Blog post: Fostering partnerships between local authorities and universities to deliver climate emergency action plans - Dr Kris De Meyer

In April 2020, UCL Public Policy, in collaboration with the LGA, ran Pathways to Net Zero. This pilot programme aimed 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.

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-19 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.

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.