Citizens’ assemblies are now being widely used in the UK and elsewhere to promote thoughtful policy discussion. But do they actually work in terms of delivering substantive policy change? In this post, Robert Liao addresses that question by looking at local citizens’ assemblies in the UK. He finds that the record is overwhelmingly positive: councils that have invested in running an assembly have generally followed through with action.
The past 18 months have seen a wave of citizens’ assemblies in the UK and beyond. At the national level, there have been assemblies on climate change in the UK, Scotland, and France, on constitutional issues in Scotland and Germany, and on gender equality in Ireland. This post focuses on the numerous assemblies convened by local authorities. Citizens’ assemblies are widely lauded for bringing together representative samples of the population to learn about and produce recommendations on difficult policy questions. As shown by the Constitution Unit’s 2017 Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, the deliberative conversations that they engender point to a better way of doing democratic conversation. But do they have a real impact beyond the people in the room? In particular, do elected officials really listen to them, and can they bring about substantive political change?
The table below summarises evidence from local citizens’ assemblies in the UK. By trawling through assembly and council websites and reports, alongside press releases, and news articles, I have identified 13 citizens’ assemblies convened by local authorities in the UK since the beginning of 2019 which have completed their work and published reports. Three of these – in Cambridge, Dudley, and Romsey – were supported by the UK government’s Innovation in Democracy programme, designed to enable assembly pilots (the IIDP’s work was summarised on the Unit blog, here). In others, local authorities acted independently. Reflecting perhaps campaigning for citizens’ assemblies by Extinction Rebellion, seven of the 13 assemblies focused on climate change, and another two on the related topic of air quality. Two looked at urban regeneration, one at hate crime, and one at social care provision. Each one has presented a report containing policy recommendations to its sponsoring council.
Local Citizens’ Assemblies in the UK
|Name||Sponsoring Council||Topic||Dates||Official Council Response?||Significant Follow-Through?|
|Camden Citizens’ Assembly on the Climate Crisis||Camden London Borough Council||Climate change||July 2019||Yes||Yes|
|Greater Cambridge Citizens’ Assembly||Greater Cambridge Partnership||Congestion, air quality, public transport||September-October 2019||Yes||Yes|
|Oxford Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change||Oxford City Council||Climate change||September-October 2019||Yes||Yes|
|Leeds Climate Change Citizens’ Jury||Leeds City Council||Climate change||September-November 2019||Yes||Yes|
|Dudley People’s Panel||Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council||Dudley Borough’s town centres||November 2019||Yes||No|
|Romsey Citizens’ Assembly||Test Valley Borough Council||Romsey town centre||November 2019||Yes||Yes|
|Brent Climate Assembly||Brent London Borough Council||Climate change||November-December 2019||No||No|
|Kingston Citizens’ Assembly on Air Quality||Kingston-upon-Thames Council||Air quality||November-December 2019||Yes||Yes|
|Croydon Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change||Croydon London Borough Council||Climate change||January-February 2020||No||Yes|
|Newham Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change||Newham London Borough Council||Climate change||February 2020||Yes||Yes|
|Waltham Forest Citizens’ Assembly||Waltham Forest Council||Hate incidences||February-March 2020||Yes||Yes|
|Camden Health and Care Citizens’ Assembly||Camden London Borough Council||Health & social care||February-September 2020||Report in progress||TBD|
|Lancaster District People’s Jury||Lancaster City Council||Climate change||February-September 2020||No||No|
On the crucial question of follow-up action, I have found official council responses in nine of the 13 cases, and evidence of significant steps towards implementation in another two. Of the remaining four cases, two are very recent: councils there have had insufficient time to consider their responses. That leaves just two cases where councils could have acted but, so far as I have been able to determine from the public record, have not yet done so. Particularly given the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which so many plans have been disrupted or suspended, that is an impressive record.
But, of course, much of the devil lies in the detail. An official response does not necessarily mean that assembly recommendations have really been listened to. In what follows, I therefore dive deeper into three of these cases to examine the nature of the steps taken.
Oxford Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change
In September 2019, Oxford City Council tasked a citizens’ assembly with considering whether and how Oxford should seek to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Over two weekends, 42 people discussed ways to reduce Oxford’s emissions, culminating in a November 2019 report. The council subsequently published an official response, detailing steps to meet the assembly’s findings. This included allocating £19 million to climate efforts and responding directly to the assembly’s recommendations through such measures as raising energy efficiency in new buildings, cutting transport emissions and expanding renewable energy provision. In the year since, the council has made significant strides in responding directly to the assembly’s proposals.
One assembly priority was a balanced approach which reduces emissions from buildings – 81% of Oxford’s emissions – while tackling the affordable housing crisis. In May 2020, work commenced on eight new zero-carbon council homes in Oxford, to be rented, like other council homes, at 40% of private sector prices. Councillor Mike Rowley, cabinet member for affordable housing, has stated that the council is working to prove that the assembly’s desire for a balance between zero carbon and affordable housing is doable. Other measures to reduce building emissions include a Local Plan 2036 requiring new buildings to go 40% further than national targets for carbon reduction, a Low Energy Hub to run two local hydroelectricity generators and support community energy projects, and an Energy Superhub Oxford initiative, which aims to save 10,000 tonnes of carbon emissions by the end of 2021 and trial the world’s largest hybrid battery system, to exponentially increase Oxford’s electric vehicle charging capacity.
Of course, Oxford City Council convened the assembly because it wanted to act on climate change: the assembly’s recommendations were pushing at an open door. But it does appear that those recommendations have informed Oxford’s specific policy directions. And the assembly may have made it easier for the council to justify and defend the approach it has adopted.
Waltham Forest Citizens’ Assembly
The London borough of Waltham Forest convened a citizens’ assembly to discuss rising hate incidents and ensure safety for all. Over three weekends in early 2020, 45 assembly members approved several concrete measures to address hate, including a multi-media information and awareness-raising campaign, the introduction of trained community ambassadors, and a bystander training initiative to intervene in hate crimes. Their report included a roadmap for how each proposal could be implemented and who needed to be involved. The council also conducted a wider community engagement programme, surveying borough residents and local organisations to collect evidence of the experience of hate to be incorporated into the assembly’s deliberations.
The council published an official response in July. It approved £150,000 in funding for the initial wave of recommendations, including the above-mentioned awareness campaign and bystander intervention pilot. The latter was launched in October, with digital sessions delivered to 30 residents to help them recognise and defuse bullying, harassment and hate crimes. Council cabinet member for community safety Ahsan Khan has said that this reflects the assembly’s desire for the entire community to be empowered to stand against hate. The council additionally progressed work on a number of assembly-highlighted policy areas, such as improving hate-reporting systems in conjunction with the police. It continues to publish progress reports.
Romsey Citizens’ Assembly
In November 2019, 42 residents of Romsey, Hampshire, met to discuss redevelopment plans for Romsey town centre. The sponsoring Test Valley Borough Council was one of three local authorities participating in the government’s Innovation in Democracy programme, from which it received funding and other support. As in Waltham Forest, the council engaged in a wider engagement programme and consulted thousands of local residents, who called for measures such as a green shopping space, access to a local stream and a new location for the local Aldi supermarket.
Assembly members supported the consultation’s calls for green spaces and wildlife corridors, alongside a community hub and improved transport and pedestrian access. The council incorporated the assembly report and consultation into draft plans, unveiled in February, which included enhancing pedestrian walkways and access to green spaces, a new green route, bus station and a proposed new location for the supermarket. Local media called the plans ‘one of the biggest town centre revamps in Romsey’s history’, and the project was shortlisted for the National Planning Awards in the ‘stakeholder engagement’ category for its use of the citizens’ assembly and resident involvement.
The wave of citizens’ assemblies will endure only if such assemblies prove effective. That means that councils need to take their recommendations seriously. The early report card presented here gives an overwhelmingly positive picture: councils that have invested in citizens’ assemblies have generally followed through with policy action. It will be important to continue monitoring progress over 2021.
This post was revised on 11 January 2021 to include the official response of Test Valley Borough Council to the Romsey Citizens’ Assembly, and on 12 January to include the official response of the Dudley People’s Panel.
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About the author
Robert Liao is a research volunteer at the Constitution Unit.