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Collaborating to make a green recovery possible

Covid-19 has had devastating effects on families and society. It has also allowed us to witness the benefits of a cleaner environment and the adaptability of the general public, and to reflect on the potential for a post-pandemic ‘green recovery’. We need significant changes in mindset and behaviour if we want to achieve this. It will require much more collaboration between the public and private sector, between stakeholder groups, across different citizen groups within society, and within organisations themselves.

A green recovery needs effective long-term public engagement in order to build awareness and stimulate behavioural changes at all levels of society. This means not only consulting on discrete plans and actions but building an ongoing dialogue between government, industry and the general public – and translating this into policy influence and action.

Time and budget constraints, competition and poor communication all hamper our ability to collaborate. Here are three principles to follow to make collaboration easier.

Focus on building a long-term dialogue

Effective public consultation and engagement are an excellent way for local governments and businesses to make better decisions. Tackling the climate emergency requires a long-term commitment, and many difficult decisions need to be made over time: this requires long-term dialogues and ‘big conversations’, over and above the typical shorter-term public consultation exercises around plans and strategy documents. Online engagement hubs are a useful way to build a ‘big conversation’, complemented by alternative forms of engagement for those who remain offline.

Public consultation around local plans, climate and environmental strategies often generates detailed consultation reports, full of advice and comments from the public that are relevant well beyond the revision of the plan or strategy they are commenting on. A challenge for local authorities is how to translate that enthusiasm and input into an ongoing dialogue and use those documents to feed into planning on a longer-term basis, rather than shelving them after the consultation is over.

Some councils have strategic partnerships with external stakeholders, such as the County Durham Partnership or the Manchester Partnership. Such partnerships typically involve business, NGOs and public sector organisations, who collaborate to deliver strategic programmes and advise on the work of the council in critical areas. These partnerships need to be able to work effectively over sustained periods and bring diverse voices into the decision-making processes.

The climate conversation needs to involve ‘everyone’, reaching out beyond the ‘usual suspects’, for instance to faith communities, low-income families, young people and ‘the offline’. We all know that young people are at the forefront of environmental campaigning, inspired by young activists such as Greta Thunberg, Nina Gualinga and Aditya Mukarji. Yet many officials have no idea how to engage passionate young people meaningfully in policymaking. At the same time, many youngsters are still uninterested in the climate crisis, be this due to lack of knowledge, apathy, family breakdown, poverty, or involvement in drugs and crime. To engage these people, the underlying issues also need to be tackled.

Share information and be joined up

Climate and public engagement professionals emphasise the need to make climate change the centre of the post-pandemic economic recovery and vice versa. Within local councils, a key challenge is the need to collaborate across the different departments delivering a range of public services, all of which in some way relate to the climate and environment.

Climate declarations have tended to be political decisions, driven by committed local councillors, sometimes with a lack of real appreciation of the costs of meeting a net-zero carbon target. In some cases, collaboration between councillors, or between neighbouring councils, has been hampered by a reluctance to collaborate across party lines. Public feedback from citizens’ assemblies and other consultation forums indicates a public desire for politically neutral approaches. Some councils have already set up internal cross-party climate boards to lead on their climate work.

Take time to plan properly

The climate emergency is urgent. Yet the worst thing we can do is to rush into things without a plan. Forward planning, market research and sustainable financing can save time in the long term and certainly make for more effective solutions. According to a recent report by APSE, 282 local authorities made a climate declaration in 2019 and 2020, but only 24 had produced a plan as of April 2020. Use of participatory planning techniques such as participatory budgeting are considered to have great potential for tackling the climate and environmental crisis.

In many cases, there is no stable source of funding for climate and environmental initiatives or for the required public engagement. These activities are often externally funded from one-off grants, including from the EU, which will no longer be an option in the future. Effective financial planning for the climate emergency could incorporate cost savings from carbon emissions reduction and income generation from carbon fines to enhance the financial resilience of a climate and environmental strategy.

The lessons from Covid-19 about human resilience and adaptability – and the extent to which we value a healthy environment – will take time to process, and even then it will not be easy to come out of lockdown and expect people to continue to avoid doing the things they valued previously. But spending time now seeking to understand people and their motivations will provide valuable insights for future action.

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