Green partnerships between community groups and local councils

10 August 2012

Powerful new partnerships with the common aim of achieving a more environmentally and economically sustainable future can be forged by community action groups and local authorities - which often regard each other with mutual suspicion and mistrust according to social scientists. 

The project, jointly funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), the Local Authorities and the Research Councils’ Initiative (LARCI) focused on Scotland, particularly the region of Fife. "Community groups often perceive local authorities as an obstacle to engagement in green activities", said research team leader Dr Rehema White, a lecturer in sustainable development at the University of St Andrews. "But in reality, community groups and local authorities share many common goals. This project aimed to design a strategy for them to work together more effectively." 

A series of day-long seminars on topics including energy, transport and food brought together leading experts in the field with representatives from Fife Council, local community groups, non-governmental organisations and academics. Techniques such as 'open space sessions', 'café discussions' and 'ice-breakers' encouraged delegates to meet, talk and establish mutually beneficial contacts.

"Staff from Fife Council saw the exciting projects that community groups were running, and community members were impressed by council initiatives and areas of real expertise," said Dr White.

For example, few people in the community groups realised that Fife Council, with private partners, already collects methane gas from landfill to heat local housing, and the Council wasn’t aware that one community group, North Howe Transition Toun, had received non-council funding to appoint and train local 'energy champions'. This enabled the group to engage their neighbours in discussion around energy use, and to plan village-level schemes for energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy. 

With the input of all participants, the team developed a six-point action plan to help local councils work with communities towards sustainability. "We found that a shift from service provision by councils to enabling communities would be more effective in tackling carbon emissions," Dr White said. "Local councils can have a big influence in providing appropriate infrastructure and processes."

Strengthening partnerships between communities and local authorities could result in a powerful alliance, Dr White added, with important environmental, social and economic benefits. "This era of austerity and funding cuts is forcing councils to work differently. By embracing renewable energy income opportunities and supporting community efforts, sustainability progress can be made.  However, communities in poorer areas still need substantial assistance."

Despite their complexity and target-driven approach, local councils share similarities with enthusiastic and value-driven communities, said Dr White. Effective leadership, the determination of key individuals to pursue sustainability initiatives and the ability to flexibly respond to new opportunities can lead to good carbon emission reducing projects. 

"We hope that by enabling people to meet and understand each other, we have broken down some of the barriers between communities and council working towards sustainability in Fife," said Dr White. "The carbon emission reduction plan offers other councils a blueprint to adapt to their local context."

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Notes for editors

  1. This release is based on initial findings from Enhancing Local Authorities Community Engagement: Co-designing and Prototyping Strategies for Carbon Emission Reduction, a one-year pilot study project within the Engaging Scottish Local Authorities Programme, funded jointly by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Scottish Funding Council (SFC) the Local Authorities and Research Councils’ Initiative (LARCI). The goals of the programme are to establish better relationships between universities and local authorities and to promote applied and topical research in Scotland. The research was carried out by Dr Rehema White, Hamid Van-Koten, Dr Emilia Ferraro, Dr Jennifer Franz and Dr Justin Kenrick.
  2. A steering group consisting of experts from academia, local community groups, Sustainable Scotland Network and the local authority was set up to direct the project. A 'scoping study' was carried out to develop an interdisciplinary theoretical basis for the research. A series of seminars on relevant topics of sustainability were held, as well as placements and 'shadowing' activities. Capacity building sessions were held with local authority teams. The participatory, action research approach informed the development of a strategy by which local authorities could engage communities in carbon emission reduction. 
  3. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2012/13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.
  4. The Scottish Funding Council (SFC) is responsible for allocating public funds to colleges and universities in support of Scottish Government priorities. SFC was established by the Scottish Parliament in 2005 and is a non-departmental public body of the Scottish Government.