Cllr Tom Hayes, Oxford City Council portfolio holder for Safer, Greener, Environment writes for SERA on the city's plans announced on Earth Day (22nd April 2019) for a citizens assembly, the first ever by a UK council, to deal with our climate crisis.
Here in Oxford, if not elsewhere, our representative democracy is in good shape. But on the issue of climate change, we need to bring every viewpoint into decision-making to build a majority for action. That’s why, today, on Earth Day, we’re outlining plans for a Citizens Assembly, our first ever in Oxford and the first ever by a UK council for dealing with our climate crisis.
Some may ask why Oxford needs a Citizens Assembly. We already have one in the form of the council itself. But, for the city and your council to become zero carbon while struggling under austerity and cuts, councillors will have to make hard and divisive choices, so I want to ensure a real representation of viewpoints gets heard, not just the usual green viewpoint.
The cost of building zero carbon homes has plummeted, but still involves an extra outlay for the time being. Should we build more truly cheap homes or fewer truly green homes? Our council housing could be retrofitted to become more energy efficient, but how do we fund this and make big changes? Sadly we can’t shake magic money trees—so, if you want zero carbon measures, which measures would you most want and, so we can fund them, what do you think your Council should spend less on or stop funding altogether? We have to make hard choices.
I want to ensure we don’t create greater inequality or poverty in Oxford. Left in the hands of others who won’t factor in such risks because they don’t listen to a broad range of viewpoints, environmental policies, done badly, may worsen inequality.
Our plans for the assembly will involve a representative sample of citizens, randomly selected by an independent body, supported by experienced independent facilitators. We have commissioned research to develop options for carbon reduction for the city in areas such as housing and transport. In September the council, as sponsor of the scheme, will ask the Citizens Assembly to consider zero carbon measures and targets before making recommendations to councillors.
When the UN warns that we face a climate catastrophe if we don’t accelerate the rate of carbon abatement in the next twelve years, we can’t allow another thirty years to pass by without coming up with solutions. More of the same won’t solve our problems. We have to break environmentalism out of the bubble of the traditional green community, as many in that bubble strongly tell me themselves, and this assembly will do that. It will position climate as a challenge in the fight against inequality, and highlight what a majority wants us to do.
I’m proud to have proposed the Citizens Assembly and developed it with the support of local experts and enthusiasts. With councillors unanimously approving a Citizens Assembly to ‘establish the facts and make recommendations’, I’m looking forward to councillors honouring the assembly we all voted for and our citizens’ contributions in that assembly. I’m eager to reflect on citizens’ recommendations, consider the trade-offs, and set an ambitious and evidence-based target date to become zero carbon. That approach is a healthy one for democracy, rebuilding the trust of people in our governance structures by being honest about what we can do and when. It’s also going to deliver a long-term, sustainable, and supported way of fixing our climate crisis.
At the same time as we have developed a Citizens Assembly, we have stepped up our work, announcing carbon reduction initiatives totalling £81m. This includes installing one of the world’s biggest batteries to support electric vehicle charging and low-carbon heat networking, and creating a ‘smart grid’ to empower you to become active energy citizens. We’ve just secured additional funding to upgrade buses and I’m thrilled to have welcomed the first zero emission capable Black Cab last week.
The City Council is responsible for just 1% of Oxford’s carbon emissions. That’s why it’s crucial that the Citizens Assembly makes proposals for the whole city. Our partners are taking action with us and under their own steam, and Oxford’s Citizens Assembly will galvanise them to do even more even faster.
Throughout all of this, we will continue to loudly voice concerns to Government. We need more funding and, like other cities and councils, Oxford can only truly become zero if and when the Government ensures the electricity in the grid is 100 per cent clean, and we will go on making that case.
Anyone looking at politics right now can see that new thinking is needed. We need deep constitutional reform nationally, but in the interim, our country’s well-run cities can try out new forms of engagement. Setting up a Citizens Assembly could be the path to consensus on climate change here and, crucially, a much-needed model for doing politics better everywhere else.