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South Cambridgeshire District Council: Zero Carbon Communities grant scheme

The Zero Carbon Communities grant scheme is part of a wider programme which offers practical and financial support to non-profit organisations and parish councils, empowering them to take action in response to the climate emergency. The annual grant scheme funds projects which reduce carbon emissions or engage communities on climate change. Projects have been funded which promote sustainable travel, improve the energy efficiency of community buildings, encourage shifts to lower carbon diets, and plant trees. The wider programme provides workshops, community networking events and a newsletter sharing good practice and ideas.

The challenge

How do we support and encourage the residents of our largely rural district to reduce their carbon footprints, and build community at the same time?  How do we make the most of our residents’ passion and energy for action on climate change, find local solutions to decarbonisation challenges, and connect groups to enable them to learn from each other and avoid ‘re-inventing the wheel’?

The solution

The Zero Carbon Communities programme aims to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and promote behaviour change towards lower carbon lifestyles through engaging the public on climate change. A dedicated Project Officer works closely with parish councils and community groups to deliver a £100,000 annual grant scheme, a quarterly newsletter and a programme of events and workshops.

Through the annual grant scheme, parish councils and not-for-profit groups are invited to bid for grants of between £1,000 and £15,000. Since the first round in 2019, more than £400,000 has been awarded to 61 grass roots projects. In the first three rounds of funding, projects were invited to apply to one of three themes, which included cycling, tree planting, energy efficiency in community buildings and other projects which were particularly innovative.

In 2019/2020, the first round of Zero Carbon Communities grants were awarded. 42 applications were received from grass roots projects with 19 receiving funding totalling £120,959. A second round in December 2020 awarded 17 schemes a total of £94,832 under the themes of cycling, community buildings and tree planting. In this round, the Council also provided energy surveys for community buildings for ten organisations. The third round of grant funding looked for applications featuring community buildings, tree planting and nature, and other exceptional projects. 13 projects were funded £79,796. In the 2022/23 round, the categories changed to accept a wider range, allowing organisations to focus on the outcomes which they would deliver, receiving applications for those which reduced carbon emissions, or engaged communities on climate change. 12 organisations were awarded £120,544 in this round.

Successful projects have included those which raised awareness and educated people on reducing carbon emissions. Cambridge Carbon Footprint’s Net Zero Now training programme empowered 12 local leaders to build their skills and knowledge enabling a community response to the climate crisis. A 12-month ‘Food Our Future’ campaign by the charity Cambridge Sustainable Food raised awareness on what a climate diet looks like. The organisation Sheddit! received funding in the fourth round for a mobile library of things to promote a circular economy and culture of re-use. Other projects have included drinking water refill stations, a climate action group’s website and a community shed on an orchard.

Funded cycling projects have included electric bike schemes, cycle stands, safe cycling and repair workshops, and a campaign to identify changes needed to improve cycling routes. The Milton Cycling Campaign received a grant to improve cycle parking stands at key sites in the parish to reduce routine car use. Energy efficiency projects in community buildings such as replacing a gas boiler with an air source heat pump, installing efficient infra-red heating panels, replacing lighting with LED alternatives, energy monitors, and solar PV and batteries have also been funded.

Over the four rounds, several nature projects have been funded reflecting the Council’s ambition to respond to the ecological emergency. These have included planting mature trees in a recreation ground’s play area, planting 3,000 native trees to create new woodlands, to restore woodlands to better take up CO2, and seedbeds for drought-resistant wildflowers in a community meadow. Nature projects which promote food growing have also been awarded grants including two forest garden projects, a community vegetable garden, a food bank to encourage vegetable growing, and a community orchard.

In February 2021, the Council partnered with local community groups for its first ever Climate and Environment Fortnight, championing ideas on how residents, communities and businesses could reach Net Zero. This was repeated successfully in 2022 with events on ‘Greening your Business’, ‘Cycling for Sustainability’ and ‘What to do once you have declared a climate emergency’. In October 2021, the first Green Connect event was held, a webinar-style session designed to allow local climate action groups and parish councils to connect and share ideas and learning on different sustainability topics each month. Six events have since taken place, including talks by experts on topics such as energy efficiency, and by groups sharing the good practice and experience of their grant-funded projects.

The quarterly newsletter, events and workshops continue to support residents, providing relevant climate news of what the Council is doing itself and inspiring stories from other organisations.

The impact

Despite the challenges brought by COVID-19 such as the mobilisation of volunteers and the delivery of works, local communities have shown resilience to the pandemic through their rewarding and successful projects. These have brought people together during times where community has been more important than ever. Cycling and tree planting projects were among the first to be completed, giving impetus, hope and enthusiasm for the first green shoots of a green recovery out of the pandemic. Communication of the Council’s aims and information around the practical delivery of carbon reduction reaches over 500 people via the quarterly newsletter, while the successful grant projects are publicised to the wider community via the South Cambs quarterly magazine, to the local media with press releases, and shared on social media and the Council’s website. The online Climate and Environment Fortnight 2021 attracted viewers to its free webinar events and the ZCC Green Connect series provides a format through which groups can share ideas, good practice and lessons learnt in their ambitions to reach net zero.

How is the approach being sustained?

The grant scheme is repeated annually. The funding for the grants comes from business rates from renewable energy sites in South Cambridgeshire which are retained by the Council and earmarked for use in green initiatives. This way, the scheme is not reliant on government funding streams which may not be repeated and can continue its funding for projects.

Lessons learned

The success of the grant has demonstrated that local people know what works best in their villages. This is highlighted by the variety and high number of innovative projects being put forward. For most of the schemes, that small amount of financial help from the grant has enabled ideas to get off the ground which otherwise may never have happened. By varying the application criteria, the council has been able to focus in on specific areas of action while the successful applicants have shown they have the capacity and resources to deliver these projects and make a positive difference in their own community.


Siobhan Mellon, Climate and Environment Development Officer

[email protected]