Engaging the ‘yet to be mobilised’ in environmental activism

With cuts looming as an existential threat over local authorities, and the ongoing uncertainty of Brexit making life harder for all decision-makers, it might be an odd moment to propose more community involvement programmes. After all, isn’t devolution supposed to be helping with all that?

But there is a reason why the slogan ‘Take Back Control’ resonated with so many UK voters and it’s because people feel they have little say over decisions that affect their lives.

A new report published by the Fabian Society explores how local leaders might involve residents more effectively in local decision-making. It focuses specifically on environmental issues because people’s connection to the place in which they live and work, raise their children and care for their loved ones has the potential to be a powerful driver of action to overcome this sense of powerlessness.

The research offers some stark lessons for campaigners and councillors alike: many people are willing to get involved in community action to improve the environment – as many as a third of the population – but they are misunderstood by community leaders.

For instance, most activists who responded to the Fabian Society’s survey through the 38 degrees network suggested they thought the reason others don’t participate in environmental action is because they think ‘someone else would take care of it’.

But the local people who took part in focus groups made no such assumption. And when given the opportunity to develop their own campaign plans, most reported a sense of empowerment and motivation that should encourage campaigners and decision-makers alike.

The new report calls this group of motivated but inactive people the ‘yet to be mobilised’: in a resource-limited setting councils and community groups should focus their efforts on getting them onboard.

Decisions about the environment will be better decisions when made with local people rather than despite them

UK100 supported this research because we are a network of local leaders committed to shift their local economies to 100% clean energy in ways that brings businesses and residents with them. As technologies speed up and costs fall, it is public support for this agenda that becomes ever more essential.

But the public outreach methods that most councils employ rarely reach the ‘yet to be mobilised’. Most of the residents who participated in the Fabian Society focus groups said they were largely unaware of council activity or had been turned off participating when they felt that their feedback to consultations had gone nowhere.

As the leaders of Leeds and Newcastle city councils say in their foreword to the report: ‘reliance on the “usual suspects” to confer the appearance of engagement isn’t enough. Poor consultation undermines trust and can be as bad – or worse – than no consultation at all.’

Even the environmental activists felt ‘locked out’ of decision-making and found processes like devolution opaque. The most likely action they had taken to participate in consultation was filling in questionnaires and response forms: the same as the ‘yet to be mobilised’.

Questionnaires might be the cheapest ways to consult, but they certainly don’t seem to be the most effective. The report makes a compelling case for why more robust methods of citizen engagement are worth investing in – even, or perhaps especially, in these straitened times.

What those in local government might find the most useful are the report’s checklists for both activists and local leaders. They outline exactly how to maximise the involvement of residents, building consent and ownership into decisions that impact the environment: focus on local benefit, ensure activities fit into people’s lives, show leadership, don’t rely on the usual platforms but look for new places to meet and talk, and ensure their involvement makes a material difference to the outcome.

Decisions about the environment will be better decisions when made with local people rather than despite them. Local leaders and campaigners are overlooking untapped passion for our environment in up to a third of residents.

At a time of ever-tightening budgets local leaders need to realise that there is massive untapped potential in our communities. But we need to do more to unleash it.

Photo by Richard Craig

Polly Billington

Polly Billington

Director, UK100

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