Posts on this blog over the past few years have tracked a wave of local citizens’ assemblies convened by councils keen to explore a range of issues. Last year, we published an ‘early report card’ examining the impact these assemblies were having – whether councils were listening to them and acting on their recommendations. A year on, it is time to take a fresh look. Lauren Brown here updates the report card to the end of 2021.
A wave of local citizens’ assemblies began in the summer of 2019 in the UK, with topics discussed ranging from climate change to air quality in local boroughs. Despite COVID-19 and the need to shift such assemblies online, the interest in using deliberative processes has continued. Often utilised to help resolve politically tricky issues, citizens’ assemblies are widely celebrated for how they allow representative samples of the population to consider issues deeply before making recommendations.
In the UK, by the end of 2021, there had been 23 citizens’ assemblies, with seven held in the last year alone. These have primarily focused on issues of climate change, though some have also considered COVID-19 recovery and neighbourhood design. Moreover, the London borough of Newham has become the first UK council to create a permanent citizens’ assembly, thereby institutionalising public deliberation within the UK at a local level. The wave of local citizens’ assemblies in the UK therefore shows no real sign of letting up.
Still, as Robert Liao noted last year, the devil is in the detail – whilst it is clear that citizens’ assemblies continue to be popular for addressing local issues, it is less evident whether the recommendations they produce are consistently being followed up on. With the Unit’s own Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK – which will report in full next month – stressing that people want their ‘elected representatives to do better’, it thus remains key to ask whether citizens’ assemblies lead to significant change, and whether their recommendations are being implemented as well as just listened to.
The table below summarises the evidence so far from local citizens’ assemblies in the UK – with 23 at the time of writing having completed their work and published reports. Through examining assembly reports, council websites and minutes, it can be seen that the broadly positive picture found at the start of 2021 continues. Of the most recent assemblies, the majority have focused on climate change, except for Bristol’s focus on COVID-19 and the numerous assemblies held by Newham. Where assembly reports were still in progress a year ago, these have since been published, and there has been significant follow-through in many cases.
|Name||Sponsoring Council||Topic||Meeting Dates||Official Council Response?||Significant follow through?|
|Camden Citizens’ Assembly on the Climate Crisis||Camden London Borough Council||Climate change||Jul-19||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||Nov-19||Yes||No|
|Romsey Citizens’ Assembly||Test Valley Borough Council||Romsey town centre||Nov-19||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||Feb-20||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 and social care||February-September 2020||Yes||Yes|
|Lancaster District People’s Jury||Lancaster City Council||Climate change||February-September 2020||Yes||No|
|Brighton & Hove Climate Assembly||Brighton & Hove City Council||Climate change||September-November 2020||Yes||Yes|
|Kendal Climate Change Citizens’ Jury||Kendal Town Council||Climate change||July-October 2020||Yes||Yes|
|Adur & Worthing Climate Assembly||Adur & Worthing Councils||Climate change||September-December 2020||Yes||Yes|
|Bristol Citizens’ Assembly||Bristol City Council||COVID-19||January-March 2021||Yes||No|
|North of Tyne Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change||North of Tyne Combined Authority||Climate change||February-March 2021||Yes||Yes|
|Blaenau Gwent Climate Assembly||Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council||Climate change||Mar-21||Yes||No|
|Lambeth Climate Change Assembly||Lambeth London Borough Council||Climate change||May-July 2021||Yes||TBD|
|Devon Climate Change Assembly||Devon County Council||Climate change||June-September 2021||Yes||TBD|
|Newham Citizens’ Assembly||Newham London Borough Council||Multiple||Permanent||Expected||TBD|
|Glasgow Citizens’ Assembly||Glasgow City Council||Climate change||Aug-21||TBD||TBD|
I have found that the council has responded in 19 of the 23 cases, with one more expected. In a further case – Croydon – there have been significant steps towards implementation despite no official response. This leaves one case in which councils may have not had time to consider a full response, and one in which a council could have responded but it cannot be seen from the public record that they have done so. This remains an impressive record.
However, it is important to consider whether these responses are just lip-service or whether recommendations have really been listened to. The table above shows that, whilst most of the councils have responded to these assemblies, only 14 have provided clear accounts of what they have actually done in response to their recommendations. While there has been little time for detailed follow-up to the most recent assemblies, two cases have seen more than two years go by without evident action.
It is useful to dig deeper into particular cases to examine what steps have been taken in response to recommendations, and whether citizens’ assemblies continue to have impact. Here, I dive into three cases: Kendal, Oxford and Newham. These have been selected to consider whether and how a smaller authority can respond to a citizens’ assembly (in the case of Kendal), whether an institutionalised citizens’ assembly has significant impact on local policymaking (Newham) and whether a council continues to follow up on recommendations several years later (Oxford).
Kendal Climate Change Citizens’ Jury
Kendal was the first UK town to convene a climate jury, which was tasked with exploring how Kendal could be a ‘shining light’ when it came to climate change. Working with Shared Future and the Sortition Foundation, 20 individuals were recruited and over nine sessions, attempted to answer the broad question ‘What Should Kendal do about Climate Change?’. The council committed to discussing the report three months after publication and has subsequently undertaken a number of measures in response – including instituting a recommendations panel, which reports twice-yearly on best practice in the area.
The citizens’ jury report included recommendations around food (and food waste), energy, trees, and political leadership. Kendal Council has made several commitments in each area – from expanding allotment space, committing to a town-wide solar audit, and creating a partnership hub combining Kendal’s Peoples Café (which repurposes surplus food) and Kendal Repair Café. Additionally, the Council are currently in the process of drafting a refreshed action plan to track the council’s achievements against the citizens’ jury and to outline their next steps.
Whilst the creation of this citizens’ jury suggests that the council intended to act on climate change anyway, it appears that the report of the citizens’ jury has been a driving force behind what has been implemented.
Newham’s Permanent Citizens’ Assembly
The London borough of Newham is the first local authority in the UK to institutionalise a permanent citizens’ assembly, with the support of DemSoc, the Sortition Foundation and Involve. Having initially hosted neighbourhood-based citizens’ assemblies in early 2018, the council has also asked its residents ‘How can the Council and residents work together to reach the aspiration of being carbon zero by 2050 at the latest?’, later producing a detailed report on how the council was responding to the recommendations.
With the success of these citizens’ assemblies, Newham launched the its permanent standing citizens’ assembly in July 2021. Each phase of the assembly will recruit fifty residents and will tackle an issue voted on by Newham residents as ‘most important’ (though it should be noted that the council provided a shortlist of issues to vote upon and discuss). Since its launch, residents have discussed greening the borough and 15-minute neighbourhoods, with the council committing to give a formal public response to all the Assembly’s recommendations. Whilst the impact of the standing citizens’ assembly is yet to be fully seen, this commitment to both holding and responding to these assemblies appears to signal clear intentions.
Oxford Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change
Oxford convened a citizens’ assembly on Climate Change in early 2019, in a sympathetic political environment. Our prior analysis painted a positive picture of the council’s response. Three years on, is Oxford City Council continuing to act on recommendations made in this assembly?
It initially appears so. As of November 2021, the Council reported on both how it had responded to the citizens’ assembly, including ongoing work to become a Zero Carbon Council, and publishing the Zero Carbon Oxford roadmap and action plan in July 2021. Following on from the citizens’ assembly recommendations, a focus on reducing emissions from buildings remains prominent – with key targets focusing on rooftop solar and reducing gas and electricity demands across commercial, institutional, and domestic buildings. Additionally, the council has taken steps to provide information on how individuals, businesses and councils can work together to achieve this target. On decarbonisation, the council is clearly continuing to respond to the concerns of the assembly.
However, when considering the assembly’s key target of increasing biodiversity, the council is less forthcoming. Biodiversity is mentioned in the 2036 Local Plan, with some protective measures in place, and an Urban Forest Strategy was set up to manage urban forests in 2021. This being said, the last specific Biodiversity Action Plan only ran up to 2020, and updates on the council’s response to the Assembly tend to focus on decarbonisation over biodiversity.
Overall, it can be seen that councils are continuing to respond positively to citizens’ assemblies – with Oxford still responding to recommendations from the assembly at this later date, and Newham institutionalising this form of deliberative democracy. However, it is important to continue monitoring their progress, to see whether councils are only responding to select aspects of recommendations and whether they diversify the topics discussed at assemblies.
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About the author
Lauren Brown is a research volunteer at the Constitution Unit.