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Bringing the social benefits of re-use to housing estates

What are the lessons learnt from the EU project 'Repurpose'?

London, 30 March 2017 | Social, Economy

Can a furniture re-use programme transform the lives of people living on housing estates? An EU-funded pilot on five London estates shows that it can. We have asked Groundwork London to share with us the key findings of its 'Repurpose' project.

Waste is an increasing problem across the EU. We generated 2.6 million tonnes in 2014, more than 5 tonnes per inhabitant. As we live increasingly urban lives (3/4 of EU inhabitants now live in cities and towns), finding solutions to dealing with waste in urban areas is a growing priority.

Whilst EU policy has focused almost exclusively on recycling, the re-use, as opposed to recycling, of household items has been shown to bring multiple benefits: social in terms of community cohesion; economic in jobs and skills created (the EEB estimates that re-use schemes could create 860,000 jobs across the EU) and environmental in avoiding precious resources going to landfill and saving carbon (again the EEB estimates schemes could save 415 Mt of CO2 emissions across the EU).

The challenge facing housing estates is a particularly pernicious one. In the UK, at least, housing estates often have their own bulky waste collection systems for unwanted household items, separate to that of the local borough. Residents are often not able to access borough-wide schemes and indeed, the practice of clearing up estates within relatively short time periods (in some cases within 4 hours) actively reinforces to residents that ‘dumping’ items next to the bins is the normal thing to do with items they no longer want. And disposal of these items is costing housing estate managers increasing amounts each year.

Meanwhile, in many housing estates there are low-income residents who are out of the labour market and inactive during the day, but who have skills that could be put to good use; residents who need low income furniture often as a result of crisis or temporary housing; and residents who don’t have the skills to even carry out minor repairs to items, rendering even superficially damaged items useless to them.

This is where our EU LIFE+ funded programme, Repurpose, comes in. We have taken the model that many re-use social enterprises follow and placed it directly in the heart of housing estates. The programme, led by environmental regeneration charity Groundwork London and supported by the London Community Reuse Network and Middlesex University, has set up re-use programmes on five housing estates across London, each differing in size and nature, to explore what the conditions are for a programme of this kind to work.

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At the core of Repurpose is the establishment of a re-use hub (Loop) in an unused space from which we run an estate-wide collection service of unwanted household items (both directly from households and from fly-tipping sites). The items are repaired if needed (although 70% of items have required only a light clean) and sold at very low prices back to residents on the estate. The whole process is used as a training and volunteering opportunity for local residents, complemented by a dedicated events and training programme. Alongside this we worked with local partners and staff to explore how the programme could be built into business-as-usual.

Our findings have astonished us. We are working with what is traditionally thought of as a ‘hard to reach group’ and some of our estates were considered the most challenging to engage with in the boroughs in which they are located. Whilst final results won’t be available until July 2017, we’ve found so far that not only have we tripled the target of number of items passing through our scheme during our 18 month pilot (handling over 6,200 items compared to a target of 1,500), we have also engaged over 2,200 residents in the process. Our volunteer programme has been in such high demand in some of the hubs that we don’t have capacity to accept more volunteers. Indeed, it has been the social aspects of the programme that have been among the most impressive. Volunteers have credited the programme with turning their lives around, whilst the social benefits of the low cost furniture provided are also clear.

I was doing nothing really before volunteering. Coming here motivates me to get up in the morning. It makes me think I could focus and do other things with my life. I didn’t think I would ever work again but this makes me think I could do it. Since I started working here I’ve applied for an adult literacy course. I’ve always avoided applying for jobs because I’m dyslexic. That affected my confidence. But now I feel motivated to try and learn.” Volunteer, Samuel Lewis Trust estate

“My name is Catherine, I am suffer from mental illness, physical disability. I was introduced to the Loop by my housing officer from Hammersmith and Fulham Council. Because I just moved into temporary accommodation from woman's refuge I had absolutely no furniture. The Loop has given me a care-warm stress-free experience. I will support you, and recommend you to people who are also in furniture crisis.” Customer, White City estate

In addition, the service has provided a means and reason for residents to interact and has helped bring community cohesion to the estates.

“Whenever I have mentioned the loop to other people they have sung its praises, so many people have been helped on Grahame Park and have helped others by donating furniture. People love this place and have never seen another place like it. I’m really grateful it’s here as it’s the only place that is genuinely there to help the local community and people in need.” Customer, Grahame Park estate

It is for these reasons that all of the estates have a legacy programme funded by local partners. It is clear that the descriptor of a ‘furniture re-use programme’ really only covers a fraction of what the service provides socially and economically and we, as well as those we’ve worked alongside, think it is well worth replicating.

We’ve recently launched a number of resources to help other housing providers set up similar schemes: our Implementation Guide gives practical guidance to housing providers on the how re-use schemes can operate; our Toolkit gives support to residents; and our Policy Pack makes recommendations to decision makers at the European, national and regional level on how to support this kind of programme strategically.

We found that with no real external drivers the programme has really relied on the enthusiasm and drive of our partners to support it in the longer term. However, if we really want schemes like this to succeed it needs to be part of business as usual rather than an optional extra.

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