Bursting the Barriers to Green Recovery – Engage, Engage, Engage!
Three-word slogans appear to be fashionable, but in this case is entirely justifiable.
Local authorities everywhere are contemplating a future fraught with immense challenges. Even without the unprecedented dislocation of the pandemic, times would have been tough. Government promises to ‘level up’ and talk of an end to ‘austerity’ in 2020 would, of themselves , have focused attention on local priorities and resource allocation.
On top of this, climate change seems finally to have broken through to the public conscience. At the latest count, 282 Councils have declared a climate emergency. Without the COVID-19 crisis, there would have been 282 different programmes of action, varying in quality and ambition. Now they have to compete with the pressure of rebuilding badly damaged economies, unemployment, business failures and community concerns.
Against this backdrop, enthusiastic advocates of GREEN RECOVERY face formidable barriers if they are to succeed in achieving significant change in local communities. Here is what they must overcome.
Councils have comparatively little management bandwidth. Headcount reductions, outsourcing and perpetual reorganisations have reduced the talent-pool in many Councils. Top priority has been operational roles and service delivery, with longer-term planning and policy roles reduced or burdened with other responsibilities. One or two officers, no matter how committed can only achieve so much.
Belatedly, perhaps, but Councils are now at the sharp-end of managing the coronavirus pandemic and responding to local spikes in infections. This may continue for some time, and will tend to dominate news. Directors of Communications will see their overriding priority as focusing on health and wellbeing, with business continuity and back-to-work messages needing time and talent.
A large number of Councils face an existential threat. Speculation suggests that Counties and Districts in England will be abolished as the Government launches a ‘Devolution’ White paper soon. If this coincides with its proposed change to Planning – obliging every planning authority to designate all its land as growth, renewal or protected zones, we face several years of Councillors wholly absorbed in preserving their own local areas, fighting for their interests, probably competing with neighbouring areas for status and resources. Hardly a scenario to foster co-ordinated consensual behaviour change towards a greener environment.
Too many green initiatives
Zero-carbon is a wonderful goal, and one of its characteristics is that there are many routes to achieving it. And there are hundreds of initiatives which help us in that journey. Policy-makers are literally spoilt for choice, and making sense of a portfolio of projects will be a real challenge. It’s an old truism but you cannot succeed in doing anything until you first decide what you are going to do. Choosing where to focus is a hurdle that may keep many from accomplishing much. Was it Voltaire that wrote that the ‘perfect’ is often the enemy of the ‘good’?
There is one way to overcome these barriers. It is to stimulate as wide and intense a programme of civic and civil engagement as possible. For those anxious to achieve a lasting change, what’s needed is the most vigorous, imaginative and sustained dialogue possible with every part of society.
This is because these barriers will inevitably limit what can be done top-down. Imposing new programmes or new policies on disinterested or uncommitted communities will be like pushing water uphill. For real success, communities must want it to happen. In short, to work well, Green recovery must be a bottom-up process. Ideas and proposals will do best when backed by genuine grassroots activity. This is the big opportunity for civil society. All manner of voluntary and community bodies can take the lead. Waiting for municipal blessing will merely prolong the process. Let the pressure build from street-level.
That is why this autumn’s Green Recovery motto should be engage, engage, engage. Those who believe in the so-called greener new normal need to win the argument and take the case for change to neighbours, friends and local institutions of all kinds. What Councils should do is create space for this to happen. Legitimise involvement. Provide social media platforms. Run modest consultation exercises to test support for the bigger initiatives. Recruit commercial partners (not all have been hammered by the pandemic). Harness the creativity of schools, colleges and universities. Exploit the digital engagement toolbox. Try out techniques like participatory budgeting to allocate seedcorn funding for pilot projects. As lockdown eases, populate our market squares, lobby elected representatives, hold meetings in public.
There is obviously room for big set-pieces such as Citizens Assemblies and major consultations, but the key may be to by-pass the conventional local government policy process wherever possible. Use a mix of engagement methods. Getting the balance right is the short-term challenge, and that is why The Consultation Institute’s Green Recovery support service is specifically focused on helping authorities devise and implement an effective engagement plan. If anyone is interested, Sheena Ahmed can guide you towards a free-of-charge exploratory session and suggest some of the options available.
In short, engage, engage, engage – starting NOW.