SECA’s annual gathering brought together more than 100 people to share campaigning experience and expertise and to meet in person for the first time since before the Covid pandemic. A wide range of speakers offered sage advice from their differing perspectives on how to engage with local officials to encourage action on the climate crisis. This blog by Thalia Griffiths outlines the day’s events
Around 100 people gathered in Brighton on 21 January for SECA’s first in-person event since 2020. Climate campaigners from as far afield as Canterbury and Dorking came together to share experiences and expertise on how to persuade local councils to deliver climate action. Despite the gravity of the climate crisis, the mood was one of overwhelming positivity as we reflected on how far SECA has come since its first meeting in 2019.
Our first speaker, Rose Taylor of Friends of the Earth (FoE), had a pragmatic message and plenty of advice, stressing that the existing local government structures “work as well as we make them work”. Councillors, she said, are accountable to us as local citizens, and once we
know how to influence them, we have incredible power. Introducing one of the day’s key messages, the need to return to direct, personal engagement after two years online, she urged campaigners to use their right to turn up to council committees and ask questions, and to build relationships with key councillors and council officers and invite them to attend campaign group meetings.
On her list of recommendations? Build a strong group and work with local allies. Organise local petitions and rallies at key moments. Hold community events and invite councillors along. She suggested highlighting the benefits to the council of introducing climate measures, urged campaigners to use the Climate Emergency UK (CEUK) scorecards or Friends of the Earth case studies to highlight where other councils are doing better, and urged campaigners to make full use of social media and local news outlets. “As local campaigners we can often do amazing work but forget to tell people what we’re doing”. Click here for her presentation.
Panel of councillors
Chloe Clarke from Adur and Worthing Council shared her experience of a citizens’ climate assembly, bringing together 43 randomly selected residents over five days between September and December 2020. They heard from experts on a range of subjects, and discussed, created and voted on a set of 18 recommendations to address how to tackle climate change locally and what this might mean for the way people live and for the local environment.
Of the 18 recommendations, seven are being delivered, eight are underway or partially delivered, and just three have yet to be started. Chloe conceded that the process was resource intensive and time consuming, with a full five days of online sessions and homework, but she listed a range of positive outcomes alongside the recommendations themselves. Participants were inspired by working with people they normally wouldn’t have met, and confidence that the council would listen and act on the assembly’s recommendations increased from 58% beforehand to 76% afterwards. However if the process was repeated, she said, it might be better to focus more narrowly on three or four key policy areas to avoid overwhelming the participants. Click here for her presentation.
Sally Barnard of the SECA Core Group introduced the SECA Climate Action Survey, which has steadily grown in scope since we first urged councils to declare a climate emergency in 2019. “Most councils are moving forward on climate, even though they’re getting almost no support from national government,” she said, noting that in the southeast, every council except Dartford has published a climate action plan, and that most councils are accepting their responsibility to lead on all emissions from their area, not just from the council estate. And progress is happening quickly: in January 2022 around 18% of councils had published annual reports, but when we looked again in November, this had soared to 48%. “Councils know we’re here and we’re backed by 130 community groups. They know they’re being compared, and it’s adding to a general buildup of public pressure,” she said. Sally’s presentation is here.
SECA’s expertise has been recognised to the point where in September 2021 we gave evidence in Westminster to the Environmental Audit Committee, but the task of monitoring individual councils’ climate action has now expanded to the point where our handful of activists can no longer stay on top of the detail. Happily we can hand over to CEUK and its huge band of citizen volunteers. CEUK was founded in 2019, and has moved in the past year from assessing councils’ climate plans to scoring the actions they’re taking towards net zero. They are using a detailed checklist of 89 questions, which CEUK’s Annie Pickering outlined for us, and are still seeking volunteers to mark the Council Climate Action Scorecards. SECA is looking at opportunities for further collaboration with both CEUK and FoE. Annie’s presentation is here.
Simon Barnes of the Mid Sussex Climate Coalition spoke about the concerted efforts by their group to put pressure on Mid Sussex District Council to take action on the climate. The coalition aims to provide easily accessible, impartial information on relevant council activity to help coordinate action, and asks regular public questions at the start of District Council meetings. He stressed that emails can be ignored, and mass emails can simply be blocked. His advice? Attend meetings so that your councillors have to look you in the eye when they’re speaking, be civilised — because if you protest they’ll throw you out — and report back on meetings to your membership. His presentation is here.
Participants then broke into small groups for table discussions sharing what we’ve learned from efforts to engage with and influence councils. We’ve collected some of the best messages here.
Break-out groups hard at work
From the horse’s mouth
After a delicious salad lunch from Brighton’s Foodilic, a panel of councillors gave their insight, with another plea for direct engagement. Lewes councillor Matthew Bird said the volume of digital messages could sometimes be overwhelming, so phone calls and face to face contact were much more effective, while asking questions at public meetings ensured councillors had nowhere to hide. “Councillors love to be photographed, so invite them along to an event!” he counselled. Chichester councillor Sarah Sharp agreed: “It’s through relationships and conversations that change happens.”
Asked how to counter lobbyists for big business interests, or those arguing for economic growth that could come at the expense of the green agenda, West Sussex County Councillor Jay Mercer advised harnessing the power of small groups. The vast majority of the economy in the southeast, he said, is made up of small businesses and sole traders. “As politicians we should be trying to bring that group on board.” Matthew cited Lewes’s community wealth building agenda, which aims to disrupt the economic systems led by big business.
The SECA Pledge table
The meeting then split up for table discussions on 11 topics, including how OnePlanet technology is being used by Transition Worthing to map local green initiatives (more on this in a SECA knowledge sharing session on 9 February), the circular economy, setting up a Climate Emergency Centre, the work of the Surrey Climate Commission, FoE’s United for Warm Homes campaign, what housing associations are doing to tackle the climate crisis, and eco churches.
Chris Todd of Transport Action Network’s table on the Low Traffic Future Alliance found a lot of interest in the alliance’s vision to reduce carbon emissions, improve health and wellbeing, protect the environment, and strengthen local economies. “It’s not about stopping people travelling but giving them the choice and ability to travel in different ways,” he said.
Communities Against Gatwick Noise Emissions (CAGNE) discussed Gatwick Airport’s plans to rebuild the emergency runway as a second runway, and a campaign (with a petition here) for aviation advertisements to declare the emissions generated by flights. “CAGNE does not seek to demonise the flyer and are not anti-aviation, but we are clear the consumer must be informed at time of booking a flight about the impact it will have on global heating,” said CAGNE chair Sally Pavey. “It will be a long time before we see greener planes flying commercial routes that you would take from a leisure airport such as Gatwick and the cost will be considerably more to reflect the greener fuels.”
Katie Eberstein, Tamsin Bishton and Les Gunbie talked about the Brighton and Hove Climate Change, Sustainability and Environmental Education programme Our City, Our World – and about some innovative work with schools in supporting young people to develop a meaningful dialogue with the three city MPs and a local councillor about what they are doing to address the climate crisis.
Sally Barnard gave out information about the SECA ABCD pledge and how local groups and individuals can join the campaign, which aims to put climate and nature on the agenda for local elections on 4 May. We have previously run the campaign in 2019, 2021 and 2022. Campaigners contact their local candidates, ask them to sign the pledge and send in a photo. These are publicised through social media, with SECA’s help, using #abcdpledge, and a register of pledge candidates is published on the SECA website for all to see.
The event ended with Joanna Macy’s poem Active Hope, read by Mark Francis (there’s a video here), and the audience were asked what messages they would take home from the day. SECA co-founder Nicola Peel said the event had underlined for her how far SECA had come since its first meeting in 2019. Around 60 people attended the last in-person gathering in Horsham in 2020, while a similar number gathered online in 2021. The turnout in Brighton reflects both SECA’s increasing membership and the growing public engagement in the subject. Transition Town Worthing’s Pauline Cory said she’d been struck by “how very much councillors really do want to help”. Matthew Bird said that when we’re all busy doing our own thing, it had been great to feel the energy from a big gathering – energy that we’ll be needing in the coming weeks as we gear up to run our SECA pledge campaign for the local elections on 4 May.
SECA would like to thank Friends of the Earth for their generous donation towards the event’s running costs, and also to thank the day’s organisers, speakers and facilitators.