FEATURE: Eco Together in Erdington, inspiring environmental action across the city at Witton Lakes Eco Hub

Words Ed King / Pics by Ewan Williamson

On 27 January 2024, the Bath born and Birmingham adopted Eco Together project celebrated a year of inspiring independent environmental action in and around Erdington – including a specially designed ten week course at the Eco Hub with Witton Lodge Community Association.

Erdington Local went to watch Eco Together cut the cake at the Witton Lakes ecological and community hub – and to hear how the Erdington held course has started a ripple effect of change across the city.

“…people have the power to create the change. It’s just the law of numbers; there’s way more of us.”

The room is full – of both people and passion. But also hope and ambition. Eco Together has been running courses across Birmingham for a year, brought to the second city by Stephanie Boyle – a retired clinical psychologist who found Eco Together whilst researching climate change online.

Starting in Bath, Eco Together works on a micro effecting macro approach, encouraging ‘small groups of friends, neighbours or colleagues’ to come together and realise the ‘powers’ they have in tackling climate change and environmental issues. And at this special anniversary celebration the energy in the room is palpable.

The Eco Hub, located at Witton Lakes, a converted century old gatekeeper’s cottage with ecological issues literally at its foundations, hosted the longest running Birmingham based Eco Together course – evolving the standard five week open platform programme into a special ten week series of workshops and group discussions.

Developed by Stephanie Boyle from the open source material offered by Eco Together, the extended course was commissioned at the request of Witton Lodge Community Association, who also built the Eco Hub. A group of about nine local residents met up every week to discuss environmental issues and to look beyond the bigger picture and ask what they, as individuals, could do to make change.

“It made me feel confident that I could do something,” explains Pauline Brown, who attended the Eco Together course earlier in the year. “As an individual you care about the climate and pollution, and you try and do your best, but you feel like you’re just a little isolated person trying.”

Campaigners worldwide, especially when dealing with worldwide problems, often cite those first few steps as the most daunting.

“But when it came to the (Eco Together) course I was with others who were interested,” adds Pauline, “and those ‘powers’, that’s what really got me – how you can communicate, your advocacy, and talk about it (environmental issues) to other people fires you up with ideas… you bounce of each other.”

“It was useful as a way of discussing what options are available to you as an individual,” adds Nettes Derbyshire – who attended a five week programme run with Shakti Women in Birmingham City Centre.

“I mean, there are things that I knew. But it really challenges you to say ‘well what are you going to do about that?’ and look at what little difference you can make – and to actually go away with something each week and say ‘I’m going to try and do that’.

“(The course) really opened my eyes to my own advocacy, and how you really can shout at the people to do things and really encourage the Local Authority, or whomever it is, and just keep on picking at it until they get it… and hope that they do.”

The ‘powers’ are the main tenet of Eco Together, and like every good collection of cornerstones there are four of them: lifestyle, communication, community, and advocacy.

Started by Sarah Grimes – who graduated with Distinction from Oxford University after reading Environmental Policy and who has worked in, around, and against local government for over 25 years – Eco Together uses these ‘powers’ to galvanise the strength of the individual and to show the simple steps one person can take to chip away at worldwide wall of ignorance and inertia.

Cleaning behind your fridge, for example, saves significant home energy use. It’s hard to think of anything more immediate and simple, but also exponential. Eco Together came from the Transition Bath project that saw around 500 households ‘cut an average of £570 from their annual bills and 1.3 tonnes from their carbon footprint,’ – and that figure of 500 households started with one.

Not bad for a community led charity, and one that proved so effective it started to grab the attention of Councils and Local Authorities across the county.

“It’s amazing, absolutely amazing,” tells Sarah Grimes – after thanking the Birmingham crowd for their involvement over the past twelve months and their ambitions for the next. “And what it shows to me is that the format can adapt to lots of different circumstance and lots of different ways of working.”

Sarah continues: “Initially it was thought of being just a neighbourhood group, but here (Birmingham – Eco Hub) it’s been run as a course, it’s been run by community groups, by organisations, with staff.

“And that shows that the main tenant of Eco Together is the ‘powers’. So, this is a slightly different framing to how we’re used to thinking about environmental issues, and thinking my powers go beyond the ability to choose one product over another product – they actually go into what do I do with the communities I’m in. What do I do, as a citizen, to represent to politicians and businesses. And whether or not I talk about climate change.

 “All of those things are things you can do to make an impact, and that principle can really be used with any issue and with any group of people. And that’s what happening here, which is so exciting.”

It’s a simple premise, but it works. In Birmingham, for example, Eco Together is now being looked at to help support the city’s Net Zero agenda and cut its emissions down to ‘zero or as close as possible to prevent further temperature increases’ – beating the Government benchmark by two decades.

In less than twelve months a handful of people, attending free to access workshops in and around Erdington, have shown the city how it can be done. And the city took note.

“We were invited to a specific session about community action, I think it was about week five,” tells Stockland Green Councillor Jane Jones (Labour), who attended one of the workshops where the power of ‘advocacy’ was on the table – alongside her Perry Common counterpart, Councillor Jilly Bermingham.

“But we were really impressed,” Cllr Jones continues. “We saw the training manual and it was really thorough. I learnt loads just reading one part of it. It was excellent, and the turnout… there were so many people there as well, and they were really interested in the environment.

“It didn’t matter where you were on the scale of knowledge, it really opened people’s eyes. Some people knew absolutely nothing (about environmental issues) and started from scratch, then there were people with more experience and still got something out if it. I certainly did.”

Bringing truth to power can be notoriously tricky, especially when the problem at hand is such a worldwide issue and local government is, well, local. But can the approach from groups like Eco Together actually have an impact, can an individual’s advocacy on an issue tun the relevant responsible authority heads?

“We encourage (local advocacy) that’s why we have open advice bureau,” tells Cllr Bermingham, “because we’re encouraging people to come and talk to us and tell us their issues. I’ve had people come and talk to me about community garden and women’s groups… everything. And they’re the advocates coming to me and pushing their groups, and that’s important.

“It’s all the things joining up. None of us can do it on our own.”

Cllr Jones, never one to duck a tough question, adds: “Whatever the policies the Council have, we’re not always very good at following them through. So, we need keeping on our toes.”

Eco Together in Erdington, anniversary celebration at Witton Lakes Eco Hub / Ewan Williamson

For more on Eco Together visit www.ecotogether.info

For more on the Eco Hub and other projects delivered by Witton Lodge Community Association visit www.wittonlodge.org.uk

FEATURE: Memorial service for late Erdington MP Jack Dromey and Stockland Green Councillor Penny Holbrook

Words by Ed King / Pics by Mohammad Ashraf, Ed King, and WLCA

On Saturday 14 January, a memorial service for Erdington’s late MP Jack Dromey and Stockland Green Councillor Penny Holbrook was held at Six Ways Baptist Church.

Organised one year and one week after Jack Dromey death, the remembrance event was attended by community representatives, political peers, and members of the public – alongside friends and family of the two “titans” of local politics.

Hosted by Reverend Gerard Goshawk, minister at Six Ways Baptist Church, the first tribute was spoken by Erdington’s current MP Paulette Hamilton, who began by saying: “Before you go forward you have to look back and give honour.”

Ms Hamilton was a long standing friend and political colleague of both Penny Holbrook and Jack Dromey, recanting the last time she spent with the former – walking dogs around Brookvale Park, an area in the late councillor’s Ward of Stockland Green she had championed and helped regenerate.

“I told her, look at all you’ve done here – look at the swans, the trees, the bushes,” continued Hamilton. “Our last conversation was so positive. As we go forward, she (Penny Holbrook) has left her own footprints for us to follow.”

Ms Hamilton continued to celebrate the life of Jack Dromey, a man she “absolutely adored” and would not “pretend to say I can walk in that man’s shoes. Jack was a doer, he brought people together. You could not tell Jack ‘you can’t do that’.”

Her final words were “honouring” both Penny Holbrook and Jack Dromey, saying: “thank you for your hard work and rest in peace.”

Ifor Jones, Head of Partnerships for The Pioneer Group, was next up to speak – praising the “strong champion” he had first “crossed paths” with whilst fighting to save the Jaguar Land Rover Castle Bromwich plant.

Mr Jones continued to celebrate the once union man turned politician, using an aphorism those that knew Jack Dromey would have heard him say many times before: “nothing short of remarkable.”

Celebrating the life and work of the well loved and long serving Stockland Green Councillor, Jones surmised the “privilege” of working with Penny Holbrook by stating: “Penny was a force to be reckoned with.” A sentiment echoed throughout the service and by many who knew her.

Recently elected Castle Vale Councillor Ray Goodwin, who had a “good and firm friendship” with the “double act” of Penny Holbrook and Jack Dromey, humoured about the first time he met the former and how “she put the fear of the man upstairs in me… she absolutely knew what she wanted.”

Then erstwhile Stockland Green Councillor Josh Jones, who represented the Ward alongside Penny Holbrook and worked closely with Jack Dromey, talked about the loss of “two people very close to me,” recanting stories from the campaign trail and how both would “go out of their way to help you.”

Next was a tribute from Abdul Latifin, who was rescued from Afghanistan by Jack Dromey and his office after the Taliban took control back of the war torn the country in 2021.

Mr Latifin paid his respects to his “close friend” and “global figure”, before celebrating the impact made by the “two great personalities” being remembered.

Local virtuoso Jobe Baker Sullivan, who runs Erdington Arts Forum, then performed the specially written ‘Jack Dromey Jig’ which had been penned for the MP’s memorial a year ago – joined by an ensemble of musicians.

Next to speak was Andy Winmill, current Director of Urban Devotion – a local faith based charity who work with young people across Perry Common and the Erdington constituency.

Mr Winmill joked that whilst “politicians aren’t always the most popular people”, over a year later there was still the desire and support to celebrate Cllr Penny Holbrook and Jack Dromey MP.

He continued by praising the “tender-hearted” Holbrook and how neither prominent political figure were “defined by their politics.”

In one of the most touching moments in the service, Mr Winmill reminded those present how Jack Dromey would call truce on the political battle and “collaborate to get things done” – possibly best represented by his de facto leadership of the the Covid 19 Task Force during the coronavirus pandemic.

“How we are going to honour their (Penny Holbrook and Jack Dromey) legacy,” continued Winmill, “is to build something together for Erdington,” ending his tribute to a heartfelt applause from the mixed faith congregation.

In an almost perfect representation of this bi-partisan sentiment, Birmingham Conservative Leader and Erdington Councillor Robert Alden stood up next to speak – a man who was often at the opposing end of the political spectrum to both Penny Holbrook and Jack Dromey but vocalised how “tragic” it was to “lose two titans of local politics.”

Mr Alden then celebrated the “passion Penny felt” which “came across in every conversation” he had with the late councillor, who was one vote away from becoming Council Leader in 2015.

“It was always about ‘what can we do to help’,” continued Alden, “what was best for local residents. Politics never came into it… she is so sorely missed.”

Turning his attention to Jack Dromey, perhaps Alden’s most immediate political rival for many years, the Birmingham Conservative Leader praised “his passion, fighting for worker’s rights” and how “Jack always put solidarity of workers first.”

Mr Alden, who had politically walked into the lion’s den to pay his respects – alongside his fellow Erdington Councillor Garth Moore – ended by saying: “to the family and friends (of Penny Holbrook and Jack Dromey), God bless you and God bless Erdington.”

Crossing back over the aisle, further respects were paid by current Stockland Green Councillors Amar Khan and Jane Jones – with the former remembering how Penny Holbrook would often “pop in” to his home and became “a good family friend.”

“It is a great honour and privilege to say a few words,” continued Cllr Khan. “Both will be forever missed and I know they are both watching from heaven. God bless their souls.”

Cllr Jane Jones then remembered how “Jack never, ever stopped”, even checking in with his constituency office whilst sunbathing on holiday in Sicily, and how “Penny was totally dedicated… so kind and generous.”

The final words of remembrance came from Linda Hines and Afzal Hussain, respectively Resident Director and Chief Officer of Witton Lodge Community Association (WLCA) – a Perry Common born organisation with a longstanding relationship with both Penny Holbrook and Jack Dromey.

After an anecdote about the first time she met Jack Dromey, whilst standing in for a sick Father Christmas at Perry Common Community Hall, Linda Hines – who had not scripted or prepared her tribute – told: “I’m five foot, but I loved standing next to them (Penny Holbrook and Jack Dromey) because they made me feel 6 foot tall.”

Hines continued to remember “my friend” Penny Holbrook and the dog walks they too would go on around Brookvale Park. “We put the world to rights,” told Hines, “and everyone we passed would say ‘hello Penny.”

Recognition was then given to the late and well loved Perry Common resident and community activist Mary Harvey, who passed away in 2022 aged 100 years old and who knew both local politicians well. “She’s with them now,” quipped Hines, “telling them what to do.”

Closing the personal tributes to Penny Holbrook and Jack Dromey, Afzal Hussain expressed the widely felt “deep, deep sadness they’re not here” and how “there is still that sense of loss” over a year after both had passed.

“They created relationships,” continued Hussain, “they brought people together.

“They genuinely would make a difference. When you talked to them you felt they were really listening to you; you felt special and you could take on the world.”

Hines and Hussain then announced a new bursary for young people in Erdington called Ladders of Opportunity – set up in memory of Penny Holbrook and Jack Dromey, through equal investment from Witton Lodge Community Association and The Pioneer Group.

The memorial service was then brought to a close with a prayer from Reverend David King, minister at New Life Church in Erdington, who praised the “passion and diligence” of the remembered public servants.

Penny Holbrook was found dead at her Abbey Road home on Sunday 21 November 2021, aged 43.

Jack Dromey was found dead at his Erdington residence on Friday 7 January, aged 73.

Both will long be remembered for their kindness, compassion, and unflinching dedication to the people of Erdington. Rest in peace.

NEWS: Erdington’s city councillors announced as local election results declared

Words by Ed King

Voters across Erdington have decided their next council representatives, as the results of the local elections were announced today.

Winning the Castle Vale Ward, Labour’s Ray Goodwin was “blown away” by the support he received from local voters – beating The Green Party’s John Macefield by a narrow 44 votes, but with a confident 233 lead over the Local Conservative candidate Tyrese Romain.

He told Erdington Local: “I’m absolutely blown away; this is absolutely amazing. I did wonder if I should stand, but as many people know it was Jack’s (Dromey, Erdington’s recently deceased MP) last wishes was that I stand, and it was really important that I did. So, in my mind I did it for Jack. And Jack, I won it for you as well.”

The Green Party also picked up many new votes in the Gravelly Hill Ward, where newly standing candidate Siobhan Harper-Nunes achieved 363 votes – beating the Local Conservative candidate into second place by 35 votes.

Although not enough to take the ward from Labour’s Mick Brown, who has traditionally held a strong lead in Gravelly Hill, The Green Party’s endorsement from local voters shows a significant move away from previous local election – with Labour losing over 400 votes from the 2018 results.

Green party candidate Siobhan Harper-Nunes told: “Of course, I am disappointed but really not surprised.

“I have loved every minute of the Gravelly Hill campaign, meeting people, getting to grips with local issues and of course solving problems.

“We have gained a lot of support and the Green Party has made a footprint across the city. At local elections people must vote for the candidate they believe in and it’s clear, their belief is still unanimously with the sitting councillor.

“My work as a Green Party advocate has only just begun and I will still be around pushing forward on green issues.”

Labour continued to clean up across the constituency, with both candidates in Stockland Green – Jane Jones and Amar Khan – successfully retaining the ward for the party, although losing hundreds of votes from the 2018 elections.

Local Conservatives’ new Stockland Green candidate, Estelle Murphy – who moved into politics after successfully campaigning to save Short Heath Playing Fields – was voted in third, and the only front runner candidate to improve on her counterpart’s performance in the 2018 elections.

She told: “This has been a brilliant learning curve as a first innings and I’m looking forward to what I can achieve in the next four years.”

Elsewhere across the constituency, Perry Common was won by Labour’s Jilly Bermingham, who beat the Conservative candidate Rachael Okello with a 204 vote lead.

Whilst Pype Hayes was won by Labour’s Basharat Mahmood, beating Local Conservative Clifton Welch by 91 votes – mirroring the closely fought contest in the 2018 local elections.

Cllr Robert Alden and Cllr Gareth Moore retained the Erdington Ward with a confident majority, the largest in the constituency, collectively beating Labour’s Suriyah Bi and Basharat Mahmood by 1189 votes.

Speaking to Erdington Local after the announcement, Cllr Alden said: “It’s a huge honour to represent the people of Erdington, something I’ve been delighted to do for almost 20 years.

“Erdington’s an incredible place and we’ll keep doing all we can to represent the people of Erdington.”

Cllr Gareth Moore added: “The responses, over the last few weeks on the campaign trail, have been really positive and people are grateful for the work Robert (Alden) and I have been doing in Erdington and it’s great to see that reflected in the result today.”

But the shock of the day came in Kingstanding, as Labour and Local Conservatives split the ward with one candidate winning for each party – Rick Payne taking 1286 votes for the Local Conservatives, and Des Hughes receiving 1350 for Labour.

Whilst both candidates were saddened their running mates would not be join them in local office, each were firm that they would work together for the good of Kingstanding.

Local Conservative Rick Payne told: “I just want to thank all the people of Kingstanding who have put their trust in me to represent them as a councillor.

“And I will work with who I have to work with to get the best for Kingstanding.”

Labour’s Des Hughes, who was elected Kingstanding councillor in 2015 but lost the ward the following year, added: “I’m delighted that the electors in Kingstanding have given me the opportunity to represent them again, which I look forward to doing with enthusiasm and vigour.

“I do regret that my college, Naz Rasheed, isn’t able to join me. But ultimately, we’ve (Rick Payne, Local Conservatives) got our political differences, but the objective is to serve the residents of Kingstanding and that’s what counts.”