Councils must work harder to secure support for green schemes

September 13, 2023  

This article first appeared in the LGC briefing.

Local government must look beyond conventional consultation approaches to secure resident support for green initiatives and drive forward the environmental agenda that Westminster is so easily abandoning, writes Adam Lent.

One might have thought that the hottest month on record was a good time for our political leaders to double down on efforts to protect the environment. But that’s not how the topsy-turvy world of Westminster works.

July was, in fact, the beginning of a new phase of environmental back-sliding from the government. Fossil fuels are suddenly de rigueur and local pollution schemes such as London’s Ulez and low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) are now the spawn of Satan.

It’s a strategy that just stepped up a gear with Michael Gove’s sudden announcement that rules on river pollution would be loosened. Even Labour is jumping on the exhaust spewing bandwagon determined, as they are, to avoid handing the Tories a single round of ammunition that could be used against them.

Councils should not only resist this malign trend but do everything they can to drive forward the environmental agenda that Westminster is so easily abandoning. Local government has heavy legal and moral duties to protect and advance the public health, living standards and local environment of their residents.

None of these things are remotely achievable if we allow pollution and climate change a freer rein.

So, rather than wind down LTNs, councils should extend. Instead of abandoning efforts to protect nature, councils should be cracking down ever harder on those determined to damage the local environment. In short, local government needs to be the noisiest voice defending the environment just as central government decides to go in the opposite direction.

Doing engagement better

However, councils also need to be far more self-reflective about how they secure resident support for green initiatives. If every scheme is going to generate the degree of hostility experienced by LTNs and the Ulez expansion then the viability of an environmentally responsible approach will rapidly disappear, particularly if national politicians continue to use that hostility for their own cynical ends.

The starting-point for that self-reflection must be to acknowledge that failure to engage fully or honestly with residents is to court trouble. Many LTNs were imposed too quickly and with little public discussion (although some of the fault for this lies ironically with the government which demanded rapid roll-out). The Ulez expansion itself went ahead despite a majority who responded to a public consultation opposing the move.

More fundamentally, councils have to finally accept that the conventional public sector consultation is no way to secure legitimacy for a disruptive initiative – green or otherwise. We live in a world now where the default position of most residents is to be highly cynical about anything the state does. And there are numerous sources of misinformation keen to deepen that cynicism and turn it into outright hostility.

Using an online questionnaire to counter that reality, is like hoping to pacify a tiger with a fly swat. Councils need to make far wider use of the sophisticated techniques now available to build popular consensus using deliberative engagement. These not only ensure resident buy-in for change but also create an opportunity to share objective information and, satisfyingly, sideline the tiny minority who noisily oppose any and every decision taken by a council.

Nature has sent us its loudest wake-up call ever this summer with horrific extreme weather across the globe. We will not have to wait for future generations to judge those who have put their hands over their ears. They will be roundly denounced within a matter of years or even less as the wildfires and floods intensify. Local government needs to ensure it does not join the condemned on the wrong side of history.

Photo by Sveta K.

Join our mailing list