Letting go… Climate deliberation in Shipley

In 2022 we embarked on a bold experiment. To train and support a locally run climate themed Citizens’ Jury. This was very different from our normal ‘hands on’ approach, and it felt risky to experiment. But the rewards exceeded our expectations. In our latest blog, Pete Bryant explains.

‘We really want a citizens jury on climate change, we think it could have a big impact on our community, but we don’t have the money to pay for one. But, what we do have, like any other place, is a community which has passion, skills and resources. Can you help us?’

Shipley councillor and community activist: Paul McHugh.
Shipley Jury members start writing their draft recommendations.

Scaling up or scaling out?

We know through our deliberative democracy work that climate assemblies and juries can have an impact on local climate change policies. Though not the only way to achieve this, and viewed as one approach of many, our experience is they can free up resources. For example, new budget allocation as a result of the North of Tyne Climate Assembly. Or, of particular relevance to Shipley, increased staff working on climate change was a result of our Kendal Climate Jury. We have seen how they can stimulate community action. For example our Blackburn with Darwen jury continues to meet and actively lobby local MPs. Crucially, when done well, they can give politicians and council officers the courage to pursue more difficult political decisions (see Boswell 2023).

Still, their numbers remain tiny. In England there have been 30 such climate themed deliberations in the last four years. If we consider the average size of a deliberative process size as around 35 people, that’s just a miniscule fraction of the population. In Canada an estimated one in sixty-seven households have received an invitation to a  deliberative process. We need to find a way for citizen climate deliberations to become equally commonplace.

So, we need to think again. The ‘change at pace’ needed to address the climate emergency won’t be realised if we keep on using the same model. We need thousands of these sorts of conversations so that recommendations in common can be identified, even more citizens empowered (and maybe joined together?) and political risk aversion addressed. However, as one of the few organisations regularly commissioned to run such processes, we must also have a business model that allows us to say yes to people like Paul.

We took a risk, we said yes, we can help.

Paul told us they can use volunteers to hand deliver letters to every address in Shipley. Use the town council’s resources to print all the invite letters. They know a local research expert who would run a selection process (not full sortition, but may be good enough?). They had access to a free community venue. Knowing his community well, Paul believed that local residents with the skills to facilitate could be found. Paul also had a small lottery grant to cover some essential expenses.

In return we promised to offer regular structured advice, attend oversight panel meetings, help with facilitator selection, run a one-day facilitator training, co-facilitate two of the ten sessions and run a weekly support session for their facilitators. A very different ‘hands off’ approach to how we normally work. Paul put in a phenomenal amount of unpaid work. His commitment to asset-based community development really showed. The facilitators he found in the community brought with them a wide range of transferable skills: an academic, and a gardener with an interest in counselling. One was an experienced facilitator, but new to this type of work. They all did wonderfully. But was our decision to support Paul the right one?

This blog might have been very different if the process became a vehicle for climate activists’ communication. If a diverse group of residents had not been selected. It was critical to include a range of opinions. Inevitably tensions within the group (and wider community) had to be skilfully addressed. If the process left any sense that Shipley residents had been manipulated rather than trusted to reach a set of recommendations for the greater public good, the model of the climate change Citizens’ Jury could have been undermined. Our fears were unfounded. It worked well.

Facilitator training was led by Shared Future

What next? How do we build on our Shipley experiment?

We could wait for some more people like Paul to contact us? But we want to accelerate that process. Maybe, with other people doing similar work, we can advocate for a national budget, and for support for communities to catalyse their community assets and experiment further with process design? As an organisation we would like to now strive for such a national programme of training and support for would-be climate jury and assembly organisers.

For that to happen maybe we will need to let go a bit. Not fully. Quality comes with experience. But if we share our skills, and be prepared to take a bit of a risk, many more communities could benefit in future?

Read another perspective on the Shipley process by facilitator Phillippa Banister.

Download the Shipley Climate Jury Report from our website