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Climate change blog: Time to ditch the car? Using deliberative consultation to tackle divisive local issues

30 June 2021

Effective engagement with communities is essential. This month, Lucy Bush, Research Director at BritainThinks, talks about their work with Warwickshire County Council.

In many ways it feels like a very straightforward thing to say that reducing car usage and increasing public and active transport usage would have a huge impact on cutting our carbon emissions in the UK. Local authorities across the country have been developing strategies and plans to effect this very shift, because they know how important it will be to reach their net zero targets. 

But like many local issues it has proven to be anything but straightforward!  

Cycle lanes, LTNs, reduced parking in town centres - all these things generate heated discussion at the local level and it can be very hard for those working in local government not to feel like they’re facing a real battle with public opinion.

BritainThinks has recently worked with Warwickshire County Council to design and deliver a form of ‘deliberative consultation’ as a new way to get past the noise and facilitate constructive dialogue with local people about the future of travel and transport. 

We recruited a representative Citizens Panel of 33 Warwickshire residents from across the county and from all walks of life – engaging them in discussion groups and via a digital platform. We also ran a series of 1-1 telephone interviews to hear from more vulnerable members of the community who might have struggled to engage online or in group discussions. 

Over the course of two weeks Panellists were given the time and space to share their experiences with one another and to tell WCC what mattered most to them. We provided information to build knowledge and created a safe and constructive space to share views and listen to other perspectives.

The Panel had a good mix of people using different types of transport – this was important to ensure a balanced debate. But whilst their preferred transport type varied according to journey type, where they lived, and their routine, in a rural county like Warwickshire, it was no surprise to learn that overall, the car was dominant. In fact, most struggled to envision how they could avoid using a car for their regular and most important journeys. This meant that there was resistance to limiting or disincentivising driving and real concern about the personal implications of those sorts of measures.

However, reliance on cars and problems associated with car travel were by far the most common concerns relating to travel and transport in the county. Sitting in a traffic jam and being late for work, living near to a busy congested road and worrying about air pollution, even simply the stress of travelling by car at peak travel times were all spontaneously raised. 

Panellists were also worried about climate change with a broad understanding that car usage was contributing to that. When we put it to the vote, only one person on the whole panel said that they ‘would not support a move towards cleaner/greener forms of transport and think that transport investment should continue to focus on facilitating car usage’.

So, how to square that circle? People who use their cars all the time also support a shift to greener forms of transport? In a standard consultation or survey these points of view would create seemingly contradictory results. It would generate a 2D readout of public opinion leading to more head-scratching and stasis.

But through a qualitative and deliberative approach, it was possible to reach a much more constructive position. 

The key to unlocking the impasse was understanding that participants were viewing the LTP as users of transport rather than as strategists. Yes, they want cleaner air, stress-free journeys and lower carbon emissions but they also want to get to where they need to go, easily, affordably and on time. For most people their driving habits are borne more of necessity than a love of cars! Their desire to move to greener transport is clear, but they are asking for genuine, high-quality, enjoyable alternatives to the car that will enable them to be part of the change. 

Of course, I’m not saying this is an easy task! But what this type of deliberative consultation does do is move the debate forwards, rather than letting it descend into heated arguments. Instead of leading to stagnation, it can be a prompt and inspiration to those working in local government and the transport sector to find a way through to a greener transport system we can all get on board with.

If you’re interested to learn more…

We’d love to hear from others who have experienced similar challenges in tackling thorny local issues and whether you think deliberative consultation might work for you. We’re also running an open webinar this summer on the WCC project. So if you have any queries, want to share your views or wish to be put on the invitation list for the webinar please get in touch with Lucy Bush via [email protected]. Hope to see you there!