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PeopleTim Crabtree

Tim Crabtree

‘I was born in Reading in the freezing winter of 1962, and spent my first 6 months indoors in a fog of cigarette smoke from my chain-smoking parents and grandmother. Not the best start in life, and perhaps one of the reasons why I spent a good deal of my childhood outdoors. We moved to Poole when I was four, and I took every opportunity to canoe in the harbour, swim at the beach or cycle in the Purbecks. My father Tom was an educational psychologist who later became an agony uncle for Cosmopolitan magazine and my mother was a social worker and also a gifted artist. I have two sisters, the older one running a very successful public art agency, and the younger one working as an acclaimed performance poet and children’s author.
It was through my mum that I first developed a political awareness, as she worked on the new housing estates built on heathland surrounding Poole. She was appalled that they had inadequate services, no children’s clubs and no youth facilities. Two other issues stand out—the first was when I passed the eleven plus and ended up in Poole Grammar School’s brand new buildings while most of my friends went to the secondary school which had been relocated to the grammar school’s old buildings. The second was when oil was discovered under the harbour. There was a public “consultation”, but despite widespread opposition the drilling went ahead because, we were told, it was in the country’s “economic interest”.
Despite this, economics was my favourite subject at school, and although I got a place to study a law degree at Oxford, I decided in my first year there to change to economics and politics. During my gap year in the US I had read Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful and watched a documentary about a consortium of 80 cooperatives in Spain founded by a Catholic priest. This was the early 80s, and we were being told that “there is no alternative” to free market capitalism and privatisation, but these inspirations gave me hope that other directions were possible.
After university I went to Japan for two years. At Oxford I had taken up aikido, a traditional martial art, and then decided that I should go to Tokyo to practice. At the time, the Japanese economy was booming, so I was able to work for two hours in the evening but then had enough time and money to follow other interests. Alongside aikido I studied shiatsu and also became involved in a student-led group called Peace Boat. This hired a cruise liner each summer and took hundreds of undergraduates to countries in the Pacific that had been colonised by the Japanese before WW2, to explore the real history of what had taken place.
The year that I was involved, the focus was nuclear issues. So we went to the Philippines, where the Marcos dictatorship had borrowed millions to pay a US company to build a nuclear power station on the side of a volcano. We departed from Hiroshima, and on the cruise I got to know two hibakusha—survivors of the nuclear blasts in 1945—who invited me to come and work with them. So for my second year in Japan I became a volunteer with Hiroshima Interpreters for Peace. My main role was helping with the setting up of a new centre which linked the history of Hiroshima with current nuclear issues across the world, such as the illnesses faced by ex-servicemen forced to stay in areas where atomic bombs were tested, or the forced relocation of native Americans in places like Nevada.
Returning to the UK, I decided that I wanted to work with the recently established New Economics Foundation, but their funding was limited and they could not pay me. Fortunately, Margaret Thatcher had set up the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, so I set myself up as a consultant with the Foundation as my “client”. It has always amused me that our basic aim was to critique Thatcher’s economic policies.
In time I took over the role of General Secretary and worked with the Foundation for five years. My main interest was practical action at a local level, and I was fortunate to work with one of Schumacher’s old colleagues, with whom I undertook research into community enterprise. That led me to Bristol, where a job was advertised running a new social enterprise support agency. I applied to do the role as a job share, as I wanted to join a professional training course in shiatsu. I worked in Bristol for three years, and during that time my wife Elizabeth and I became partners. When Elizabeth became pregnant with our daughter Leah, we decided that we would move to Bridport, where my parents had moved a few years previously. Leah was later joined by my daughter Grace and son Thomas.
While I was In Bristol, I focused on three core areas of the economy which have a real influence on people’s well-being—food, housing and energy. So when I moved back to Dorset, these were the areas that I chose to focus on. I first worked with Dorset Community Action, where I set up and ran a programme in eight market and coastal towns, supporting local people to establish Development Trusts, such as the one in Lyme Regis which became very successful. I also founded Bridport Area Development Trust, and helped bring the Literary and Scientific Institute into community ownership—if not actually in community use at the moment!
I then set up West Dorset Food and Land Trust and its subsidiary Local Food Links Ltd. I worked with local schools creating gardens and orchards, and with local producers for whom I set up 12 farmers’ markets, produced local food directories and established Dorset Food Week and the Bridport Food Festival. At this point, it was clear that a facility was needed to support the local food sector with processing and marketing, so I developed the Centre for Local Food on the St. Michael’s Trading Estate.
One of the activities at the Centre was to host visits by school children, and through this I met with the headteacher at Bridport Primary School, Ruth Clench. We first worked together on a fruit scheme for pupils, and this led on to the development of a school meals service. Initially this provided soup lunches, but the reintroduction in 2007 of nutritional standards for school meals, which had been abandoned in 1981, meant that soups did not meet the requirements.
Dorset County Council wrote to all schools saying that they had to provide hot meals, and that as almost all primary schools no longer had kitchens, that the Council would have a contract with a frozen ready meal supplier in Nottingham—these meals would be trucked down and heated up in micro-waves. Parents and head teachers were appalled, so we arranged a meeting of 8 local schools and reached agreement for Local Food Links to set up a not-for-profit hot meals service. The Centre for Local Food was turned into a hub kitchen to serve schools in West Dorset, and later other hubs were set up in other parts of the county. The service now works with 57 schools, has a turnover of nearly £2 million and provides a significant market for local farmers.
The main other area that I have worked in is affordable housing, and with colleagues I set up an organisation called Wessex Community Assets. It has worked with 75 community-led housing groups across Devon, Dorset and Somerset over the last 20 years. Local initiatives include Community Land Trusts in Broadwindsor, Lyme Regis, Maiden Newton, Marshwood, Powerstock, Toller Porcorum and Symondsbury. My current focus is working with partners on a project called Raise the Roof, where we are exploring how to link the retrofit or construction of housing with the use of local materials such as timber and clay. As part of this, we’ve been working with local farmers to grow hemp, which was the original material for rope and net in Bridport. We are hoping that it can help with regenerative farming and provide a sustainable building material.
Alongside my work in community economics, I’ve been teaching part-time, mainly at Schumacher College on the Dartington Estate for eight years. This led me to start a part-time PhD with the University of Plymouth and I’m finally about to submit after 6 years of research. That will free up lots of time, so I am looking forward to seeing where I can put my energies next. One area that I will give more time to is renewable energy. Ten years ago, I set up Dorset Community Energy with Pete West, a colleague at Dorset Council, and it has raised £1.5 million from local people to install solar PV panels on 27 schools, hospitals and community buildings. Developing a localised energy system for the Bridport area feels like a really important thing to work on over the next few years.’

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