Friday, 30 May 2014


Early 21st century government orthodoxy is that coastal flood and erosion risk in the UK is increasing due to climate change and development, and that it will defend the coast only where it is ‘sustainable’ to do so.  Whilst the vast majority of people living on the coast can expect to be defended from the sea indefinitely, others have learned that they are likely to lose their homes at some point and without any likelihood of compensation. This has been contentious, with action groups forming to oppose plans – not least in areas previously defended.
Government stresses the importance of such communities enjoying licence to inform and influence relevant policy.  However, academic literature in the area of coastal governance encourages further consideration of the extent to which this is achieved, how people living in such locations work together to influence policy, and the function of social class in this regard. From this starting point, and pursued through case studies, Informed, Engaged and Empowered? concludes that larger, better-resourced and socially-connected communities are more inclined and able to form  and maintain effective action groups. However, limits are also due to deliberative structures and processes that can marginalise local concerns and representations.
Overall, coastal planning exercises do not appear to satisfy the main tenet of Localism – that citizens should be given power over decisions that affect them. Many coastal communities may require support in order to participate effectively, and policy owners must avoid privileging the preferences of the ‘usual suspects’. This may not be sufficient, however, for the achievement of outcomes that are considered satisfactory by all.


How authorities involve local people in making decisions

Where homes are to be lost to the sea, the UK government (DEFRA, 2009b) states an intention to support communities in adapting to the physical, social and economic effects of change.  DEFRA-commissioned guidance for local authorities specific to this purpose – ‘Guidance for Community Adaptation Planning and Engagement (CAPE) on the Coast’ [DEFRA 2009c]  states that:

…communities that are most at risk to coastal change (sic) must be informed, engaged, and empowered to take an active part in what happens locally (2009c: 7).

However, academic literature raises issues regarding the ability of local people to influence state-led efforts to make coastal policy – whether that should be as a consequence of a reluctance on the part of authority to submit its interests to negotiated outcomes, the effectiveness of elected representatives, the power that various actors are able to bring to bear on making decisions and setting policy, or irreconcilable expectations of local influence on decisions. Overall, evidence from case studies supports the work of Foot (2009), which suggests conflicting views about how far communities and citizens can exercise substantial influence over decisions about public services.
In Selsey and on the Isle of Sheppey local residents were made aware of draft proposals threatening the loss of homes through comparable consultation exercises which saw communities find voice on decision-making bodies via local elected representatives. There is evidence across the two cases of officials and elected representatives being attentive to the concerns of citizens. In the Selsey case, and acknowledged to be in part the result of local contentious action, the decision-making body demonstrated the capacity and expertise to make decisions on a managed realignment scheme in a way that those involved found fair and satisfying. Such participation in structured engagement exercises suggests potential for developing trust and understanding between policy makers and citizens.
However, it was also observed by a key local activist that such an approach was applied only when local decisions had already been made that were truly important, over which concerns had been raised concerning decision-making practices. In the Sheppey case, local authority representatives involved in the setting of draft policies were advised against making early contact with those who might be adversely affected by them. It is hard to see how this might be reconciled with imperatives towards inclusive decision-making – especially given that the insular social nature, relative deprivation and lack of political sophistication of parts of the island are widely acknowledged. This reflects, and even extends, Fletcher’s (2007) conclusion that those representing the public interest in relevant decision-making fora had no direct method of seeking the views of the public except for informal ad hoc routes.
Turning to consideration of how local authority actors seek to raise public awareness of issues of coastal change presented by preferred policies, there appears to be a commonly held view that appeals to people’s self-interest can be key to their attention – for example, through articulation of the threat to homes. There is practical merit in this approach, although this judgement comes with caveats.  
First, there is evidence that any resulting direct representation by local people can be regarded with suspicion, which directs attention to the question raised by Maguire and Truscott (2006) concerning the legitimately of those seen to represent communities. Importantly, such suspicions can also extend beyond grassroots action to formal local authority representation. By contrast, in the Sheppey case the decision-making body was populated significantly with actors likely to be in sympathy with the policies preferred by the project owners, few of whom enjoyed a meaningful democratic mandate. Much the same criticism was levelled by a local interest group at the deliberative process as it applied to Selsey.
Second, any lack of local response to consultation should not be read as acquiescence: there is not necessarily any straight line between local people identifying a threat to their interests and making powerful collective representation. Any such threat may be superseded by others such as those associated with poverty and unemployment, whilst the identification of interest appears significantly dependent on the clarity and urgency of the proposition. In both local cases, and reflecting the conclusions of Zsamboky et al (2011), a lack of clarity and/or immediacy can be linked to a lack of action.
In practice, and despite ambitions that encompass ‘partnership’, operating authority and central government deliberative practices on key points of policy might best be described as ‘tokenist’ (inviting opinion with but with no guarantee it will be taken into account, and little room for negotiation) [Arnstein, 1969].

Although touching upon attitudes to coastal change, review of literature reveals little as to how local interests are acted upon, or the organisational form of any such action. There is little analysis to be found on how social class translates into action: however, what little there is indicates that this may be salient. Myatt et al (2003, 2003a) suggest a link between an occupational rendering of social class and awareness of and attitude towards change and its implications, and strength of orientation towards social action.
In stark contrast to Sheppey, where a lack of action coincided with weak political skills and an appetite for isolation associated with deprivation, the Selsey case identifies a group of activists prepared to encourage support for wider representation. Such action also reached beyond geographical borders in encouraging coalition with similarly-concerned groups, and both central government scrutiny of the relevant deliberative process and lobbying representation at national level.  However, whilst Selsey was comparatively successful in garnering local support for action, this dissipated quickly, and in terms of hands-on contributions, was largely characterised by participation in relatively undemanding tasks.
Local authorities can be valuable in ensuring effective representation of local views, but this is by no means guaranteed. For all that Selsey activists’ pursuit of influence through election as councillors to the local authority appeared to offer opportunities in this regard, in practice activists reported being at the mercy of party political concerns, and easily marginalised.
Imaginative and well-resourced town and parish councils can galvanise and represent local interests, as well as providing resources for action. However, they are not an ‘off-the-peg’ solution to concerns around weak local representation.

Experiences of activism

The business of coastal action groups is typically undertaken by very few people. There are various reasons for this – the reluctance of others, because the day-to-day realities of activism preclude other approaches, or because activists feel more comfortable working in this way. To some extent this appears to justify suspicions with regards to legitimacy entertained by authorities. However, for some communities this may be the difference between interest being identified and acted upon or not, and that such suspicions can remain even when the same interests are picked up by formal democratic bodies suggests that the issue may not, at root, be one of democratic mandate.
Key activists and those around them – for example, their families – can shoulder significant costs. Activists in less affluent areas typically feel less competent in relevant professional or educational specialisms, or may demonstrate no pre-existing familiarity with the political terrain. That committed activists push beyond what is familiar, comfortable or even rational in terms of likely costs and return – however painful that may be – invites consideration of motivation that extends beyond concern associated with self-interest.

Operating authorities have demonstrated a capacity for deliberative practices that are considered to be satisfactory and fair, and can help to mitigate the effects of resource inequalities. Overall, however, the setting of coastal policy appears to be significantly at odds with the stated aim of 21st century UK governments’ to give power to citizens on issues of great importance to them. Whilst, ostensibly, local citizens have a voice on deliberative fora, the evidence instead supports the conclusion of O’Riordan et al (2009) that agencies and authorities are not willing to give up power to negotiated results – at least, when it matters the most. 
An approach satisfying the tenets of Localism must surely extend such engagement practices to considerations of overall strategy and, in so doing, make room for perspectives and ideas extending beyond the ‘pragmatic’ and the ‘sensible’, and the ‘usual suspects’ in terms of genuinely influential stakeholders. Given government’s stated enthusiasm for grassroots democracy, the absence from major coastal planning fora of town and parish councils as key stakeholders appears curious.
Their inclusion might help to alleviate any official concerns over the rigour and legitimacy of local representations. As typically configured in this study, community representation can be dependent on the work of few activists, with concerns over legitimacy appearing to risk self-fulfilment: in short, where the relevant resource is in short supply, and formal representation weak, it is hard to see what more acceptable representation might look like.
However, it is unlikely that any incremental reform – up to and including the adoption of more participatory deliberative practices – will deal successfully with the fundamental issue: that under the prevailing arrangements some stand to lose their homes uncompensated at some point, whilst others are protected substantially by the public purse. Such concerns, tied to those around the ways in which decisions are made, underpin sustained local representation, and only the adoption of an adaptation model that sees risk shared is likely to solve the issue. As Milligan et al (2009) stress, there is no panacea to be found in participation alone.


Arnstein, S. 1969. A Ladder of Citizen Participation. Journal of the American Planning Association, 35:4, pp.216-224.

Blaug, R., Horner, L., Kenyon, A. and Lekhi, R. 2006. Public value and local communities: a literature review. London: The Work Foundation.

Clark W., Khan U and McLaverty P., 2002. Reformulating activism, reformulating the activist. Policy & Politics, 30 (4), pp.  455-68. The Policy Press. 

Crick, B. 2007. Citizenship: The Political and the Democratic. British Journal of Educational Studies, 55:3, pp.235-248. Routledge. 

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), 2009b. Consultation on Coastal Change Policy. London: DEFRA. 

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), 2009c. Guidance for Community Adaptation Planning and Engagement (CAPE) on the Coast [Working paper]. Scott Wilson/DEFRA.

Few, R., Brown, K. and Tompkins, E. 2007. Climate Change and Coastal Management Decisions: Insights from Christchurch Bay, UK. Coastal Management, 9, pp.255-270.

Fletcher, S., 2007. Representing Stakeholder Interests in Partnership Approaches to Coastal Management: Experiences from the United Kingdom. Ocean &Coastal Management, 50(8), pp. 606-622.

Foot, J., 2009. Citizen involvement in local governance: Reviewing the evidence. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Maguire, K. and Truscott, F., 2006.  The value added by community involvement in governance through Local Strategic Partnerships.  York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Milligan, J., O’Riordan, T., Nicholson-Cole, S. and Watkinson, A. 2009. Nature conservation for future sustainable shorelines: Lessons from seeking to involve the public. Land Use Policy, 26, pp. 203-213.

Myatt, L.B., Scrimshaw, M.D. and Lester, J.N. 2003. Public perceptions and attitudes towards a forthcoming managed realignment scheme: Freiston Shore, Lincolnshire, UK. Ocean & Coastal Management, 46, pp.565-582.

Myatt, L.B., Scrimshaw, M.D. and Lester, J.N. 2003a. Public perceptions and attitudes towards an established managed realignment scheme: Orplands, Essex, UK. Journal of Environmental Management, 68, pp. 173-181.

O’Riordan, T., Watkinson, A. and Milligan, J. 2006. Living with a changing coastline: Exploring new forms of governance for sustainable coastal futures. Technical report 49. Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

Zsamboky, M., Fernandez-Bilbao, A., Smith, D., Knight, J. and Allan, J. 2011. Impacts of climate change on disadvantaged UK coastal communities. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

About this study

The aims of Informed, Engaged And Empowered? A Thicker Description of Community Participation in the Setting of Coastal policy in England and Wales are to contribute to a critical understanding of the experiences of people living in coastal locations at risk to coastal erosion in trying to influence sea defence policy, and to discussions around government policy and practice.  In so doing, it pursues the premise that socio-economic characteristics, population size, and wider political and social context can be key determinants in the willingness and ability of coastal communities to organise and influence relevant decisions.
A multiple case study approach was employed in considering the actions and experiences of people in distinctive contexts. Two – those of the setting of specific coastal policies and associated collective response on the Isle of Sheppey (Kent) and at Selsey (west Sussex) –were undertaken for purposes of comparison.  A third, that of the National Voice of Coastal Communities (NVCC), explored collective grassroots efforts to influence policy at national level and, in so doing, extends consideration of action at local level.
Evidence was gathered through a review of academic and policy literature; and interviews with activists, politicians operating at national, local and parish levels, local authority coastal engineers, relevant central government Executive Agency staff, and others.