Why is Community-led Energy Planning needed?
Since 2019 three hundred local authorities across the UK have declared climate emergencies, committing them to reaching net zero as early as 2028, with many aspiring to targets ahead of the UK’s national target of 2050. In many places, these declarations were prompted by civil society and grassroots campaigns which have subsequently pushed for more rapid and meaningful political and practical responses to environmental breakdown – both at a national and a local level.
Following these declarations, the introduction of climate action plans and the creation of new climate and sustainability officer positions, local authorities are increasingly recognising that, to deliver local decarbonisation, citizens must have a stake in the energy transition. Many other organisations and groups with roles to play in delivering the energy transition are also recognising the importance of citizens in delivering it. This aligns with a wider understanding at the international level that citizen buy-in and activity will be critical to limit global warming to 1.5°C.
This recognition reflects the need for legitimacy in the eyes of the public for the scale of interventions needed. Without this, local and national governments run the risk of implementing systems and processes aiming to deliver the transition which are poorly designed and do not work in the interests of the people using them. Not achieving legitimacy in the eyes of the public also risks public and political resistance to the changes required to deliver the UK’s net zero targets.
Building legitimacy will require more than consultation. Efforts need to be made to build mechanisms which enable local people to shape, operate and govern the future energy system. This can be done by embedding deeper approaches to citizen engagement and prioritising alternative forms of democratic ownership and control within the future energy system. To deliver energy justice, this must have an explicit focus on reaching people who are not the “usual suspects”, working with locally trusted organisations to engage local people in the climate agenda.
Embedding deeper approaches to citizen engagement
Citizen engagement is usually used by local councils to gain feedback on, and build buy-in for, works or plans. The climate emergency is a challenge local councils have only been contending with in the last decade, and only recently with explicit expectations from the UK government in delivering net zero targets. One of the shifts experienced by local councils is their new role in supporting the transition from an energy system which is dirty and centralised to one which is cleaner and more decentralised. This places huge spatial planning demands on local authorities – a sphere in which citizen engagement and approaches such as participatory planning are often utilised to build public consent.
Currently, this new responsibility (and a lack of capacity to deliver meaningful citizen engagement around it) risks citizens being subjected to potentially large-scale changes to their built environment and restrictions as a result of this – without prior knowledge, involvement or consent.
As such, engagement practice in this sphere needs to develop quickly – not only to build legitimacy in the eyes of the public, but to enable citizens to shape the way the transition happens in their place.
Collaboration will be key to developing these approaches. Routine community engagement activity struggles to engage with citizens around the energy transition due to the (currently) limited climate knowledge of district officers and local people. Climate and sustainability officers are also spread thinly across a wide range of climate activities which limits the resources available to progress community engagement. Cross-departmental approaches to engagement need to be developed, with an understanding that deep engagement activity can not only deliver outcomes for councils with regards to their strategies but also to the capacity and confidence of citizens to drive change in their places.
Councils will also need to collaborate with community groups and organisations with deep connections in local communities. This will be needed to bridge the gap between local institutions and local communities, combining the local influence of civil society organisations with the institutional power of the local council to develop mechanisms for people who have previously gone unheard to be part of local decision-making around the energy transition.
Local Area Energy Planning (LAEP) is the main methodology currently used to plan for the future energy system in a place. While this methodology includes a “social process”, it is unclear and de-prioritises the role of local people in driving energy transition actions. As such, it lacks the ability to ascertain and build legitimacy in the eyes of the public for any cost, disruption and change needed.
If the officers delivering the recommendations emerging from the LAEP are to do so with the support of local people, wider engagement with the public around energy transition should be incorporated as an integral part of the process. This should be done in collaboration with community groups and organisations with deep connections in local communities. It will be particularly important to work with lower-income neighbourhoods if these approaches are to prioritise energy justice.
As local authorities increasingly express their desire to work more closely with the public to shape their approaches to delivering on their climate action plans and wider net zero commitments, there is a significant opportunity to connect the social process of LAEPs to deeper community engagement which can both build legitimacy and catalyse action. Community-led Energy Planning (CLEP) is one methodology which can fill this gap.
Alternative forms of democratic ownership and control
Emerging practice across localities seeking to engage residents in decision-making around climate action ranges from consultation to deliberation – for example the increasing use of climate juries and citizens assemblies. However, this engagement very rarely addresses the question of who should own and govern the interventions that will be put in place to deliver the energy transition. These questions are exactly those which will impact how future energy systems develop and who benefits from them. To deliver a transition which can help to tackle health, wealth and social inequalities, being agnostic about ownership is not an option.
Developing alternative forms of ownership within the future energy system will necessitate the introduction of more community- and municipally-owned solutions. In many places these are being advanced, but rarely due to capacity-building work delivered within the communities which stand to benefit the most from these interventions.
A CLEP approach enables the development of the knowledge and understanding needed within communities to identify solutions and opportunities (and potentially resources) for community-owned solutions to develop at the neighbourhood scale.
Going beyond the “usual suspects”
Concern about climate change is not divided along class lines. A YouGov poll conducted for Global Future found that the majority of adults across incomes and age groups in the UK are worried about climate change. However, while climate change will have impacts across all groups of people, the IPCC’s Climate Change 2022 report noted that “across sectors and regions the most vulnerable people and systems are […] disproportionately affected” by climate change – meaning it will disproportionately impact those on lower incomes. This is already evidenced as a result of the energy crisis, with predictions that the number of households in fuel poverty will increase in the UK from 4m in October 2021 to 8.5m by October 2022.
To take an approach to transition which centres climate justice, local authorities must work with the people and neighbourhoods most vulnerable to the changes needed to address climate change to shape and prioritise interventions based on their experiences.
Local and neighbourhood-level organisations and groups will be key to enabling this. These organisations often have significant social capital within lower-income neighbourhoods, in comparison to the often low levels of trust communities have in institutions like local councils. Locally trusted organisations can have a key role in building legitimacy and enabling deeper citizen engagement within these neighbourhoods.
There is also a significant opportunity to work within lower-income neighbourhoods to not only build legitimacy but also capacity to take on opportunities for ownership which can drive benefits back into their neighbourhood. People in lower-income neighbourhoods are less likely than their more affluent counterparts to have the financial and social capital or the time to engage with the climate action needed to deliver benefits back into their neighbourhoods. Without interventions to grow capacity and build knowledge and confidence in these neighbourhoods to enable local people to engage with decision-making and direct climate action, they risk losing out.