Universities and councils: partnership working towards net zero

The LGA has been working to partner universities with councils to explore ways of achieving their carbon emission targets.

A graphic green city-scape which says climate change hub above

Across the UK, local authorities are declaring a climate emergency, seeking to lead action at a local level to reduce carbon emissions, increase biodiversity, transition to net zero and ultimately improve the quality of life of their residents and the local environment.

Universities have been working in the climate change space for a substantial period of time and therefore have invaluable research that can help councils in achieving their ambitions.

The LGA is working with universities to, not only introduce them to their local councils, but to expand partnership networks across the whole country.

Please find below links to blogs, papers and testimonials on how council and university partnerships are taking us a step closer to reducing our carbon emissions.

Blog post - Developing partnerships, changing futures | Jacki Bell, Durham Energy Institute, and Maggie Bosanquet, Durham County Council

Partnership working provides a critical opportunity for diverse groups to share and expand best practice and to build agency among different stakeholders.

UCL and the Local Government Association (LGA) recently put this technique into practice, hosting a workshop to connect academics and local authorities and investigate the immediate challenges facing councils on their journey to achieving net zero. For local authorities the workshop aimed to meet the immediate and urgent policy need to develop strategies on commitments to reaching net zero targets, for the research community it provided an opportunity to test research findings/tools as well as opportunities to generate impact from their research.

Durham Energy Institute and Durham County Council have developed their close working relationship over the past six years. Starting with a simple conversation, which led to an agreement that we would aim to share knowledge, education and opportunities, we are now working locally to jointly accelerate and support our transition to Net Zero. This partnership has led to a plethora of benefits for both Institutions.

Tools and techniques

Partnership working allows individuals and organisations to build better and longer lasting relationships with their peers, by building foundations of shared language and understanding as well as an ethos of co-production.

For the University, this partnership provides us with the opportunity to identify real challenges, and an impartial forum within which to discuss approaches, engage with practical research and end users, partner and gain support on funding applications, as well as make a real difference to the area in which we are located. We are developing a Living Lab approach to energy research.

For the Council the value of this partnership is enormous. We have access to some of the country’s best experts for advice, brilliant students for support with projects and a trusted critical friend to help us develop the right policies for the County.

Putting theory into practice

For us, the workshop helped to consolidate the relationships we have been building over the past six years. Our journey has been incremental. Early engagement consisted of support for student-led events such as a Climate Change Question Time led by Geography final years, David Saddington and Christopher Vos. David has gone on to head up International Land Use and buildings strategy for BEIS  and he commented that "The debate was designed not only to clarify the science of climate change by drawing upon expertise from Durham University but also to discuss a pragmatic way of tackling the problem."

The early discussions led to the establishment of the Durham Water Hub, jointly with the Environment Agency and Northumbrian Water, a European funded hub to develop solutions to water challenges through knowledge exchange and demonstration.

DEI Staff also joined the Partnership Board for two further Council EU funded projects, REBUS, and LoCarbo which led to the Council adopting renewable heat as a priority for low carbon investment. The REBUS project is now in its second phase and has led to a feasibility study for utilising the warm water contained in the abandoned mined coal seams below much of the County to heat a leisure centre swimming pool in Stanley. The project will be the first in the country to demonstrate this usage and the drilling project has already successfully proved the heat and capacity of this resource.

Engagement has been two-way, led by the council as well as the university. The Heat theme continued with Durham Council’s BEIS supported, Heat Network Feasibility Study identifying the University Campus as one of the most promising areas within which to invest. This review is now being developed further by the University Estates and Facilities Team.

The Council also joined with the University to deliver the Erasmus funded ‘People Project’. Durham students explored the needs of electric vehicle users and the infrastructure available. As a result of their work, a new, EV Charging Policy is being developed by the Council and a significant grant has been awarded by Innovate UK to take this work forward.

Most recently we have established the Durham Heat Hub, a joint project supported by the ESRC that aims to share knowledge and support low carbon heat transitions in the region. The project includes funding for Jacki to spend one day per week with the Low Carbon Team, organising events and developing further activities in both teams.  

Following the UCL-LGA sessions, we were able to go back to both of our organisations with a will and ambition to develop communications across all of our stakeholders, ensuring that messages are clear and activities coordinated.  One of the follow-on meetings between DCC and DEI included Council Climate Change Champion, Councillor John Clare, discussing how we could use the Covid Lockdown to “bounce forward” towards Net Zero.

Councillor Clare subsequently commented: ‘Seventy-five years ago, VE Day brought the Second World War in Europe to an end. To maintain the public’s war effort, the government had undertaken a massive consultation on the sort of Britain people wanted to see after the war. Their message was “bread for everybody before cake for anybody”, and that directive resulted in the Beveridge Report, the Welfare State, free secondary education, a council housing boom, and the NHS. It also resulted in the creation of Newton Aycliffe as the flagship of Beveridge’s vision; we are that legacy. But that achievement came out of six years of war and a clear government commitment, not out of six weeks of lockdown and some vague aspirations for a greener, fairer world.

One thing that life has taught me is that the rich and powerful are always ready and planned on how they can gain from disaster. If we are to come out of this disaster not having LOST ground on where we were, we need to make very clear the voice of the ‘angry young people’ in Joni Mitchell’s song Banquet: “Tell them we’re very hungry now for a sweeter fare.”

Durham Council has led the Country in declaring a Climate Emergency, producing a Climate Emergency Action Plan and appointing a Climate Change Corporate Director. Durham University will support the Council every step of its low carbon journey, creating a trusted relationship valued by both parties.

We are preparing a sweeter fare.

Jacki Bell is a Chartered Civil Engineer and Impact Officer for Durham Energy Institute, responsible for developing relationships with stakeholders, partners and end users of Durham’s research. Maggie Bosanquet is the Low Carbon Economy Team Leader at Durham County Council.

Blog post - Fostering partnerships between local authorities and universities to deliver climate emergency action plans | Dr Kris De Meyer
Someone holding up a poster saying climate action now

To date at least 65% of UK councils have declared a climate emergency, with varying levels of subsequent action and response, from finding it difficult to estimate their own carbon footprints, to the creation of Climate Emergency commissions.

In April 2020, UCL Public Policy, in collaboration with the Local Government Association (LGA), ran Pathways to Net Zero. This pilot programme aims to share best practices across councils, and establish and deepen the collaboration of council officials with academic experts working on climate change, energy technology, or carbon emission reduction solutions.

Central to the programme was the focus on cross-sector partnerships. Local authority officials were asked to sign up with an academic partner they might already be working with, or to find such a partner in a local university, or via introductions made by UCL or the LGA.

In a previous blog post, we described how we adapted our original plans for a one-day, face-to-face workshop to an online programme of four sessions, with additional pair work set as ‘homework’ in between sessions. Here, we will give an overview of the aims, structure and content of the programme, and what will happen next.

Session 1: Exploring the Challenges

In the first session, participants mapped the wide range of challenges experienced by councils in responding to the climate emergency.

exploring the challenges of climate action: an infographic

To make sense of the different nature of these challenges, we introduced the distinction between complicated and complex problems, as proposed in the Cynefin framework for decision making. Complicated issues are those for which good practice, solutions and expertise exist. Complex issues are those for which good practices need yet to be established. They require adaptive and responsive solution strategies. Even then, the outcome uncertainty of interventions remains high, usually because they require diverse sets of people to agree on potentially contentious issues.

Many of the concrete decarbonisation challenges that councils face have both a complicated and a complex side. For example, reducing emissions of a block of flats with mixed council/private ownership structure has a complicated component (e.g. the technological problems to overcome when retrofitting old housing stock or installing more efficient heating solutions). For this, good practice and expertise exists. There is, however, also a complex side to the challenge: the need to get all the necessary stakeholders (landlords, tenants etc.) on board with the programme.

Session 2: Navigating polarisation and overcoming gridlock

One issue to contend with in regard to climate change has been the lack of interest of some stakeholders and members of the public. As public concern about climate change has been increasing in recent years (at least until COVID-19 struck), there is now also the potential for increased contention around what types of action and policies to pursue and how fast or radical a council’s response should be. Using insights from neuroscience and psychology, this session explored how to bypass the rising polarisation in society about how climate change should be tackled; how to communicate about the climate actions a local authority is undertaking; and how to positively engage citizens with diverse opinions into the delivery of climate action at a local level.

Session 3: Tools for identifying and managing challenges

How to practically manage the challenges associated with Net Zero challenges? One of the tools this session explored is the Individual-Social-Material method. Developed for the Scottish government to map behaviour change interventions with the public, it can also be used as a structured tool for cross-sector, interdisciplinary teams (such as council-academic partnership teams) to break up a particular climate-action challenge into its constituent barriers to change. Complex and seemingly intractable challenges can thereby be broken up into smaller parts (which may be ‘complicated’ rather than ‘complex’). This makes the problem actionable, and allows a team to identify required expertise as well as individual roles and responsibilities.

Session 4: Developing partnership working

In the final session, participants explored the roles and responsibilities that academic experts could play in helping the councils implement climate action plans. They also formulated their own action plan to continue to work together in partnership. By this time in the programme, partnership pairs were focussing on concrete policy areas: reallocation of road space in one council; reducing carbon emissions from built stock in a second; or embedding green recovery in the post-COVID response of a third council. Each of these ideas were linked to a particular councils’ needs, the role and responsibility of the local authority participant, and expertise of the university participant.

What next?

Overall, the content and structure of the programme received excellent feedback from participants. It also succeeded in creating new and fostering existing partnership work across the local authority and academic boundaries. To consolidate and support such partnership work in the longer term, the LGA and UCL Public Policy are looking to provide further offerings of this programme in the near future, and are developing a longer-term initiative to allow partnership teams to develop and deliver particular projects within different councils across the country.

Please contact Katherine Welch (UCL) or Olivia Lancaster (LGA) if you would like to know more.

To complete our series of posts, next week we’ll hear from the team from Durham on participating in the workshops, what they took away from it and their experience to date of partnership working.

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About the Author

Dr Kris De Meyer is a Research Fellow in neuroscience at the Department of Neuroimaging and a Visiting Lecturer at the Department of Geography, King’s College London. He specialises in the neuroscience of how people become entrenched in their beliefs, how this leads to polarisation in society, and how to overcome this.

Blog Post - How to turn a face-to-face facilitated workshop into online sessions? | Dr Kris De Meyer

At the end of March, UCL Public Policy, in collaboration with the Local Government Association, had planned to run a one-day workshop called Pathways to Net Zero. The aim of the workshop was to foster partnership working between council staff responsible for local climate action plans and experts in emission reductions working in universities.

When COVID-19 struck, we (the workshop organisers and facilitators) faced the choice: postpone, or turn the workshop into an online offering? Sensing we'd better learn to adapt to a new normal, we decided to move it online. Here is an account of some of the choices we made; what we learned about what works well (or even better) in an online format; and what doesn't.

Choices We Made

From the outset we wondered how to build the intended sense of community and collaborative practice that was at the heart of our planned workshop in an online space. Our usual face-to-face workshops rely on quickfire rounds of pairwise chats to get to know each other; and frequent switching between content delivery, small group discussions on specific questions, and plenary reflection periods. How would we be able to replicate this format using digital tools?

What had been scheduled as a six hour face-to-face meeting we decided to split into two-hour sessions (any longer would be too much). When we started to map out the content and activities, we quickly realised we'd need four instead of three two-hour slots. Starting up and winding down a session adds time, while group discussions need more space to breathe online, hence more time is needed to cover the same ground as in face-to-face meetings.

Technology-wise, we knew we needed a video conferencing platform that would allow pair work or small-group discussions, and a 'gallery view' in which all of the participants could see each other side-by-side. At present, many video call sessions end up being glorified conference calls with an increasing number of people switching off their cameras over the course of the call, which doesn't help with attention or building a learning community. We wanted to avoid this and actively use video to compensate for the lack of face-to-face connection. These facilitation constraints meant we needed to use Zoom - as the College-recommended Teams neither had breakout rooms nor showed more than a few participants on video at the same time.

We wanted to use a digital equivalent of a flipchart and post-it notes to capture discussion outputs. Zoom's built-in digital whiteboard is sub-par, so we settled on Google Jamboard, but tried the more feature-rich Mural App too. Presentation-wise, every evening before a session we emailed a link to an online Google Slides document. This gave us the flexibility to make last-minute changes, and also gives participants access to the slides during breakout sessions.

Last but not least, we relied on old-fashioned pen and paper, frequently asking participants to write down or draw something on paper, and then hold that up to the camera. We didn't use polling tools; we found the low-tech pen-and-paper option to be the most convenient one.

We planned the four sessions on Friday mornings for four consecutive weeks, the regularity of which the participants as well as us quickly came to appreciate. We settled on 15 participants. Much more becomes impractical: the whole group won't fit into one Gallery View in Zoom and it becomes harder to quickly assign people to breakout rooms. 

What we learned: what worked and what didn't

  • Breakout group discussions need clear tasks and questions. For example: "Describe one concrete example of a problem you experience in..." rather than "Discuss this really complex problem X". We frequently switched between pairwise and small group discussions, relied on random as well as pre-assigned groups, and discovered that 8 minutes on the clock is (a) often the right length; and (b) makes discussions more focused than they sometimes are in face-to-face meetings!
  • With 15 people who can only strictly speak in turn in a video call, a plenary is not the place to get an exchange of opinions going. Make sure they are well-structured, meaning you know exactly what questions need answering or what experiences from the breakout rooms you'd like participants to share. Use them as reflection and sense-making moments on what happened in the breakout groups.
  • Be careful with the amount of content to be delivered. In at least one of the sessions, we had too much of it. Even though we had broken up content with breakout and plenary activities, the balance wasn't right. We rushed through the activities with the result they felt too short, and didn't allow enough time for individual and group sense-making.
  • The digital whiteboards we used (Jamboard, Mural) are great to capture the salient points of the group conversations. It worked well for those participants who had access to a second screen with the Zoom video open on one screen, and the whiteboard on another. It worked less well for participants who had only one screen. Also, make time for a 'How to use this technology?' exercise (or ask participants to do something on the whiteboard before the session starts) so everyone can use the basic functionality, some of our participants struggled.
  • 'Homework': we quickly discovered this is one of the perks of breaking up a one-day workshop into four weekly sessions. As the aim of the workshop was to foster partnership working, we wanted for pairwise discussions to continue between sessions. If a task was too complicated to do during the session, or if more time was needed for applying a learning of the workshop to their own practice, we assigned it as a 'homework' task. We would always come back to the homework at the start of the next session, such that it had a real purpose in the overall design of the programme.
  • Timing: design your workshop so that you know what you will do to the minute. Give yourself 5 minutes of 'landing' time at the beginning, and end with never less than 10 minutes of plenary time at the end, so that you have a bit of flexibility of running over time in other parts. Be flexible: on one occasion, we made a change halfway through when we discovered a particular discussion had needed more time to come to life.

By and large, participants loved how we used the technology, and having endured many dreary hours of video calls, were amazed at what can be achieved if technology is used correctly. Several of them told us they picked up facilitation ideas from taking part, which made us very happy. We ourselves learned a lot through making this step, and felt the process went so well that we decided we'd made the right choice to not postpone but move the workshop online.

That was the process. Next month, we'll dig into the content of the workshop sessions: how to support councils to deliver climate action plans and transition to net zero carbon emissions.

If you would like to find out more, please email climate@local.gov.uk