. As discussed above, you can't be certain you'll get 100% rate relief until you have taken possession of the premises. If you get lumbered with a bill for £5k, £10k, or £20k you're probably going to bankrupt you're organisation before you've done anything, so this is something you should strongly consider before you move forward.
This is obviously a key part to creating an inviting space - especially, if like us, you take on a building which has been empty for several years, and has an above average number of holes and pigeons in it! ZERO tries really hard to have a ‘practice what you preach’ ethos, so we went to a lot of effort to ensure we kept new materials to an absolute minimum. This often creates more work, (de-nailing, sanding, sorting out dodgy edges etc), but if you do it well it can demonstrate that it’s perfectly possible to make great stuff from old materials. Check out some of the things we did below.
Our sign is larch donated by Norbury Park sawmill, and the letters are an old bed! We spent £30 on the whole cafe, on a worktop that was damaged and would have been landfilled. Our stage is large pallets clad in ply, of which only 2 sheets were new. Our zero waste shop is cabinets donated from Uni of Surrey's sociology dept and clad in timber. Our Terracyle point is long pallets with MDF scrap shelves.
It may not be the case for everyone, but for us this part was surprisingly easy! It helped that we had access to an electric van, to collect things at short notice, and being a registered charity obviously lends some legitimacy to turning up at random and asking people for handouts!
The obvious places to start are Freecycle, Facebook Market Place, Next Door, all of which have businesses or residents giving stuff away for free. If you’ve got a university in your area they could be a huge help - Uni Of Surrey gave us a HUGE amount of useful stuff.
Below are some of the places that really helped us:
Howdens - donated an ex-display kitchen
Uni Of Surrey - racking for Zero Waste Shop (clad in untreated timber with a food safe stain), loads of furniture
Selco - gave us a great discount on timber, which is currently very expensive
Fully Charged Guildford - the local electric bike shop moved premises into a former kitchen display shop. They donated the old display walls the demo kitchen were fixed to, which we turned into an accessible gender neutral toilet.
Ockham Parish Hall - were moving and gave us crockery, tables, and an urn
We were refused grants by all of these (boooo), but the following do charitable grants for building projects: Screwfix, Jewson.
When in doubt, pallets! They're treated wood, so you can't use them near food, but we used pallets that would have been going to landfill to create a ton of cool stuff!
There's often a crossover between environmentalists and artists, so you probably have a couple of good artists in your group. Our chair’s 12 yr old did all the art on our windows! If you’ve got anyone who’s handy with a chalkpen, paint brush, or spray can, then this can be a brilliant way to make a space look great at low cost and effort.
This is the tricky part of the refurb, and also one of the reasons that reaching out for volunteers is crucial. The amount of time you’ll need to spend on refurbing the space will depend on a) your vision, and b) the state of the premises. Bearing in mind you’re most likely to get interest form landlords who have a long-empty building, there’s probably a fair bit of effort needed to smarten the place up. This is another reason putting a lot of effort into networking early doors will pay off later. The more expansive your network, the easier it’s going to be to find experienced trades people who might be kind enough to donate a bit of time.
Bear in mind that you’ll likely want to build a number of display and exhibits, maybe an accessible loo, a small stage, lots of signage etc. Our list never gets any shorter. If you manage to enlist some volunteer tradespeople make sure you put them on the most pressing, and most difficult things first. Anyone can figure out how to hang pictures or make a frame, but carpentry, electrics, and plumbing can be beyond the average DIYer.
It took about 7.5 weeks to get ZERO into an acceptable state for opening. We did run events before this (Tim Jackson and Molly Scott Cato were our first event, and we livestreamed COP26), with the rest of the space cordoned off. That was 2 floors, inspection holes filled, walls painted, displays made, accessible loo built, cafe constructed, zero waste shop built, etc etc.
Timing is key when it comes to volunteers. You need to hit the ground running, so it’s tempting to start recruiting volunteers when you're getting a plan together. But if you start trying to sign up volunteers before they’ve got anything to sink their teeth into then they’ll almost certainly disengage.
The exception to this is skilled labour. In an ideal world, you’d want to book tradespeople about 2 months in advance, to start on Day 1 of getting your keys. In reality, this will be almost impossible. So having 1 or 2 really handy people who can spare a couple of weeks each, and can be available at short notice is probably your best bet. They can get the bulk of the work done, and if necessary leave the parts they can’t do to a trained individual. Gas and electrics should never be taken on by someone without the relevant qualifications.
The type of volunteers you need will change around your launch date, so you need to think about both parts of the project. Once you get the keys you’re going to want people to do cleaning, painting, setting up displays, reaching out to local news outlets etc.
But once you launch you’re going to need people to run the facility, organise events, maintain the website, deal with building rates, accounts, invoicing etc. So it’s key to have a timeline for your first couple of years and know exactly what roles are going to be most important to keep you open, and ideally pro-active rather than just treading water.
We had a 'core group' of about 15-20 people up until about 3 weeks before we got the keys, then we started reaching out to more general volunteers. Since opening we have dropped the term 'core group', as we're all part of the ZERO community, and it felt like an unnecessary divide between people who are actually all volunteers.
TOP TIP: Every town and area has a 3rd Sector support charity. They're probably called Voluntary Action 'Insert Your Own Area Name here'! For example, ours is Voluntary Action South West Surrey. They will not only help you set up as a CIO, but they will have a master account of a volunteering software which you'll be able to access, for free!
9. Essential Roles
Nobody is more important than anyone else when you're building a community climate action plan. However, there are some roles which you might not think about to start with, but quickly become extremely important - and at times a full time job! These will obviously be dependent on your charitable objectives and how you set up, but these are some that have been critical for us:
Tech person: There are a LOT of ways that a highly competent tech person can make your life easier. Aside from standard operational stuff like creating and managing your website, sending newsletters, etc, you’ll likely need to set up various different things that a techy brain will save you hours of frustration with. These might be crowdfunding platforms, online donations or in-person tap pads,
One of ZERO’s trustees, is an engineer and loves fiddling with tech. He built us our own Climate Clock for our window, and turned a piece of ply into an interactive wall which was a prototype collaboration with The Jump (which any group can recreate and build in their own local solutions). He also managed to get 2nd hand scales and till equipment all set up and properly functioning - something which, left to the rest of us, would almost certainly have ended up with a till lying in pieces on the floor.
ZERO's interactive wall is based on research by ARUP and The Jump, and incorporates local solutions to 6 main shifts we can make to lower an area's emissions. It's jointed 12mm ply, with a surround made of floorboards salvaged from a neighbour's skip, and magnetic paint sensors which make it touchscreen!
Building / Facilities Manager: Running a building takes a huge amount of effort. Once you’re up and running it does get easier, but getting to that point can be a challenge. We landed on our feet in finding someone to take this on during a career break - and it became evident very quickly that this was a role in itself, and way more than we had anticipated. Figuring out how to turn the lights on without any visible light switches was enough of a challenge in itself!
You’ll need to think about refuse collections, food hygiene, fire safety & inspections, lift inspections, TM44 inspections for air con units, and a whole host of other things.
Volunteer Manager: If you are successful in creating a buzz around your project, you’ll get a lot of interest from volunteers. Someone needs to stay on top of these, respond to emails, meet volunteers, and onboard them. Again, we lucked out in that the former manager of a local voluntary charity had just retired, and stepped in as our volunteer manager. You ideally want to use a volunteer management platform to make their life easier. We use Better Impact. This allows us to calendarise all shifts.
Your county probably has 1 or 2 voluntary support charities. Link up with them early doors. Not only will they have a wealth of experience in registering as a legal entity, building constitutions, and more, they are paid to support logical charities. So make sure you make use of their services! They can likely also help you find volunteers.
Finance Officer: You need someone to handle your organisation’s finances. If you’re a charity this needs to be someone with a wealth of experience, preferably in charity finance and the regulations and transparency that accompany being a CIO. We are currently discovering that with the amount of work that needs to be done we need another person on this. Speaking from our current experience, it’s advisable to have someone to do day to day accounts, and someone for bigger picture stuff. Otherwise the workload becomes overwhelming.
There’s no sugarcoating this - writing and signing off policies is painful. We held three sessions just getting them signed off, which lasted hours, on top of the time writing them. We called the sessions PolicyFest, but giving it a fun name did not make it any more enjoyable.
Thankfully, you don’t need to start from scratch. There’s loads of resources available to help, such as Small Charity Support. Other projects similar to yours might also share policies, so reach out and ask!
Assign someone to be responsible for a particular policy to spread the load, and make sure you keep it updated when there are policy changes.
11. Why Start A Climate Hub?
Clearly this is all a lot of effort - so why are these climate centres so needed? If you're reading this, you probably don't need a lesson on the severity and scale of what awaits us if we don't take immediate and ambitious action on the climate emergency. But it can feel completely overwhelming to even think about how to avoid or prepare for this. Climate hubs can help in a number of ways.
Resilience & Adaptation
If can carry on as we're going, heading for 3-4C warming, which will be catastrophic for the majority of life on earth, there's a real risk of collapse of society as we know it. Or, we can begin remodelling how we live and work within planetary boundaries, whilst ensuring that we meet basic human needs. Either way, life as we currently know, and our existing and highly destructive economic model are done for. Climate hubs can be the focal point for building new frameworks to remodel how our communities and economies operate. They can bring together experts in a number of fields to begin building models that work for their communities.
Unity in our communities is going to be absolutely critical if we're going to cope with the competition of resource scarcity and the challenges of extreme weather events. We saw this in the early stages of Covid with mutual aid networks springing up, before vested interests managed to politicise vaccination and mask wearing. The same players are already trying to do the same to climate action. Climate hubs provide a space for the community to meet in person, removing the faceless arguing of social media, and helping to remove ideology from the equation. The 1 thing you all share in common is that you're part of the same community, you'll all face similar impacts of climate breakdown, and you all care about your town and community.
In the last week alone (Feb 2022) we've seen UK politicians falsely claiming that scandalous energy costs are a result of green levies, whilst in reality fossil fuel companies profits have been soaring. In the US state legislatures are blacklisting companies that will no longer work with the fossil fuel industry. Make no mistake, they will do everything they can to extract every last drop of gas & oil from the planet, regardless of the consequences.
Dirty money is destroying democracy and the planet. Billionaires are exploiting weak men by turning them into millionaires in exchange for doing their bidding. We aren't powerless to counter this. we can remove ourselves and our communities from this rigged and destructive system by building new structures which benefit our community, and acknoweledge our place and impact on the world and the crises we face. Of course this isn't easy. But it's key not only to averting a planetary disaster, but also to increasing the wellbeing and happiness in our towns, allowing us to place the things that the community truly values at the centre of our new models.
There are of course many other reasons that an ecohub or climate centre can be hugely beneficial to your area. You'll decide what
12. Wrapping Up
Breaking it all down like this might make it seem overwhelming to get this project off the ground. And at times it can be - which is why a solid plan and a good network are key components. But it's also a lot of fun! We had some stressful times, but I don't think any of our team regret anything now we're at this stage. This write up is just the ZERO experience, there are lots of groups approaching this sort of project differently, so you may find a different approach is better for you.
The irony of getting a climate hub open is that that's actually the easy part! Once you're open the real work begins of figuring out how to unite your community around a fair and ambitious climate plan for your area. There's no pretending that this will be easy once you open a space focused on climate - if it was easy we'd all have done it by now! But this can be a huge step forward in reaching past the 'climate bubble', and engaging all demographics, right across the political specturm in a plan to protect your community on a changing planet.