Published on October 21, 2013

Opening up the road to low carbon

By Houda Davis

Houda Davis is a Research Assistant at Involve interested in participation in health, the environment and science and technology.

Involve is soon to publish a thought piece on how local authorities are engaging citizens with climate and energy challenges (see my previous post). In particular we explore whether the use of Open Government principles – increased participation, transparency and accountability – can lead to improved outcomes. As part of this work, I took part in a workshop organised by Energy Cities and Milton Keynes Council as part of a European wide programme called IMAGINE. The project is a partnership of local authorities engaged in developing low carbon futures for their cities.

Each city is expected to engage stakeholders to develop a Roadmap to 2050 which promotes “low energy cities with a high quality of life for all’. Citizen engagement is central to all programmes. Indeed, if the transition to low carbon is is going to be done with communities, rather than to communities, citizens need to be involved. However, for local councils citizen engagement can be quite a challenge. In discussing barriers local councils are facing in engaging citizens, three key concerns stood out:

1. Limited resources. It can be difficult to develop and run citizen engagement processes in a context of cuts. A squeeze on budgets can, in some cases, be transformed into a strength, catalysing partnership working and innovation. For example, in Milton Keynes tight budgets have meant project coordinators have had to ‘think outside the box’, leading to collaborations across departments and cross sector cooperation.

2. Setting achievable goals. When tasked with developing a vision for a low carbon future, it can be challenging to make it relevant and tangible in the short term. Going back to what the purpose of the engagement process is, and being clear what citizens can contribute and how their input will be used, will help to narrow this down. Key in this is to keep it simple: look for small wins and interim outcomes whilst at the same time working towards the longer term vision. In practice, this is by no means an easy task, when long term objectives might be pushed to the background in favour of short term wins.

3. Shifting contexts, changing roles. In the context of cuts and the complexities involved in the transition to low carbon, councils seem to struggle in defining their role. Some councils have been adapting, transforming into facilitators or enablers of grassroots action. For example, Lambeth Council’s Green Community Champions Programme supports volunteers from the community to set up their own initiatives, helping to break down council barriers around planning and signposting to funding or appropriate council officers.

Citizen engagement around energy and climate challenges is by no means straightforward or easy. For example, the development of wind farms has seen significant opposition in some rural locations where residents place a high value on the visual landscape. However the acceptance of sometimes controversial developments and lifestyle changes will require citizens to be involved in decision making on these issues.

It was interesting to see that local councils across Europe are grappling with similar challenges in trying to engage stakeholders and citizens in developing a shared vision for a low carbon future. The experiences from the IMAGINE cities also resonate with the emerging findings from our thought piece. We will soon share a first draft of this work and we welcome your comments.

Photo credit: World Bank Photo Collection


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