Local climate action is crucial to building a low-carbon UK. It can also deliver enormous benefits ranging from better work to reduced air pollution and inequality. But we won’t see these benefits without engaging communities in the process, and working with them on the challenges ahead.
This year, Ashden brought London’s local authorities together to share insights and solutions on better community engagement.
Here’s what we learned – about the problem, the solutions, and the next steps needed.
What are the challenges facing local authorities?
Many UK councils have committed to becoming zero-carbon – in some cases, within the next decade. But resources are tight, and councils struggle to find the resources to develop and implement citizen engagement work. Programmes such as 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 will be working flat out to achieve ambitious zero-carbon deadlines, which can squeeze the time available for consultation.
Crucially, 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. Citizen engagement can end up only a reaching a small section of residents, those who already have a deep interest in sustainability.
What are the solutions?
First, councils should time to research, map and understand the communities they want to engage. And when they make contact, listen – rather than preaching. Thinking about ways to make climate change relevant to local people is vital too. It’s important to highlight the many co-benefits of climate action. Higher incomes and better health are great issues to start with.
Authorities should reach people through every network and avenue possible – from faith groups to library notice boards. Well-connected individuals can unlock access to specific communities, and every person or organisation opens doors to further connections.
Council climate planning should bring diverse groups together. And when people newer to climate issues meet with deeply engaged campaigners, it’s important to ensure quieter voices are heard.
Are there useful resources – and inspiring case studies – out there?
Pioneers in this area include trailblazing local authorities, and the charities and community groups eager to work with councils to deliver climate action.
This second category includes Repowering. This co-operative has worked with The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to install income-generating solar panels on community buildings, and to provide young people with training and paid work experience.
They often work with low-income and Black and Minority Ethnic communities, groups that many councils struggle to engage in climate issues. Programme Manager Dave Fuller has five top tips for citizen engagement. They include be truthful, be consistent and go to where the people are.
Meanwhile, a strong engagement strategy has helped The London Borough of Waltham Forest, implement a pioneering active travel scheme. This has created over 42km of segregated cycle track, 31 pocket parks and more than 200 new road crossings – as well as tree planting, enhanced cycle storage and more.
The project has brought a big improvement in air quality, and the life expectancy of children born in the borough today has risen by six weeks as a result.
Working with residents has been central to the scheme, paving the way for controversial decisions such as road closures. ‘Live trials’ allowed residents to experience changes for a few days before responding to consultations, while community engagement platform Commonplace helped the council gather feedback.
Data was used to challenge assumptions blocking progress: in one key street, business thought that customers travelled to them by car 63% of the time. But residents said the figure was just 20%. And the scheme has supported a diverse web of community groups – from Muslim cycling group Cycle Sisters, to a children’s BMX club, and walking groups tackling loneliness among older people.
More trailblazing work is taking place up and down the UK, with innovators such as Camden Council leading the way. But many authorities are struggling with limited resources – and few chances to discover best practice, share insights and avoid wasted effort tackling common challenges. Commissioning consultants to run citizen assemblies and similar projects is one solution, but can be extremely expensive.
There is huge potential for a UK-wide effort to connect local authorities and community groups. Meanwhile, Ashden will continue to help local authorities learn from each other and make progress on this crucial issue.
Ashden’s work in this area is kindly supported by the MCS Charitable Foundation.