Research and Policy Manager
Cornwall Council has set a target for a carbon neutral Cornwall by 2030. The authority is also keen to respond to the complexities of the climate crisis with ambition and imagination.
Part of its solution has been to implement the ground-breaking doughnut economics model. The principle is simple: to meet the basic needs of our population we must extract resources from the world. However, the amounts we extract and the way we do this can exceed our planet’s carrying capacity to allow us to sustainably meet our needs going forward.
Its creator, economist Kate Raworth, argues we must find a safe and just space for humanity that allows us to continually meet the needs of our population whilst preserving and enhancing our planet’s ability to regenerate. This is visualised as a green ring between both extremes, and is the space our policies and actions must aim to land in.
This principle is at the heart of a new tool developed by the council, called the Cornwall Council Development and Decision-Making Wheel. This tool guides officers considering a project or action through a series of questions relating to different areas, from water health to wealth inequality, and asks them to assign a score representing the potential impact of the decision in each area – positive or negative.
When the scores are brought together in a clear and simple graphic, the decision wheel offers a snapshot of a complex interconnected system that decision-makers can easily digest and engage with. Since September 2019, every decision made through the council cabinet has used the decision wheel to present the potential impacts across the social and planetary boundaries. The wheel is now being rolled out for wider use in the council’s decision-making, including its 2021-22 budget setting and sustainable commissioning processes.
The tool is embedding a new way of thinking at the council, ensuring that climate is a key consideration in decision making. It is focusing the limited resources of the Council’s decision-making structures onto the most relevant issues which, now, formally include the environment and our impact on it. What’s more, the tool also makes it easier to identify the potential for co-benefits (alongside carbon reduction), such as job creation or improved health.
Use of the tool allows decision-makers to consider the inter-connectedness of people and place in Cornwall, where the environment is inextricably linked to the lives of residents through tourism, farming, energy generation and a sense of collective identity. The reality that councils face is that there are no perfect decisions in a complex system. Every action will have both positive and negative consequences, but the important thing is to recognise them and build in actions to mitigate the negatives.
For example, the wheel was put to good use in winter 2014 when it was used to assess the impact of the development of Cornwall Spaceport at Newquay Airport (intended to launch satellites, rather than space tourism). The council had identified that there’d most likely be a serious emissions impact from the project but that this impact was not fully understood.
The wheel helped establish emissions as a formal consideration in the decision-making process, and so the University of Exeter was then tasked with producing a study to estimate the emissions. The results of the study prompted major investment from the spaceport operator into large scale energy efficiency improvements at the airport. Without the decision wheel there may not have been a formal mechanism to identify and mitigate against this drawback of the project.
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The development of the wheel followed the council’s climate emergency declaration and their target of becoming net zero by 2030. Key to this going ahead was the council’s recognition that it needed to improve how its decision making could better take into account its own wider social justice and environmental policies and aspirations. Strong support from the Elected Members and the Chief Executive were key to enabling this to go ahead. The initial development of the wheel was funded as part of the duties of one officer. As the tool evolved into an app during a second development phase, money was drawn specifically from the funding for the Carbon Neutral Cornwall Team, set aside for supporting the projects specified in the Climate Change Action Plan.
An officer in the Carbon Neutral Cornwall Team was initially placed in charge of developing and embedding a first version of this tool, adapting it from the original Doughnut Economics model to fit with the priorities and powers of a local authority, as well as the unique environment of Cornwall itself.
Usability was also a key factor in its development, with the idea that those creating and those assessing the wheel would not need to be experts in any of the areas. To this end, a set of simple and easy-to-understand questions for each segment – such as land use or air quality (see all segments in diagram below) – was developed in conjunction with council experts in different fields, to reflect the authority’s ambitions and powers in each of those areas. This initial process took around three months.
A second version of the tool is currently under development. This will automatically generate scores for each area based on input into an online app. It combines with the council’s existing Comprehensive Impact Assessment tool for new projects and policies to create a single project planning and impact assessment tool. It also has an inbuilt cumulative assessment system which gives an annual account of the decisions the council is taking.
The first version of the tool was Excel-based and managed entirely by the original officer assigned to the task. The new format makes the tool much more suitable for use early in the project and policy development cycle, and so it’s better placed to achieve positive change through mitigation and evidence gathering.
Developing the second version of the tool into a minimum viable product took around six months. This work was undertaken entirely in-house using funding from the council’s climate change budget. It’s currently being rolled out to the rest of the council, with widespread officer and member induction training in the use of the tool.
The council’s approach to implementing the project was straightforward. The principal investment in time and resources happened during the development of the second version of the tool though this was still carried out in-house at comparatively low cost.
Factors essential to success include:
Cornwall faced few, if any, barriers to development once these conditions were met. Officers and councillors have found the tool intuitive and extremely useful in both helping shape projects and policies to reduce the council’s impact on climate change and assessing the impacts in an easy-to-understand way.
To help lead officers rate each segment accurately, the tool is accompanied by detailed guidance with questions about each category carefully tailored in collaboration with representatives from key departments across the council. The guidance can be found here. This was key to securing buy in from senior staff.
Councils can tailor the Cornwall Wheel’s segments and questions to their own needs and policy landscape (please contact the Carbon Neutral Cornwall team for more information). But successful implementation will need active support from the highest levels of the council, and at least one dedicated officer to take ownership of it.
For more information about the Cornwall Development and Decision Wheel please contact the Carbon Neutral Cornwall Team at firstname.lastname@example.org
The council has produced a flier about the wheel which is available here.
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