Councils around the country are realising that stakeholder engagement is critical to any ambitious climate plans. But this isn’t as easy as it sounds. The range and diversity of potential partners that need to be brought together creates risks of unproductive ‘talk shops’, or wasting time on point scoring rather than getting on with the job. Councils have tackled this in different ways. In this blog, Councillor Dan Watkins, Chair of Canterbury City Council’s Climate Action Working Group, explains the innovative approach they’ve taken in setting up three inter-connected groups to coordinate climate action: a Council Working Group; a Climate Action Partnership which reaches out to local community organisations; and a Partnership Board involving some of the biggest carbon emitters in the area.
1. When did the City Council declare a climate emergency?
The Council declared a Climate Emergency in July 2019, but I can’t take any credit for that, other than voting for it of course!
You might remember that the government achieved a world-first when it legislated for a national net-zero target for the UK, just a few months earlier. Well this had got people talking about whether the Council should set its own carbon target, and I was delighted when the leadership of the Conservative council group put the proposal forward and there was unanimous support from councillors from all parties.
2. What’s its mandate of the Climate Change Working Group and how ambitious are the targets you’ve set?
Our mandate is to do the research and make the policy recommendations needed for the Council to be carbon neutral by 2030. As such, we are like a ‘climate change brain’ feeding in the plan to the Council committee which will hopefully vote in support of the measures.
The 2030 target is ambitious, no doubt about it, but we have made a good start and I am optimistic for the future. Here is a recent update on progress made.
3. Tell us about the Canterbury Climate Action Partnership and the role it plays.
CCAP is a Community Interest Company, operating as a forum of local community organisations with a strong interest in the environment who have come together (independently of the Council) to help local residents and businesses cut pollution. As you can imagine, it is a strong advocate for rapid decarbonisation and I would say it plays the role of a ‘critical friend’ to the Council in regards to its developing carbon plan.
4. What added value is it providing from a Council perspective?
CCAP facilitates two-way communication, which is helpful from my perspective as it’s an effective way to communicate with local residents about what the council is doing and what they can do to help us. Often this can be generally ‘spreading the word’, but also they wrote in support of the Council’s decision to lease its land to a hydrogen developer. That plan was approved and so the construction of the country’s first green hydrogen plant will start in Herne Bay next year, which is exactly the kind of project we need for a green recovery from Covid.
5. How does the Climate Change Partnership Board work, and what’s the thinking behind it?
Alongside setting a net-zero target for the Council itself, we wanted to help Canterbury district get to carbon neutral too. So as part of the Climate Emergency bill we passed, we created the Partnership Board to help other organisations with large carbon footprints get to net-zero too. The membership includes local Universities, the NHS and businesses, and our first meeting is in early October. We have already collated each member’s carbon plan and our ambition is that each one – like the Council – will have a credible action plan to be carbon neutral by at least 2030. Our meetings will swap ideas to help organisations innovate and cut carbon, as well as hold members to account for their performance towards net-zero.
6. This three-way structure is unusual. How do the groups relate and does this division of roles and mandates seem to be working?
Yes, it may be unique, and there is the potential for it to be very successful because it focuses minds so effectively and has a large collective reach. If the organisations involved show leadership in cutting their own emissions, it will undoubtedly inspire residents and business to do likewise by taking similar carbon abatement measures.
When these groups started, it was key to recognise that whatever our backgrounds or our political persuasions, we were all united in wanting to make changes and achieve carbon neutrality. By bringing people together it is much easier to develop the trust needed to harness our collective energies towards that common goal.
7. Is the structure something that you’d recommend to other councils?
Yes, I would recommend it, but I think all participants need to leave their national politics at the door. Party politics is very divisive at the moment and if you are going to have trust develop amongst members, you can’t have a situation where people are using the various bodies as a vehicle to criticise the ruling council party for partisan reasons. Constructive criticism can be helpful, but carping from the sidelines isn’t!
I would also add that if you are a two-tier authority like our’s, it works very well if you can have the district and county council present in the Partnership Board and community group forum. I’ve been very appreciative of Kent County Council’s engagement in this regard, and it does make for more effective discussions and decisions.
8. All going well, where do you hope Canterbury will be by 2030 in delivering on its climate ambitions?
I expect that we will hit or get close to our 2030 target, but even if we do ultimately miss it, I am sure that we will have cut a huge amount of carbon from the council’s operations and the district as a whole, leaving our area a cleaner and greener place.
Dan Watkins is a Conservative member of the Canterbury City Council and longtime climate activist. Among other interests, he publishes a website on green issues: Dan’s Guide to Going Green Dan can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Here’s a link to Canterbury City Council’s draft Corporate Plan, that sets out its immediate action plans.
SECA is interested in sharing experience of other stakeholder engagement models. Do get in touch if you have any interesting examples or experience you’d like to share by emailing email@example.com