In 2007 the draft Shoreline Management Plan for where I live proposed that the area might undergo 'managed realignment', with homes lost to the sea uncompensated in as little as 20 years. I was active in campaigning against this proposal, which was subsequently modifed. Since then I have developed a research interest in the social justice aspects of government policy with respect to climate change and coastal planning, to which this blog is devoted.
INFORMED, ENGAGED AND EMPOWERED? A THICKER DESCRIPTION OF COMMUNITY PARTICIPATION IN THE SETTING OF COASTAL POLICY IN ENGLAND AND WALES: RESEARCH SUMMARY
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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.
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.