Councils up and down the UK have declared climate emergencies, and committed to taking and supporting more radical climate action. That’s no surprise when the benefits include better health, warmer homes, new jobs, reduced inequality and much more.
But there are challenges in engaging effectively with communities on this issue. 23 councils have shared their challenges and responses at the first meeting of Ashden’s London Local Authority Hub – part of a wider initiative bringing councils together to share best practice. The event also featured examples of proven innovation suitable for authorities of differing budgets.
Citizen engagement – the challenges
Authorities reported a struggle to find the time and money to develop and implement citizen engagement work. Citizen’s assemblies can be rich sources of debate and engagement, but are simply unaffordable for many councils. Sustainability teams in some authorities contain just a single officer. But even relatively-well staffed councils may be working flat out to achieve ambitious zero-carbon deadlines, which can squeeze the time available for consultation.
Coronavirus has further stretched resources, impacting all areas of council work including communications – with enormous consequences for engagement on other issues such as climate change.
Councils face a huge challenge in getting ideas and feedback from every corner of the community – often struggling to hear the voices of socially and economically disadvantaged people. Involving outside experts may be necessary to meet this fundamental goal.
Authorities have responded by seeking views to face-to-face at train stations, leisure centres and elsewhere, as well as contracting local voluntary groups to gather people’s opinions. Events have ranged from business breakfasts and borough-wide summits to hyperlocal engagement programmes on individual streets. One council is developing a pack for community groups in the borough, to help steer conversation on the issue.
Councils argued for more collaboration and co-ordination to avoid ‘re-inventing the wheel’, potentially including jointly-funded research and a standardised approach to measuring and reporting. Regional bodies like the Greater London Authority can potentially play an increased in enabling councils to meet target.
Smart solutions for all budgets
Despite these significant challenges, London’s councils are developing bright ideas for community engagement.
Camden’s pioneering citizen’s assembly attracted national news coverage. The assembly’s 80 members, drawn from diverse communities across the borough, considered 200 ideas for climate action with support from facilitators and technical. As a result, 17 big ideas – from community heating schemes to car free days – were taken forward into the council’s plans.
Follow-up activity included a ‘think and do’ space in a disused shop. This led to the creation of 10 new climate projects owned and run by the community. The assembly also sparked a citizen climate panel, a climate pledge for local businesses, a climate charter for schools, and a public awareness campaign designed to reach every community in the borough.
Meanwhile, Merton Council’s new Climate Action Group aims to channel the energy of residents, lobby groups and campaigners into carbon-cutting projects. The group, which meets monthly, has been set up by the council but will be driven by community leads in different sustainability areas. People are invited to come with specific proposals or simply bring their skills, knowledge and enthusiasm.
While the council cannot fund projects, it can signpost funding opportunities. The group aims to build a spirit of collaboration and empowerment – members have also described a greater sense of hope about tackling the climate crisis.
There are more bright ideas for councils seeking to working with residents in the citizen engagement chapter of Ashden’s climate co-benefits toolkit.
The Ashden Award for Green Communities is open for entries now. Initiatives could win a £10,000 prize, networking opportunities and further support. Entries close on 3 March – find out more and apply.