How community power helps us find common ground on climate change and housing

November 22, 2021  

The links between housing and climate change have long been understood. Energy use within homes contributes around 14% of the UK’s total carbon emissions.

But the connections between housing policy and climate change policy are only now starting to come into focus. The government recently launched a new retrofitting programme. Activist groups like Insulate Britain have been trying to increase public awareness of how Britain’s increasingly low quality housing stock contributes to emissions.

Housing and climate change have also been the topics of New Local’s latest reports. In both cases, we’ve been exploring the potential of community power – the transfer of resources and control to people on the ground – to improve outcomes.

And across both cases, we have found some similarities in terms of what approaches bring about best results – helping communities find common ground on potentially divisive issues.

Discovering co-benefits, creating conversations and building consensus

When you listen to people, communities’ priorities often relate to housing and climate change. In some cases this is explicit – net zero and house prices are of course highly salient issues.

However, perhaps more often, the links are more implicit. Issues like fuel poverty or concerns about the physical environment that people live both are examples of concerns that span a range of policy areas, but have obvious links to housing and climate change.

Listening to communities and working with them on these kinds of broad issues can unlock what are called ‘co-benefits’.

By starting where people are, with the issues that they prioritise, you can meet their immediate needs – and by doing this mobilise them to start to think about other issues, such as climate change or the need to address the housing crisis.

In this way, you can build local coalitions for change and negotiate issues that might otherwise cause pushback. This is a major issue when it comes to remedying both the housing crisis and the climate crisis.

Dealing with either of these issues means changes that people are going to see and feel in their everyday life. There are going to be new houses in their neighbourhoods, new infrastructure, new behaviours that are incentivised and old habits that are disincentivised.

Navigating this terrain is necessarily difficult. It requires deliberation, discussion, and democratic legitimacy if you are to avoid alienating people and making progress more difficult.

That’s why community power is perhaps most important as a concept in policy areas where there are genuine conflicts of interests.

Navigating conflicts of interest

People whose wealth is tied up in property do not want to see more houses built if that means prices are to go down. People who rely on their cars do not to see driving made more difficult.

However, people with such interests also care about other things – like seeing their children get on the property ladder, or reducing air pollution in their local area.

Community power is about creating space for these conversations, and allowing people to see how different issues interact in local places.

It is about letting communities decide what works for them, and creating optimal outcomes based on their visions of what good looks like.

Trying to manage vastly complex issue like housing or climate change from a central point of control in Westminster simply cannot replicate this. Indeed, this is perhaps no small reason why government after government has failed to make significant progress in addressing either crisis.

Community power can offer us a way forward.

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