How do you put pressure on local councils to take action on the climate?  When SECA members met at their 2023 annual gathering they compared notes on which tactics had worked best. These are the nine ‘top tips’ that emerged from a rich discussion, a distillation of many years of campaigning experience from dozens of climate action groups. In summary:

Build alliances, win trust, speak up at meetings, be focused, harness public support, involve the young, use elections creatively, hold councils to account, don’t give up.

These words of campaigning wisdom are elaborated below.

Break out groups were asked what’s worked best and what lessons have you learned

Build alliances

Being part of a wider group and building alliance gives you more influence than an individual resident or small campaign group. For example:

  • Creating a local contact group to bring people together to discuss climate issues is helpful and creates greater ownership, but this needs ongoing effort (and ideally funding).
  • Linking up with the private sector on joint campaigns – e.g. plastic free.
  • Working with influential local groups like the church and Women’s Institute who are not directly connected with the climate shows other organisations are taking the issue seriously.
  • Relationships need nurturing as there are challenges involved in bringing together diverse communities and interest groups.
  • But we need to break out of our bubbles and connect with other spheres of influence.
  • Being able to say your group is a member of SECA helps build credibility.

Win trust

Engagement with councils brings dividends, but it takes time, requires persistence, and can have set-backs, like when key personnel leave. Our advice is:

  • Personal contacts really help.
  • Find councillors and officers who are allies and develop positive relationships with them.
  • Look for open doors where you have shared concerns and objectives.
  • Don’t assume councillors already have all the information on climate issues. They often appreciate a succinct and clear briefing on a topic, so they can raise appropriate questions with officers and in meetings.
  • But don’t overdo it by bombarding them with reports and links they don’t have time to read.
  • For example, a video of cycle safety issues presented directly to councillors and shared on social media was effective. Feeding information in short bursts helped focus attention.
  • Organising online Q&A sessions on climate issues for MPs or councillors is a good way to increase accountability, ideally every 6 months.
  • Local councillors are often very grateful when local groups engage with them in a supportive way.
  • To get your MP and councillors on board it helps to find out what their personal interests are, and so discover who your potential allies are.
  • Building relationships takes time – you need to be persistent.
  • Engaging with councillors works better than trying to lecture them.
  • It’s all about building trust and showing you aren’t wasting peoples’ time.
  • It helps if you try to understand council constraints, and learn about the systems and procedures they work within, and the chain of decision making.
  • Inviting councillors to community events can help win them over. Involving multiple tiers of councillors amplifies this – parish, district and county.
  • Avoid lecturing them. ‘Show, with examples, don’t tell’.
  • Politicians can surprise you. Most want to do good and enjoy being part of collective events.
  • Useful advice and training on lobbying tactics can be had from Hope for the Future.

Speak up at meetings

Being present at council meetings does make an impact. Emails are easy to ignore. Just being ‘in the room’ can change attitudes. Asking questions at Council Meetings, or prompting councillors to ask them on your behalf, is an important tactic, though persistence is needed to keep pressure up – questions don’t always get answered properly, and since processes for consultation and engagement vary between councils they are often opaque and hard to penetrate.

Some suggestions on tactics:

  • Read council guidelines about how to raise questions and councillors should respond.
  • Get skilled at asking the right questions, as some are likely to prompt a defensive or hostile response rather than productive engagement.
  • Ask open questions rather than yes/no.
  • Start with what people care about – clean air, less pollution, etc. rather than the planet.
  • Best to focus on one key issue at a time rather than taking a scatter gun approach.
  • We need to keep up pressure on councils.

Be focused 

The best tactics for getting traction with campaigns vary depending on the circumstances, but include:

  • Protests can be effective in gaining attention – though direct confrontation risks creating a negative and hostile response.
  • Showing how multiple groups are behind it and are working together – residents, businesses, community groups, etc.
  • Petitions can be powerful – though too many can create ‘citizen fatigue’.
  • Getting celebrity endorsement can help draw attention to a campaign.
  • Having events with good ‘visuals’ attracts press and TV coverage, and is great for social media.
  • You need to harness facts and emotions – both play a part in changing minds.
  • Presenting solutions ‘on a plate’ like community energy may be more effective than just presenting problems.
  • Pointing out ‘co-benefits’ of sustainability measures, to health, the green economy, etc. helps make the case.
  • Show how community-led sustainability projects can benefit the council, especially if it helps save resources.
  • Getting cross-party support gives the best chance of success.
  • Timing is key – especially near elections.
  • Follow up is also crucial – though it takes a lot of time and resources. A one-off event or campaign will often fall flat without it.
  • Good communication is vital – including via social media, press and other channels. Done well this will amplify your voice significantly.
  • Even then, a well-intentioned and common sense campaign, like on low traffic neighbourhoods, can be brought down by a toxic social media backlash (e.g. the Hastings & Hove cycle lanes).
  • Persistence is needed. It may take several years from when an issue is raised to work its way through to concrete actions. You need to get involved early and stick with it.
  • An example is the pension divestment campaigns. This has had some impact in shifting council positions, but there is still resistance from County Councils. Increased people power is probably the best way to apply further pressure.
  • Similarly, some councils have been very resistant to declaring a climate emergency. Getting parishes within the area to do so may help build up pressure on them.
  • It’s better to focus on a few campaigns than spread yourself too thinly.

Harness public support

Demonstrating wider public engagement in a campaign increases its chances of being taken up by councils. Suggestions on how to do this included:

  • Public meetings with a topical focus – like a Q&A panel on the cost of living crisis – can draw people in.
  • Create a focus, like a recycling hub or zero waste store, on a subject people can relate to. It helps bring in volunteers, and make yours a ‘go to’ group.
  • Door knocking to encourage attendance e.g. at a rally.
  • Run surveys on specific topics.
  • Create quirky events to grab attention – e.g. a plastic-free picnic.
  • Point people to good documentaries on the topic.
  • Run joint events with other community groups – e.g. with the WI on keeping warm in winter.
  • Be resilient – it takes time to build a credible, thriving group with a strong voice.
  • Keep it social, keep topics simple, and keep momentum going.

Involve the young

Working with young people is important, as education is key to long term behaviour change.  Involving young people in events and campaigns is a great way of cutting through, and gaining attention from the media and elected representatives. Some schools are not very responsive to outside approaches on climate issues. They can seem to have impenetrable procedures and need to do things their way.

Suggestions included:

  • Parental links can help open doors.
  • You need to build a relationship, so schools feel safe to work with you.
  • Don’t overwhelm them with too many messages.
  • Inviting councillors and MPs to events involving young people is a good way of drawing both sides in.

Use elections creatively

Elections are key moments in the political calendar, providing a range of opportunities for leverage and change:

  • Pledge campaigns – like the SECA ABCD Pledge – put candidates on the spot and can bring climate issues to the fore, so voters can make more informed choices on who to vote for.
  • Pledges need to be detailed and specific so candidates are clear what they are signing up for.
  • Organising hustings events is another good way of getting candidates to declare their views – and ‘empty chairing’ those who won’t participate also sends a message to voters.
  • Activists need to stand for election themselves to get their voice heard. “Having even one Green member on a council can make a difference.”
  • Green activists becoming council officers is another powerful approach – allowing them to bring their own knowledge, experience and passion into council organisations.

Hold councils to account

Councils are not required by government to be accountable for net zero targets. This is a major failing. Some ways around this include:

  • Consider Freedom of Information requests as a way of getting information.
  • The Climate Emergency UK scorecards should help considerably by providing consistent, independent vetting.
  • Naming and shaming councils can backfire. Better to incentivise councillors by showing what neighbouring councils are doing better.
  • Keeping a note of individual councillors voting record can provide useful ammunition.

Don’t give up

Patience and persistence are essential qualities for climate campaigners:

  • It often feels like council systems are not fit for purpose, especially when they get bogged down in politics. Proposals can get taken over and politicised by party groups, get diluted and become a political football – so nothing is done.
  • Some councillors and MPs are totally unresponsive, and refuse to engage. There are codes of conduct and routes for making formal complaints, but these tend to be slow and not very effective.
  • Where that’s the case, working with officers may be more productive than trying to influence councillors.
  • Gender biases are still evident in some councils – e.g. a female councillor having their hand up for half an hour in a meeting and not being called.
  • Councils are very constrained by what central government is mandating and funding. It helps to understand these constraints rather than blaming the council for everything.
  • Councils and other agencies don’t talk to each other enough, especially county councils and district and parish councils. Councils tend to look at their responsibilities in isolation rather than in a joined up way.
  • If all else fails, we can model local democracy ourselves and show how it can be done. “If you won’t do it, we will!”

These words of wisdom were gleaned from a series of 11 parallel discussions held in breakout groups at the SECA Annual Gathering in January 2023.  Around 100 climate campaigners took part. A special thanks to the facilitators who guided the discussions and recorded the key lessons on flip charts (a total of 22 in all – it was a rich discussion!).

More details on the Annual Gathering can be found here.

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