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There is also widespread consensus that somehow, the general public must be committed… and involved, if only because it’s our individual behaviours in aggregate that determines the speed and efficacy of de-carbonising our communities.
Right now, we are seeing the emergence of a complementary combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches, as technology enablers are giving us good tools to tackle emissions – and community self-help groups are finding ways to leverage such innovations with more local control and accountability.
Community engagement in energy
Nowhere is this better seen than in the field of community energy.
In recent years, our core energy policy was to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels by phasing out electricity generation from coal and encouraging wind, solar and new nuclear capacity.
Except that eight years ago, the Government in England tightened up the planning laws so as to make onshore wind farms difficult to approve.
Research suggested that the guardians of our small towns and villages did not much like local landowners making a fortune selling to big energy suppliers who then could make even more money if energy prices rose! As we know they did!
The same research showed that people are far more relaxed if local communities share in the benefit of local power generation, as happens more often in other European countries.
Thus began the community energy movement, which is a way to mobilise local people who want to do something constructive, normally championing a ‘community’ approach to net zero.
The practicalities of sorting out how you can decarbonise a community require a mix of professional people with practical skills and knowledge – engineers, accountants, lawyers, project managers as well as architects, planners or builders - often the very kind who have less interest in consultative talking shops (though these can be valuable too) and who are skill-rich, time-poor, go-getting ‘doers’.
So the theory goes… but in truth, we now have enough experience to know that small-scale projects can make a real difference.
Some of them add to our renewable generating capacity, but it’s possible to get quicker ‘wins’ through local energy schemes and other ways of either reducing electricity demand or switching to more sustainable sources of space heating. The model is proven – all we now need to do is make it happen.
And this is where the public engagement challenge arises. How does one galvanise this kind of grassroots initiative-taking?
The Government would like to see every local authority in the country buy into the principle and encourage the best and brightest to such efforts, but it needs a more systematic investment. Enter Chris Skidmore MP.
In January this year, the Former Energy Minister published his Net Zero Review, a giant 340-page tome with 129 recommendations informed, he claims, by engaging with communities, economists and climate experts from across the country through more than 50 roundtables and 1800 submissions.
It has led to several ongoing policy reviews and consultations, one of which is on the long-overdue relaxation of planning constraints on those onshore wind turbines that proved controversial in 2015.
It has also led to a realistic re-appraisal of the role of local authorities. Skidmore sees them as having ‘a significant amount of local convening power’ and are in a powerful position to stimulate interest. But he laments the sheer lack of capacity. Paragraph 714 spells it out:
Often, local leaders are better placed to engage with communities and businesses on net zero, better placed to understand the challenges and opportunities their areas face in transitioning to net zero, and better placed to deliver locally-tailored net zero interventions.
However, they currently face a lack of clarity over their role, a disjointed and short-term approach to funding, and require further support to build the capacity and capability needed locally to deliver a successful transition.
He offers plenty of evidence. One of the major Combined Authorities is quoted as admitting that a “lack of dedicated capacity and specialist expertise slows progress, resulting in fewer projects being developed and delivered.”
There are several ways to break the log jam.
- Councils can reach for the ‘Comms” playbook and convene a high-profile Climate Assembly – a favourite tactic in this country and around Europe with considerable expertise being developed and shared through the excellent KNOCA initiative. Their latest state-of-the-art document on such deliberative events is required reading if this approach appeals.
- Local conferences and events can seek to educate stakeholders who might have an interest. In any Authority, I estimate there are over 200 organisations with a legitimate interest in energy-related issues and whose members may include the kind of professional people drawn to challenging projects such as building neighbourhood energy plans.
- Work with specialist facilitators who act as a catalyst to trigger interest by sharing the learning from the growing number of projects already underway. To declare an interest, I act as an Advisor to Community Energy South which has worked with over 120 renewable energy projects and they, alongside others now seem to be the preferred model for rapid capacity-building in the sector.
Net zero and stakeholder engagement
Whichever route is taken, stakeholder engagement for the Net Zero challenge seems to be entering a new and very active phase.
As communities organically organise themselves to address the issues, led by the enthusiastic, experienced as well as the inexperienced, there will be lots of governance, protocol and communications issues besides the immense technical and financial challenges of offering residents the incentives to de-carbonise in the spirit of ‘just transition.’
Monitoring and managing these developments will be an immense – but ultimately satisfying - task, for which the best available tools and systems will be needed.
And, of course, it will take over a decade. This is just the start.
Written by Rhion Jones
Rhion Jones was the Founder Director of the Consultation Institute and is an acknowledged authority on all aspects of public and stakeholder engagement and consultation. He advises Tractivity and will be contributing expert analysis and commentaries on current issues.
Rhion now publishes thought leadership articles regularly as the ConsultationGuru.