Aware, but not active: How to engage the community on environmental policy

Posted On: 
25th September 2017

Last night’s well attended Woodland Trust and Fabian Society fringe meeting, packed with parliamentarians and councillors, centred around one question: how to build support for environmental action in the UK?


With recent concerns around air pollution, flooding, and urban heat islands – more than ever before, environmental issues are featuring at the top of lists of concerns. And in 2017 the intersection between the political world and the environment is crucial, said Rebecca Speight CEO of the Woodland Trust.

“When it comes to Brexit we need to think about how we want it to happen, how to protect our environmental credentials, perhaps move towards a new environment act.”

Closer to home, domestic legislation needs to be watched. Speight pointed to domestic issues, such as the need for greater protection for ancient woodland and the ‘terribly low’ tree planting rates.

Joined by Shadow Defra minister Sue Hayman, Lord Kennedy, and London AM Leonie Cooper, who is Chair of the London Assembly Environment Committee, the CEO called for a focus on building a participatory culture to tackle these issues. The event was ably chaired by Cllr Natan Doron, a Labour councillor in Haringey. They asserted that by focusing on localism, the UK can breed a more popular environmentalism - however this will only happen if neighbourhood engagement with their local government is common place.

But why is this not already being done? A recent Woodland Trust report revealed that 77% of people living in urban areas would be upset if they lost their green spaces.

“People really care about this stuff,” remarked the CEO.

Currently, there are quite a few barriers to engagement, most notably: local government funding cuts.

“It is a very important, timely, debate, partly due to the amount of cuts local government has seen,” said Sue Hayman, Shadow Environment secretary.

She told the audience of her time working in local government and struggling to run good consultation on issues they wanted to get the local communities involved with due to lack of resources.

This assertion is backed up by a recent report released by the Fabian Society, Powerful People, Powerful Places, which finds that most people are interested in doing more to help, but they ‘lack the support and resources to get active’.

“When you get cuts to local government it does not just affect services, it affects their ability to involve local communities,” said the Shadow Environment Minister.

Lord Kennedy, Shadow Communities and Local Government spokesperson, remarked that another great failure is the lack of value given to consultations, with the Government all too often viewing it merely as a ‘tick-box’ exercise.

“Proper consultation requires local government to give enough time for people to raise issues. If engagement is poor they will never engage again.”

He also called for it to be done on their time and with the encouragement that ‘even a little’ is enough.

Leonie Cooper AM, Chair of the London Assembly Environment Committee, pointed to the obscure language used within local government as another barrier to engagement.

“Language should not be a barrier to prevent people from contributing to our strategies.”

But it is not only about changing how local government deals with those who are interested in engaging. The Fabian Society report said more needs to be done to hear from the hard-to-reach:

Rather than leaving participation solely to them, councils and community groups should make a concerted effort to engage what this report calls the ‘yet to be mobilised.’

Air pollution is one such issue that requires urgent engagement with this group of people, according to Hayman.

“The government has failed on clean air. They have been able get away from it because the communities who are worst affected don’t understand how badly affected they are.

“If [air quality is poor] every day, and they don’t notice, then how do you get them involved?”

In sum, the panel of Labour representatives called for more action on the Government’s part, but the Woodland Trust CEO did not let them off the hook, saying:

“We really need Labour to be saying more about this. In your manifesto there was a commitment to plant a million trees, but a million trees don’t even go near it, so we just need to get real about what we need to do around trees and woods.”

She also called or Labour to give some commitment around street trees.

“What I am asking for is a really strong Labour voice around this stuff.”

Sue Hayman heard her concern and promised more to come, ahead of the next general election.

“Everybody know that we weren’t ready for it, so we had to knock together something in a fortnight, and it was a real challenge. We have a lot we want to get done and work with organisations like the Woodland Trust. Now is the time to build on that manifesto and develop it for the future, because sooner than later we are going to have another election and we need to look at how we are going to deliver on the environment.

She went on to say that “we need to understand how we can, despite the cuts, get involved in community activism and how we can we get the local community more involved.”

Speight said the first step would be to “build a case for environmentalism”, one that is “rooted in people’s everyday experiences.”

“You have to start where people are. You have to start with an issue that matters to them, not just to the council or the parties.”

She also encouraged the parliamentarians and councillors in the room to look to expert organisations for guidance.

“NGOs are often quite good at consultation and engagement and I am always slightly surprised that more local authorities are not knocking on our door and saying come and work with us.

“The combination of local authority really wanting to make a difference, a community really wanting to change its place, and an NGO that can bring its experience to the table can be hugely fruitful. “