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Local government, climate policy and public engagement

Red Green Labour supporter Richard Hatcher writes on local government, climate policy and public engagement.

On 28 June the WMCA held the second meeting of the West Midlands Greener Together Community Forum. This is one of a number of initiatives designed to enable public engagement in the CA. Another is the planned launch of a Citizens Panel. The WMCA’s Environment and Energy Board report on Environment Behaviour Change Update, 9 March 2022 says:

A Citizens Panel is being formed to allow the public to co-design and co-produce elements of the developing Environment Team and Energy Capital work. …an invitation to tender is being developed to appoint public participation specialists to create the panel. A budget of £150k has been allocated to support this work over two years. [1]

The Greener Together Community Forum and the Citizens Panel are just two elements in a wide-ranging campaign of climate-related ‘behaviour management’ by the CA. It is spelled out in detail in the Environment Behaviour Change Update report:

Recommendation(s) for action or decision:

The Environment and Energy Board is recommended to:

  1. a) Note the opportunity and resources available for councillors through Involve’s Local Climate Engagement Programme on participatory and deliberative public engagement.

  1. c) Consider, in your role as local leaders, how you could engage in future behaviour change campaigns and support the communications activity.

Involve is an organisation that describes itself as ‘the UK’s public participation charity, on a mission to put people at the heart of decision-making’. [2] The report continues:

  1. Purpose

This paper provides a progress update on delivery of the behaviour change programme relating to the Environment and Energy Board remit, covering citizen engagement as well as forthcoming and future campaigns.

2.1 In May 2021, the Behaviour Insights Team (BIT) were commissioned to create a strategy and plan for how WMCA could effectively communicate ambitions and positively influence people’s behaviour to achieve the region’s net zero by 2041 goal, whilst ensuring we create a more equal, prosperous region.

2.4 It is key to note that communications alone will have a limited impact on scaled and sustained behaviour change. Communication campaigns should be implemented in line with specific behaviour change interventions and plans, which were identified by BIT and which we have built on. The three areas of focus that their work initially pointed to were campaigns on the natural environment, sustainable food and home retrofit.

2.24 Local Climate Engagement Programme (LCE). WMCA applied and has been successful in being accepted onto Involve’s LCE programme, designed to support local authorities and partnerships to plan, commission and deliver high quality public engagement with climate decision-making, in a way the benefits both WMCA and the local population. WMCA are in the coaching group, where 5 officers will join other local authorities in an intensive training course and mentoring group.

2.25 The programme includes a 2-hour self-guided resource for councillors to support them to think through how participatory and deliberative public engagement relates to their role. Self-guided learning resources are also available for the Senior Leadership Team and Senior Managers. WMCA will share the resources with the Board once they are available, as well as plan communications activity to ensure that everyone who could benefit from the course is aware of it.

The Environment Behaviour Change Update report explains that the Citizens Panel is to be contracted to be set up by ‘public participation specialists’:

Net Zero Citizens Panel. A Citizens Panel is being formed to allow the public to co-design and co-produce elements of the developing Environment Team and Energy Capital work. Following on from soft market testing conducted in November 2021, an invitation to tender is being developed to appoint public participation specialists to create the panel. The appointed specialist would be required to develop a clear and strategic programme that will bring a representative group of people from across the West Midlands together to make decisions and influence policies and interventions to achieve our net zero targets. A budget of £150k has been allocated to support this work over two years.

The report also outlines the purpose of the Greener Together Forum:

2.20 West Midlands Greener Together Community Forum. The purpose of the Forum is to create a space for environmental NGOs, climate activists, community groups, the public and others from across the region to discuss the route to net zero and inspire collaboration. The Forum will provide an open and inclusive platform for the sharing of information which is relevant to the region’s journey to net zero as well as providing a space for the WMCA and other organisations to update one another and the wider community on the work being undertaken to achieve these targets.

Retrofit of privately-owned homes: a priority for behaviour change

One of the priorities for the CA’s climate policy  – perhaps the most urgent – is the retrofit of privately-owned homes. These represent the vast majority of homes in the WMCA area – 87% as against 13% social housing – and therefore account for the vast majority of carbon emissions in the housing sector.

There is now a new version of the Government grant to help replace old gas heating. From April 2022 the Boiler Upgrade Scheme offers a grant of up to £5,000 to install an air source heat pump in homes in England and Wales. But this grant is aimed at home owners with disposable income. According to The Energy Saving Trust it can cost between £7,000 and £13,000 to install an air-to-water heat pump in your home. And that doesn’t cover all the other energy efficiency measures that are needed. (Of course that is why we need to campaign for non-profit housing retrofit providers.)

But providing a grant isn’t enough. It requires individual home-owners to recognise the problem and choose to implement retrofit. This is one of the principal aims of the WMCA’s behaviour change programme, as detailed in the Environment Behaviour Change Update report:

Home Retrofit Campaign

2.14 The WMCA Energy Capital Team is developing a significant programme of work to support retrofit across all communities in the West Midlands, recognising the challenges of addressing fuel poverty and improving the home energy efficiency of low-income households. This work is being led by the SMART Hub.

2.15 In addition to this, retrofit will also need to work with the ‘able to pay’ and the work that the Behavioural Insights Team produced included an implementation plan to design a retrofit communication campaign aimed at homeowners with disposable income. Working with colleagues in Energy Capital, this campaign is currently being developed into a “Is your home fit for a heat pump?” campaign as well as a campaign to encourage homeowners to obtain an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC).

2.16 “Is your home fit for a heat pump?” campaign will launch before April 1st when the government opens the Clean Heat Grant that aims to help existing small domestic buildings transition to low carbon heating systems for heating their homes. To ensure home occupiers are informed on the right retrofit choice for their home, the information campaign will launch to detail what is needed to install a heat pump and what retrofit measures you will need to ensure your heat pump is efficient and householders aren’t left with high energy bills.

2.17 EPCs contain information about a property’s energy use and typical bill costs and recommendations about how to reduce energy use and save money. EPC’s are valid for 10 years and are needed when renting and selling your home. This information campaign will promote the benefits of obtaining an EPC and is a lowcost solution to receiving advice on how to reduce energy use in the home, which will be a topical campaign in the current energy crisis.

2.18 Both campaigns are currently being developed and additional funding/partnerships will be sought to lend credibility to the campaigns. Will explore possible collaborations with BIT to ensure the campaign is underpinned by behavioural science and communicated with the right approach.

Future campaigns

2.26 In addition to the development of the campaigns outlined above, it is anticipated that future campaigns will include:

  • Citizen survey – to understand the impacts of the Energy & Environment teams work, an annual attitudes survey will be conducted to understand how the CA’s work is influencing the public’s knowledge and attitudes towards addressing the climate emergency. Possibility to use the BIT survey as a baseline and to continue to understand public perception of the CA’s current and future work.

  • Transport for West Midlands (TfWM) – behaviour change is a priority in the Local Transport Plan, particularly around demand reduction and a shift to sustainable forms of transport. Early conversations are being had with TfWM to discuss shaping the CA’s approach to behaviour change by setting aims and objectives and linking with a wider piece of work on citizen engagement.

  • Support for adaptation measures – these might include activities to support nature-based solutions for making places and communities more resilient, e.g. how to plant gardens to reduce flooding (rain gardens).

  1. Inclusive Growth Implications

This report links to a number of the WMCA’s eight inclusive growth priorities, which are identified as ‘a catalyst for improved and sustained outcomes for people place, codesigned with partners and beneficiaries’. Delivering a behaviour change programme of work will support outcomes around: [including]

  • supporting the principle of powerful communities through engaging in deliberative democracy to help citizens feel influential;

Of course it goes without saying that the climate crisis cannot be tackled without massive public behaviour change on a whole number of issues. But this goes beyond personal behaviour changes to fundamental questions of institutional policies and practices. And here the question is, what are the limits the WMCA will set to public co-design and co-production, and the extent to which “engaging in deliberative democracy” is designed to “ help citizens feel influential” rather than be influential in shaping policy?

What is Co-Production?

Co-production has been a feature of progressive public policy for several decades but it has also become a dominant ideological theme and key instrument of social policy under the current neoliberal austerity regime. Michelle Farr, in her 2018 article ‘Power dynamics and collaborative mechanisms in co-production and co-design processes’, explains:

Co-production is a contested concept. In practitioner and policy literature co-production is often promoted as a ‘normative policy good’ […] endorsing a partnership approach and equal relations between staff and citizens that can facilitate innovation and improvement within public services […]. In contrast, at a discursive level co-production has been analysed as an extension of neoliberal free market economics and a fix for austerity […], where citizens may be substituted for paid personnel within public services […]. (p624)

Is co-production ‘legitimating and deepening’ managerialism and neo-liberalism, giving ‘a false impression of citizen power’ […]? Or does co-production support small-scale service improvement, or have the potential to transform power relations and structures? (p626)

Co-production and co-design techniques may be critiqued as ‘grafting deliberative processes onto a neoliberal framework’ […], where service improvements are made, yet at the same time wider structural issues within public services, generated through austerity measures and neoliberal marketisation may not be challenged. (p627) [3]

Co-production is often implemented to modify power relations between service providers and service users, and this can produce positive benefits. But co-production between citizens, including civil society organisations, and the WMCA as a local state apparatus involves huge power differentials. In that context what role would citizens have in defining and shaping the co-production agenda? Is co-production “legitimating and deepening’ managerialism and neo-liberalism, giving ‘a false impression of citizen power’? Or does co-production support small-scale service improvement while leaving the contexts of WMCA policy aims and structures intact? Or could it have the potential to transform power relations and structures?

The WMCA is ensuring that popular participation is restricted to the lower levels of the policy structure – the Greener Together forum, the Citizens Panel. There is no co-production at the strategic level of the design, commissioning and democratic accountability of services. This is determined by what is acceptable to Government, which exercises powerful centralised control over local government, and to the requirements of market growth and profitability, which is the mission of Combined Authorities. Co-production is a class strategy to further the interests of capital by building popular support both in general and for specific CA policies, and integrating potential popular opposition within the boundaries set by the CA.

How should the climate movement respond to the CA’s public engagement strategy?

One possible response is to refuse to engage with it on the grounds outlined in the previous paragraph, and focus instead on trying to build a public climate movement. This would be a mistake for two reasons. One is that engagement can produce positive reforms which further the aims and policies of the climate movement, and not to take advantage of such opportunities holds the movement back. The second is that public engagement with the CA can be one means of attracting people to building a mass public climate movement.

The other, and opposite, response would be to accept the CA’s offer of public engagement in good faith and accept the policy framework and boundaries that it sets. The result would be to achieve some limited positive reforms but within the framework of neoliberalism.

The effective strategic response is to participate in engagement with the CA but without illusions while continuing to work towards building an independent mass popular climate movement, and bringing as much pressure for radical policies from it to bear on the CA both from outside and within it where possible.

Two steps the WMCA should take to enable ‘powerful communities … engaging in deliberative democracy’ where the strategic policy-making takes place

These are what the West Midlands Climate Coalition called for unanimously at its meeting on 12 July. First, the Greener Together Forum and the proposed Citizens Panel should have elected citizen representatives on the WMCA’s Environment and Energy Board. This comprises 8 Councillors together with two other voting representatives, non-elected, one from Energy Capital, representing local business, and one from the Environment Agency, a Government body. If these interests have representatives so should citizens from the climate movement.

Second, there is another key committee which should be opened up to public participation. When the WMCA was set up it adopted the Executive and Scrutiny Committee model of local councils. The WMCA Overview and Scrutiny Committee has 15 Councillor members and a non-elected business representative from the Black Country Local Economic Partnership, who is also a voting member. Nationally there has been concern that there should be more public involvement in the Scrutiny process. This is the view of the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee’s ‘Effectiveness of local authority overview and scrutiny committees. First Report of Session 2017–19’, published 15 December 2017:

  1. The Government should promote the role of the public in scrutiny in revised and reissued guidance to authorities, and encourage council leaderships to allocate sufficient resources to enable it to happen. Councils should also take note of the issues discussed elsewhere in this report regarding raising the profile and prominence of the scrutiny process, and in so doing encourage more members of the public to participate in local scrutiny. (p33) [4]

The Greener Together Forum and the Citizens Panel should have representatives at WMCA Scrutiny Committee meetings with at least an advisory role, especially when climate-relevant issues are on the agenda.

Whether the WMCA accepts these proposals or not is a test of how serious they are about public engagement and citizen participation.

Richard Hatcher

13 July 2022


  1. WMCA, Environment Behaviour Change Update, 9 March 2022
  3. Michelle Farr, Critical Social Policy 38(4): 623–644.
  4. House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee, Effectiveness of local authority overview and scrutiny committees. First Report of Session 2017–19, 15 December 2017.



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