Alice Owen (PCAN / University of Leeds) and Toni Scarr (Environment Agency)
Continuing PCAN’s exploration of how different forms of engagement and decision making can help effective local climate action, this commentary describes some of the insights generated by the Environment Agency piloting citizen’s juries to develop local water management ideas and priorities.
Between January and March 2021, three juries of around 20 people were convened. Each jury was asked to consider the question, “How do you connect with water in your local environment, and what needs to be changed in the future to benefit people and wildlife?” Jurors were also requested to address about other questions regarding the role of the Environment Agency, local people, businesses and visitors.
The aim of the process was to gather a diverse and representative set of views and understand communities’ priorities. The juries deliberated online over six sessions for each area. Jurors lived within the relevant river catchment and were selected to reflect the diversity of local demography including Index of Multiple Deprivation, age, gender, ethnicity, urban/rural split and level of climate concern. Jurors proved to be very knowledgeable and engaged participants, and they enjoyed the jury process, scoring the events highly (awarding 4.6 out of 5 on average) in the final evaluation.
These three juries, in three very different locations in the north east, south east and in Yorkshire, show that, where climate adaptation is concerned, one size can’t fit all. Plans to deal with changes in rainfall and population density, which brings changes in the quality of a local environment, with implications for water supply and water quality, will have to be adjusted in every location so that they match local needs and capacity.
Themes of both environment and community emerged across all three Juries. On environment, people want access to clean, clear water environments with more of the right wildlife in the right place. People felt that they have had to engage more with their local environment, because restrictions on travel during the lockdowns limited visits to higher quality environments further away. The health and well-being benefits of access to a good water environment were well understood. Jurors were also particularly concerned that developers should be put under pressure to put biodiversity and environmental improvement at the heart of proposals.
On community involvement, people want to be given the opportunity to propose schemes, have greater access to information about existing schemes and would like the opportunity to volunteer to help make decisions and deliver improvements in their area. Opening up such opportunities could provide a resource of volunteers, and give the volunteers themselves build a sense of ownership of their water environment, and belonging within their community. This is, however, no panacea; not all communities have the resources and capability to volunteer effectively, and without considerable support simply opening up opportunities could lead to greater inequalities between places and communities.
There was an appetite for integration, or a holistic approach, to managing water. The current approach appears to be disjointed, and combined effort is needed from all stakeholders, with clarity of roles. Jurors appreciated that managing water in the environment is not the responsibility of one organisation. They wanted to see more transparency and reporting on the measures that mattered to them. They expect landowners, builders and developers to show understanding of how their activities affect the water environment, with a responsibility to reduce any negative impacts supported by clear legislation and accountability. Rather than seeing regulation as negative ‘red tape’, the Juries supported appropriate and fair legislation, with incentives which would help secure funding as well as driving behavioural change in all those who need, use and enjoy a place’s rivers and water.
While there was the perennial call for greater awareness, and for education about the full water cycle, including treatment, waste and the environment, what was particularly interesting was the desire for more emphasis on preventing problems that damage the water environment, and a request that the focus should not just be on young people and schools for education; all people at all stages of life need to learn about water, the factors affecting the quality and quantity of water available to us, and their own personal impacts. Information needs to be readily available, accessible, clear and locally relevant.
Consistent with other citizen juries’ experience on other topics, when given the time to explore a topic in detail, people appear to have a greater appetite for change, and a greater sense of their own responsibility to be part of that change, than mass media narratives, or politics, often assume. There was a desire to see longer term planning and involvement, reflecting an integrated approach. Funding should be long term, rather than project-based and short term, and maintenance should be factored in so that projects that affect water will continue to offer communities value well into the future. Perhaps, when we get down to the truly local level, it is easier to create and implement long terms plans, because those plans mean something to places and the people who live in them.
Climate change adaptation action must be place based. What we can do to deal with climate change impacts will be defined by physical geography, location, how communities are using water, the history and experience of the impact that water has on that place. The Environment Agency’s pilot Citizens Juries give us much food for thought on how to meet the demands that climate change places upon the places we love, and they also suggest that there is fantastic scope for place-based action and involvement.
Further information about the citizens' juries can be found here.
Image: By Etan J. Tal - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0