Chris Blunkell

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I'm married to Claire and together, with our son Lewis, we live in Seasalter - just outside Whitstable, Kent, in the south east of England.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Empowering coastal communities - a note of caution

Why silence is not always golden
Conflict - beyond mentions in dispatches

In 2010 the Environment Agency in collaboration with maritime local authorities published a handbook for practitioners working on the coast in England and Wales[1]. It covers a range of activities and considerations, including the process of Shoreline Management Planning, adaptation, and communication and engagement with communities. The handbook explains the importance of engagement as practitioners “work with communities to find sustainable solutions”, and “the need for society to make some difficult decisions” given “an evolving coast and the effects of climate change” (p.171) and the need for consideration of “social and environmental outcomes” (p.172).

Intriguingly, a fictional case study is included which, in part, appears designed to show how the engagement of a coastal community in pursuit of new arrangements with regard to flood risk might play out. The first scenario outlines how activity inspired by a presumption to invest in new defence might work, whereas the second assumes a presumption towards ‘management’ of flood risk – in this case, resulting in “tidal inundation of the site” (p.175) in the longer term.  It is no secret the setting of Shoreline Management Plans has proven contentious in areas where decisions are made not to defend.[2]  I find it surprising, then, that the handbook – and the case study in particular - gives so little attention to conflict and its meaning in such encounters.  It is possible, of course, that I’m missing the point here, but if the tidal inundation mentioned in the case study results in the loss of homes, then might not the claims that “Although some people disagree, most of the community can see that managed realignment is the most suitable long-term agreement”…and that the relevant team has “successfully engaged the community” be rather undercooked?

Civic participation

It should be observed, of course, that the scenarios are at least partly designed to demonstrate distinctive approaches to communication with communities – the first ‘Decide Announce Defend’, the second the favoured ‘Engage Deliberate Decide’. Such ‘empowerment’ of people and communities through involvement in decision making has been prominent in the policy narratives of both the Coalition Government and New Labour before them, but I would suggest that government is perhaps optimistic in its assessment of people’s levels of comfort with this kind of activity. A government report on the findings of the most recent Citizenship Survey[3] warns that participation in civic engagement – and in particular ‘civic participation’ which includes “engagement in democratic processes, such as contacting an elected representative or attending a public demonstration” fell “significantly” over the previous year from 38% to 34% (p.7). It is also worth bearing in mind that the most common form of such participation is the relatively ‘hands-off’ activity of signing a petition, with less than a third of respondents reporting contacting a council official (33%) or a local councillor (29%) [p.8].

Why does this matter? I would suggest that the outcomes of the setting of coastal policy in this way are likely to influenced by both the appetites and abilities of those affected to make their case forcibly to decision-makers. By way of example, in 2007 the draft SMP for where I live proposed that ‘our’ policy unit’ – some 75 homes flanking a road, with beach on one side and marsh on the other – might cease to be defended and lost to the sea in 20-50 years.  Residents formed an action group to oppose the plan, with the (possibly indirect) result that this policy unit – one of 26 such - was identified as the subject of approximately 50% of all consultation responses in a subsequent official account of the consultation[4]. The policy was later modified.  Meanwhile, a policy unit on the same patch that was similar in terms of number of homes and predicament elicited no response at all according to the same account – despite being covered by the same consultation process.

Exercising influence – conflicting views
I’m interested in why – on the face of it at least – people in one area concerned about the potentially negative effects of proposed coastal policy kicked up a stink and pushed for change, and people similarly challenged in another location did not.  It is possible, of course, that (to paraphrase the fictional case study from the Environment Agency handbook) when it was explained to them, most of people were persuaded by utilitarian arguments and came to see that managed realignment was the most suitable long-term agreement.

However, I would draw attention instead to recent studies testing the success of attempts on the part of authorities to involve people in local decision-making.  In 2009 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a round up of findings[5] drawn largely from its Government and Public Services research programme, which explored “the experiences and perceptions of communities, councillors and public officials involved in a range of governance processes.” (p.2)  Conclusions suggest “conflicting views about how far communities and citizens can exercise substantial influence over decisions about public services” (p.3). 

Whilst community respondents expressed positive feelings about the potential benefits of engaging, there was also frustration about the barriers that limited their involvement.  It appears that only a small proportion of citizens get involved in such encounters, with uneven take up of opportunities to influence decision-making.  Despite government efforts, it would seem that disadvantaged groups don’t necessarily gain increased access to – and influence over – those with power.  Rather, suggests Foot, when people from deprived neighbourhoods get involved to tackle deep-rooted social problems, they need to persuade people from the more affluent and socially influential neighbourhoods to ally with them. By contrast, Foot suggests that others exclude themselves or are not invited to join because they find it difficult to deal with bureaucracy, they ‘don’t fit’ or they feel they can have more effect as an outsider. This is just one study of course, but its findings are supported in other literature and, for what it is worth, chime with my experience of community activism in this context. It should not be assumed that the absence of noisy opposition indicates a contentment with what is being proposed. And as for those who disagree, if it is they whose future well-being is to be traded away for the greater good, do they not warrant more than a mention in dispatches when the process is written up?

[1] Environment Agency. 2010. The coastal handbook: a guide for all those working on the coast
[2] See my previous post ‘Loss of coastal homes – time we knew the big picture.
[3] CLG. 2011. Community Action in England: A report on the 2009–10 Citizenship Survey. Office for National Statistics.
[5] Foot, J., 2009.  Citizen involvement in local governance: Reviewing the evidence. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

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