By Julia Hinton

Back in February – thanks in part to pressure from the Hastings Green Party and our open letter calling on the council to declare a climate emergency – Hastings Council committed to making our town carbon neutral by 2030. The Council has since appointed Maya Evans as “climate champion” with responsibility for climate change, biodiversity and sustainable development. It has, however, allocated no money or resources to the task.

In order to forge a city-wide consensus on the ambition, direction, and measures that are needed to tackle climate change, we ask the Council to commit to one of our key demands: a local citizens’ assembly, tasked with having a town-wide conversation about how we can achieve carbon neutrality in the next 11 years. Essential to the initiation of such a process is a commitment from both Hastings Borough Council and East Sussex County Council to act on the recommendations generated by the citizen’s assembly.

There is a growing recognition of the value of deliberative democratic processes to revive our democracy, model thoughtful and civilised debate, and engage local people in developing imaginative and achievable solutions to the climate crisis we face. Extinction Rebellion calls for nation-wide people’s assemblies but there is a role for smaller-scale local versions as well. Oxford City Council has already committed to holding a citizens’ assembly on the topic this September. In Texas, home of oil giants, a ‘mini public’ (a representative sample of the public) tackling the future of energy, resulted in a call for investment in renewables, resulting in 1000 MW of new renewable-energy capacity.

A key principle of a citizen’s assembly is that people should be randomly selected  but representative of the local demographic. This is what makes these assemblies so powerful; they bring together people from all walks of life, then help them to bridge divides, to find common ground – and ultimately to develop recommendations that can command public support. Participants are presented with balanced evidence on the issue and hear first hand from key stakeholders with different views and perspectives. Realistically, the assembly we have in mind would probably hold nine evening meetings to cover learning about the topic, questioning expert witnesses, deliberating, and coming to a decision. Participants would be paid a nominal fee in recognition of their contribution and to help ensure that finance is not a barrier to participation. An independent governance and oversight panel would meet regularly to check the legitimacy and robustness of the process. They would also help select experts to give evidence to participants, ensuring balance in the information presented. 

This process has been used in many areas and almost always the citizen’s group involved continues to be active in promoting the ideas generated from the assembly process. While it is a relatively small segment of the population, wider input can be generated through media coverage, use of local radio-station phone-ins and a big public launch of the final recommendations.

Research by the Electoral reform Society show that over two thirds of the public want politics to be fairer, more honest and cooperative. This is one way to get there. Citizens’ assemblies require time, money, and commitment, but they can have huge value in building a consensus on the challenges we face and putting pressure on politicians to act.  

Maya Evans supports the idea and will also be taking it to local Labour branches over the coming months. Read more here.

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