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The PM’s Ten Point Plan for climate change: Blueprint, Wish-list or agenda for consultation?

Boris Johnson’s Ten-Point net-zero plan for climate change emerged this week and promptly got a bad press from all quarters. Maybe it’s unfair, and tough on someone who has just removed his long-standing top advisor, planned a ‘re-set’ at 10 Downing Street and promptly got confined to barracks by the Test and Trace system.

Parts of the right-leaning press was worried about Cummings’ departure. An editorial in the Sunday Telegraph said this must not “mean caving in to the woke crowd or elevating the green agenda as [Johnson’s] primary mission”. The Green lobby itself bemoaned the vagueness of it all. Then there was the mystery of the promise to eliminate the sale of gas boilers by 2023. Now you see it; now you don’t. Apparently, it was only included in the original draft because of a ‘mix-up’.

Never mind. It is still an important list and a clear signal of the Government’s thinking. The small print betrays its real purpose – to make an economic case for this direction of travel. So, the offshore wind commitment is supposed to support 60,000 jobs; greener homes and public buildings another 50,000 jobs and the nuclear initiative 10,000 jobs. Etcetera.

Many of these commitments are existing Government policy and hardly new. But there is new money, such as £1bn for carbon-capture. We are also told where – “potentially in areas such as the Humber, Teesside, Merseyside, Grangemouth and Port Talbot.” A happy political congruence with ‘levelling-up’ and maybe with preventing the red wall returning to type. Large-sounding sums too for developing batteries for electric cars, and creating charging points, until one compares them with comparable investments by other European nations. Even according to the almost-sceptical Sunday Telegraph. The comparison is embarrassing, yet we claim to be the world’s leaders. Critics claim that if you add up the projected benefits from all these ambitious commitments, it accounts for only 55% of the carbon-reduction required.

Despite this, let us accept that these are real and that whatever else needs to come, will surely emerge at some stage. Notice two things. First, how many of these are essentially top-down initiatives. And secondly, how many of them will need intense dialogue and consultation with communities.

Many of these policies require sustained research, about which little community consultation is necessary. Devising greener standards for planes or ships may well demand heavy engagement with the aviation and maritime industries and those that use or depend upon them, but may not trouble residents, except maybe around ports and airports. I  also doubt if banking, insurance and financial services tailored to finance the greening of various future economies will greatly interest the people in my street.

But, which town becomes hydrogen-fuelled, which sites accommodate the new micro-nuclear plants, where the power-lines from offshore wind join the national grid and require more electricity transmission might well excite a few people. Then what are the implications of obliging us to switch to underground heat-pumps, to designate many of our car parks as just for electric charging points, to build new cycleways, or maybe just to plant lots more trees? Ah, they are the stuff of local priorities and preferences. And here the devil is in the local detail. There will be hundreds of consultations, and many differences of opinion.

As everything grows greener, umpteen regulators, responsible for so much of our national infrastructure ranging from water, energy, waste, highways, railways, aviation, or even habitats will need to translate Ministers’ laudable aims into practical changes to the way things work today. Some will be tight, closed stakeholder engagements. Others will excite interest in much broader communities of interest. And many of these are devolved to the four administrations – so multiply by at least three. We are in for a decade of non-stop change-related consultations.

Will such consultations be any different from those we have grown to love, hate or ignore? Can Ministries, Regulatory agencies, local authorities or even private Companies working in the public space rely upon the existing toolbox of dialogue methods and the normal rules of engagement?

The Institute is wrestling with the issue but is now fairly sure that the answer is a resounding NO. Before the pandemic, there were already signs that many young people are more conscious of climate change than their elders and might dearly wish to move faster and act more radically that more cautious politicians and officials might wish. The recent national Citizens Assembly confirmed as much. COVID-19 has exacerbated many of the existing trends.

It means that consultations will become the fulcrum of serious debates that may highlight the divisions in society, not unlike the ‘culture wars’ that manifest themselves over BREXIT and which are today most evident in the resistance to the electoral defeat of Trumpism in the USA.  We cannot just assume that official versions of the ‘facts’ in a consultation paper will go unchallenged by opponents of change. Neither should we expect that rival advocates will accept the interpretation of consultation results without putting the independence and professionalism of consultation analyses under the microscope. Fierce competitors for the support of communities will demand faultless consultation practice. There will be many demands for a recount!

There is much that we can do to clarify standards, to encourage their adoption, to publicise best practice, introduce benchmarking and even to develop mediation and arbitration services. All these are on the Institute’s agenda.

In the meantime, we need to look carefully at each element in the agendas for behaviour change that this, and other Governments, launch. No matter whether the Prime Minister can present this as a master blueprint, or whether it is still a back-of-an-envelope wish-list, the coming tsunami of green-related public consultations is on its way.

About the Author

Rhion Jones is considered a leading authority on Public Engagement and Consultation. A founding Director of the Consultation Institute, he is co-author of “The Art of Consultation” (2009) and “The Politics of Consultation” (2018). He has delivered over 500 training courses and Masterclasses and is a prolific writer on the subject, having written over 350 different Topic papers and over 50 full Briefing Papers for the Institute. Since 2003 over 15,000 person-days of training based on courses he invented have been delivered. Rhion is in demand as an entertaining Keynote Speaker and Special Adviser, particularly on the Law of Consultation, and its implications for Government and other Public Bodies. In 2017, he was awarded the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’.

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