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From ‘ivory tower’ to engagement: : strengthening links between universities and local authorities on carbon emission reduction

Posted by Dr Rehema White, Academic in Sustainable Development, School of Geography and Geosciences, University of St Andrews

Reflections on an ESRC/SFC/LARCI funded project with a programme to strengthen links between universities and local authorities

Our project, Enhancing Local authorities Community Engagement: Co-designing& Prototyping Strategies for Carbon Emission Reduction, was partly supported by Fife Council. It was awarded a grant within the Engaging Scottish Local Authorities Programme, funded jointly by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Scottish Funding Council (SFC) and the then Local Authorities and Research Councils’ Initiative (LARCI). The goals of the programme were to establish better relationships between Universities and Local Authorities and to promote applied and topical research in Scotland.

In order to minimise the impacts of climate change, Scotland has ambitious targets to reduce carbon emissions, and, of course, local authorities have responsibilities to help meet these targets. The aim of this project was for Fife Council and academics from the Universities of St Andrews and Dundee to develop together a strategy for local authorities to engage local communities in reduction of their carbon footprints. Existing information was collated and synthesised. Seminars on Energy, Transport, Food and Community brought together local people, local authority staff, academics and NGO representatives to highlight successful community projects and explore how local authorities could more effectively help local people (for example, through strategic planning for community renewables, providing a single contact person, jointly identifying priorities). Workshops, meetings, interviews and attendance at other events further informed the research. We co-designed a Community Engagement for Carbon Emission Reduction (CECER) Strategy for Fife Council and disseminated findings across other local authorities, partly with the assistance of Sustainable Scotland Network. The six key areas were:

(1) Local authorities shifting more from service provision towards community support

(2) Building community resilience

(3) Creating infrastructure and processes to help community action

(4) Supporting poorer communities

(5) Strategically altering budget distributions because of financial constraints and investment potential in renewables

(6) Raising awareness through seeing the local authority itself as a community of interest

It was concluded that local authorities can strengthen networks and communication, especially with successful communities in their area. Despite the different cultures between local authorities and communities, in both, key individuals played important leadership roles. A shift from “service provision” to “community enabling” will help local authorities mobilise the potential of communities to respond to climate change and other sustainability challenges.

What was it like to ‘step down from the ivory tower?’ Well, many academics are now actively engaged in practical activities. I had sat on the Fife Environmental Partnership for 3 years prior to this project. Certainly pre-existing as well as carefully nurtured trust, relationships and understanding assisted us in working together. We also found that real partnership across HEIs and local authorities was facilitated by recognition of the excellence and values of each institution. We respected our differences! As academics, we were impressed by the management efficiencies of local government processes; our initial theoretical attempts at strategies required action plans and SMART (Strategic, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time bounded) targets. We had to learn to change our language and not assume knowledge of literature or acronyms. We had to work to different timescales. Whilst we often wanted to promote longterm learning and work towards longterm goals, local authorities needed to engage in the short term, often in response to policy initiatives and procedural deadlines.  Our project benefited from a complex but inclusive and effective governance approach. Finally, we learnt that we would not get far without buy in from senior managers. It was challenging but interesting work, and I recommend that you try to involve academics from your neighbourhood university in what you do. Not only might you learn new ways of thinking, you might inspire locally relevant research to help you make more informed decisions.

Research and evidence-based policy making will be a key theme of the SOLACE Summit in Coventry on October 16-18th 2012. It will include a workstream that will cover why evidence is important to local authorities, applying evidence in the real world and using evidence to generate savings and better outcomes.  More information and details of how to book are available here.

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Filed under Carbon reduction, Research, Scotland