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.

Thursday, 6 September 2012


The UK government stresses the importance of working in ‘partnership’ with communities in seeking just outcomes to issues presented by policies not to defend some coastal areas from the sea in the longer term, and not to compensate people for the resulting loss of their homes.  However, relevant academic literature encourages further consideration of the ways in which those affected get to influence decision-making.

Government’s position that it will defend the coast only where it is sustainable to do so, and that it does not plan to compensate individuals for any loss of property, has proven contentious.  By way of mitigation where homes are to be lost to the sea, it has stated an intention to support communities in adapting to the physical, social and economic effects of change.. .”[1] (p.19).

DEFRA-commissioned guidance for local authorities specific to this purpose – ‘Guidance for Community Adaptation Planning and Engagement (CAPE) on the Coast’ - 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.”[2] (p.7) Whilst government acknowledges, then, that some communities will need support in contributing to policy decisions, a reading of relevant academic literature suggests a more fundamental dissonance between government prescription and the experiences of citizens in their engagement with authority. 

A small number of UK studies has considered relevant coastal change and related governance arrangements. Whilst it is important to be wary of generalisation, they have potential for shedding light on – and prompting further questions about - how threatened coastal populations fare in their interactions with power.

In these studies, the involvement of people in coastal planning takes place in a variety of contexts – from structured and facilitated deliberative events involving local people in formal ‘stakeholder’ capacities, to citizens’ interests largely being represented in decision-making fora via local elected representatives, to more ‘hands-off’ involvement such as attending public exhibitions. O’Riordan et al[3] and Milligan et al[4] explore the potential of participatory approaches[5] to involving local people in the setting of coastal policy, and report improved  relationships and greater understanding between the various parties involved.  Milligan et al suggest potential for finding a successful common vision for the Winterton-on-Sea case study area (p.211), whilst O’Riordan et al report a willingness by participants in their North Norfolk study to engage in debate, with a raised awareness of the issues emerging alongside the bringing together of various facets of coastal management. (p.12)  It’s good, of course, to sing from the same hymn sheet.

Conflicting objectives

However, this is contradicted by findings that locating common ground between actors is a problem - Milligan et al find that that local and official cultures are neither aligned nor likely to be in the future, with one problem lying in the limits to what people are able to understand (p.210)[6]  Difficulties are also presented by the need to balance the sometimes conflicting objectives of a wide mix of stakeholders (Milligan et al, 2009; p.211). O’Riordan et al point to the importance, on one hand, that participants’ expectations of the degree of influence on decisions should be managed and, on the other, their desire to have ownership of the outcomes – a tension possibly exacerbated by concerns that agencies and authorities are unwilling to give up power to negotiated results (p.24-25). It is perhaps telling that the researchers identify the very need for public acceptability as a blockage to the effective delivery of managed realignment schemes (p.23)[7].  
Whereas O’Riordan et al and Milligan et al explore participatory approaches to decision making in this context, Fletcher[8] looks at coastal partnerships which employ a different approach. Whilst such arrangements have the potential for local people to participate, the orthodoxy instead appears to be one whereby communities find voice on decision-making bodies via local elected representatives[9]. This study, which explores relationships between the various stakeholder representatives in the relevant decision-making bodies and their constituencies and the making of decisions/setting of policies through partnerships, points to various issues with the ways in which the interests of coastal communities are understood, the motivations of those who represent them, and how power imbalances come to influence the making of decisions and policies.

Many stakeholders in Fletcher’s study reported limited enthusiasm for their role and its value (it is unclear whether this includes those representing the public interest), with very few operating within a formal system to identify any misrepresentation. Interestingly, Fletcher reports that those participants representing the public interest “had no direct method of seeking the views of the public except for informal ad hoc routes” (p.618).[10]  This, we must assume, is likely to raise the bar for local interests seeking to be exert influence in such fora.
Doubts were expressed concerning the robustness of decision-making processes, with opportunities to influence agendas perceived as poor and concern expressed over how contributions were received from the wider community of stakeholders. In each of the partnerships studied, a degree of inequality of influence over decision-making was perceived by respondents, with funding, chairing and hosting of partnerships all seen as important in this regard. 
The studies hint at issues that arise from the literature on coastal change regarding the ability of local people to influence state-led efforts to make related policy  – whether that should be as a consequence of a reluctance on the part of authority to submit their 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.[11] Of course, this is based on a very small number of studies with diffuse objectives, and so any conclusions must be tentative. However, it is worth saying that they chime broadly with findings from a recent and significant piece of work.  In 2009 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a round-up of findings 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.”[12] (p.2)  As with the literature on coastal policy, conclusions suggested “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. 

There are many coastal activists who have developed a deep appreciation of the help given them by politicians and local authority officers on this issue – indeed, I am one of them. Many  will also tell of their frustration at the disinterest, incompetence, and even obstruction of others in similar positions of influence – sadly I am one of this group, also. It would be good to think that the promise of ‘partnership’ might iron out some of these inconsistencies, but the literature – light as it might be at the moment – does not offer us a great deal of hope in that regard. We deserve, and need, authorities to sing a different and better hymn.

[1] Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), 2009a. Consultation on Coastal Change Policy.  London: DEFRA.
[2] Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) 2009b. Guidance for Community Adaptation Planning and Engagement (CAPE) on the Coast, working paper, Scott Wilson/DEFRA.
[3] 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.
[4] 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.
[5] What Arnstein might categorize as ‘partnership’, whereby power is distributed through negotiations, with responsibilities shared.
[6] In sympathy with this finding, Few et al conclude that “public input into decision-making is devalued if information on long-term implications of climate change is insufficiently accessible.” (2007, p.265)
[7] Myatt et al see public relations as a means through which authorities might alleviate public scepticism (2003, p.566), and as having a role in the promotion of managed realignment. This would appear to see engagement as having a persuasive rather than simply democratic purpose potentially at the expense of discourse around conflict, legitimacy and social justice.
[8] 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.
[9] Held proposes that political representation “involves the delegation of government to ‘a small number of citizens elected by the rest’.” (1987, p.64)
[10] Concerns that such a model of stakeholder representation may not guarantee that local people are properly represented are echoed by Milligan et al (2009, p. 206).
[11] More fundamentally, a recurring theme in these studies is that managed realignment is seen by local people as politically controversial – especially where radical change is proposed.
[12] Foot, J., 2009.Citizen involvement in local governance: Reviewing the evidence. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

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