CEM poses ‘critical friend’ questions to Manchester’s first community assembly on climate, and asks those participating to get in touch.
For seven consecutive weeks in August and September 2021, a Community Assembly on Climate Change will take place in Manchester. The Assembly is run by Manchester-based cooperative Envirolution, long-standing organisers of environmental community events, with support (of what form unclear) from Manchester Climate Agency and Partnership and the assortment of partners (not all Manchester-based) that make up the In Our Nature programme.
CEM will report at regular intervals on the progress of the Assembly. We’d also love to hear from participants, via this form. For now, we pose ten questions to those involved, be they ‘concerned citizen’ participants, the organisers / hosts, or the policymakers who ultimately can adopt or ignore the recommendations. These questions are intended in the spirit of a critical friend. There is plenty to welcome about the Assembly, and accounts of the first session were positive. Participants felt the facilitators created an open, inclusive environment – and showed some appetite to critique Manchester’s response to date. They also foregrounded the emotional aspects of climate change. Nevertheless, citizen assemblies are not perfect tools. There is a real risk that the Manchester Community Assembly becomes an activity often invoked, but whose recommendations are not actioned with the necessary urgency.
Nuts and bolts: what is the format and structure of the Assembly?
The first five weeks of the Assembly will run as a series of thematic workshops. These will take place online, with participants divided into different sub-groups according to where they live. e.g. Wythenshawe and South, Hulme and Moss Side, Levenshulme and East, Chorlton. Sub-groups contain around 10 residents. Week 1 (wc 9th August) was an overview session. In weeks 2-5, the sub-groups each discuss Transport, Food and Agriculture, Shopping and Retail and Energy with contributions from various experts.
According to the hosts, these sessions will “offer the chance for everyone to learn about climate change and how it is going to affect us in Manchester and the wider world. Then we will learn about positive solutions to the issues and which we think are the most important and appropriate for our city”. Crunch time is weeks 6 and 7 when the sub-groups come together for two final meetings held (in person) in the city centre. Here, the hosts state, “solutions [will be] voted upon and put into a ‘mandate’ or statement which everyone will have the opportunity to co-create and which represents everyone’s views”.
10 Questions for Manchester’s Community Assembly on Climate Change
Questions about the design and selection (‘before’)
- How representative of Manchester are the participants? And what implications does this have for how the recommendations might be taken up (or dismissed)?
Unlike many citizens assemblies, there was no random selection (‘sortification’ if you like your jargon). This is an assembly gathered through applications, with a call for participation appearing online in mid July. This may be one reason for the choice of terminology: ‘community’ rather than ‘citizen’ assembly (another might be that it sounds less like an XR demand). But given that the participants are self-selecting, what effort has been made for the assembly to be demographically diverse and also to include a range of opinions and attitudes? More reassurance on this would be welcome.
The commitment of 2 hours a week over 7 consecutive weeks is high and will have put off many folk. There is no perfect time of day to hold such an event, no time that works for everyone. The organisers chose 5.30pm, stressing that this falls outside of ‘regular’ working hours. But knowing that this, as well as the digital component, will exclude many (shift workers, those with caring responsibilities, those with poor digital connectivity) how will the organisers frame the recommendations?
- Have those organising and facilitating spoken to and learned from other recent assemblies on climate change? In particular, the Leeds Climate Commission and the Birmingham Climate Assembly (as these cities face similar challenges) as well as the national Climate Assembly UK. Manchester is by no means the first city to run a climate assembly, and it should use this to its advantage. What did not work well in the previous exercises and how have those running the Manchester assembly tried to address these shortcomings?
As we so often ignore what has been done and how we have failed before, will the sessions also cover the longer history of climate policy in Manchester?
- Will participants be given a chance to get to know each other? Bringing together ten people who live in roughly the same area of the city presents an opportunity for new connections to be formed. Whatever the formal outcome of the Assembly, a thicker network of citizens is a positive result and may achieve more than a one-off event. If politicians attempt to bury or dismiss the Assembly recommendations (more on that later), those who participate may need to work together and demand answers.
Questions about the format of the assembly workshops (‘during’)
- Are the topics (and experts) fixed? Or will there be a chance for citizens to request additional issues or areas they would like to receive more information on? For example, the Leeds Climate Commission added an additional topic on finance at the request of participants.
- When it comes to solutions, are all options on the table? Even if there has been no pre-screening, will bolder options be discussed at length? Or will they be filtered out in the final stages in the hope of producing a single ‘palatable’ set of recommendations? For example, the workshop on transport must produce proposals for the airport, and reduced car use, as well as consider areas where there is greater consensus (cycling, walking).
- How will the work of the assembly be communicated to those who are not participating? The evaluation of Climate Assembly UK pointed to communication with the wider public and media as one of the weaknesses of that exercise. Trust and legitimacy are big challenges for any citizen assembly. But how can the public get behind the process if they are kept in the dark? To date, there is little communication about the work of the assembly beyond the call documents. How will this be addressed in the coming weeks?
Questions about the recommendations (‘after / what happens next’)
- Will the assembly lead to concrete policy recommendations that will help reduce emissions? Evidence suggests that mini publics and assemblies work best when they address an issue with a clear time frame or end date (or one that can feed into a referendum). Climate change is not this type of issue. Will the need to find consensus smooth out some of the bolder actions? What if one part of the city has a different view than the rest?
- Will policy makers ‘cherry pick’ recommendations to suit their agendas? And ignore / dismiss the recommendations they don’t like? The recommendations of the Assembly are not binding (and we’ve seen the promises of Manchester City Council’s climate emergency declaration ignored).
- Will the assembly be used by those in power instead of other types of citizen engagement? The Assembly is an interesting development, but must not replace other consultations – or other democratic processes.
- How does the ‘manifesto’ presented to COP 26 feed back into local action? The draw of Glasgow was clearly too much to resist, but what happens in Manchester itself? Will there be tiered recommendations – those aimed at the UK Government, those aimed at Manchester City Council? And how will these recommendations feed into other local decision-making processes and ward plans? The recommendations must come with a timeline, and make clear who is responsible for following them up.
Are you participating in the Assembly? Get in touch!
If you are involved in the Assembly we’d love to hear from you via this form (you can remain anonymous, if you prefer). We recognise the huge commitment from those who have generously agreed to give their time to the exercise. As activists sitting outside this process, we at Climate Emergency Manchester can help highlight any problems before they become worse and push for improvements.
And if participating in the Assembly whets your appetite for engaging with Manchester City Council further on climate, please get in touch email@example.com. We are always happy to discuss roles and what more you can do. One-off assemblies will never be enough. Citizen action must be sustained, and some must sit outside structures set up by those in power. Seven weeks is a fair stretch of time, but we’re in this for the much longer haul.