Community engagement means working with the public as equals

This guest post by Alison Hawdale reviews the meaning of community engagement for the climate emergency, following a meeting in Didsbury East ward. 

Didsbury East Climate Emergency Event was a ward meeting held at Parrs Wood School last Wednesday evening, 17th November, organised by Linda Foley and Andrew Simcock, Didsbury East councillors.

It was a welcoming and well organised event.  30 members of the public attended, which wasn’t bad for a dark Wednesday evening in November. After some initial talks, we were directed to 4 out of 7 stalls to engage with “Climate Champions” talking about a range of topics:

  • Community Climate Engagement – Nina de Forges, South Manchester Climate Officer, MCC
  • Carbon Literacy in Young People – Claire Burns, Keep Britain Tidy
  • Recycling – Katherine Mowat, BiffaTransport – George Coombs, Our Streets Chorlton
  • Flood Defence, Michael Fletcher, MCC; Claire Nichols and Peter Wilson, Environment Agency
  • Food – Rachel Oelbaum, Foodsync
  • Green Spaces – Amy Wright, Groundwork

It was set up as a sort of “speed-dating” scenario, where we would listen for 10 minutes, and then have the chance to ask questions. The 4 topics were assigned to us rather than us choosing them.

I believe this event was well meant, and it’s certainly good that our local councillors are engaging with the public on these issues.  The ‘Climate Champions” themselves were knowledgeable, enthusiastic and generous with their time.

But I think we need to rethink what we mean by “community engagement”. As you might imagine, the 30 people who attended were a self-selecting section of the public.  I knew quite a few of them, and I imagine there were not many degrees of separation between us all.  If we had been there so that our collective knowledge, experience and passion could be harnessed, then something powerful might have been ignited,  But instead I sat through a talk on how to reduce my personal food waste, and another on how I could organise my own litter-pick.  I’m not saying these things aren’t important, but really we were the wrong audience.  The whole thing could have been on a much more collaborative, problem-solving basis to tackle the issue of reaching out to the thousands of residents of Didsbury East who were not in the room*.

There was one collaborative element to the evening – we were asked to put post-it notes up making comments about the Didsbury East Climate Plan, but by the time I left, none had been put up,  The plan had not been sent out before the meeting, there was only one copy of it available on the night, and very little time to look at it.  I think that the people attending could have provided valuable input into the document, and maybe some of the evening might have been usefully spent on this sort of discussion.  The plan has now been sent out to those who came to the meeting and a group at the Didsbury Climate Cafe intend to take a careful look at it.

The other element missing for me was how individual action meets up with the actions of political leaders and businesses.  This Guardian article really made me think –  Few willing to change lifestyle to save the planet, climate survey finds, which discusses a survey called Our Planet Issue: Accelerating Behaviour Change for a sustainable Future.  Most people think they already do enough for the planet, and are reluctant to do more until they see their leaders take action.  One obvious example here is that it is difficult to persuade people to cut back on flying when Manchester City Council supports plans to almost double flights out of Manchester Airport.

What if Manchester had a really clear vision and plan for the climate, with bold and decisive actions being seen to be taken?  Where people could really see that the Council, businesses and other institutions were putting the emergency at the heart of what they were doing?  Where Manchester was the world leader it keeps proclaiming it is?  Maybe then people could see how their individual actions might have an impact.

I don’t want to be negative about what was trying to be achieved last Wednesday evening.  It was a group of committed, experienced, knowledgeable people coming together to try to do something about a massive, difficult problem they know has to be tackled. What I think is needed now is to promote a well-facilitated, equal collaboration between politicians, officers, agency staff, businesses, activists and members of the public to work out how to bring about behaviour change, not only within our local streets, but also within the corridors of our local government.

If anyone is interested in discussing the Didsbury East Climate Plan, we will be looking at it at the next meeting of the Didsbury Climate Cafe, Pavilion Cafe, Didsbury Park, 18th December 2021, 1-3 pm.  We also hope to look at Didsbury West’s plan.  Not from Didsbury?  Come along and let’s see what could be learnt from and applied to your ward plan.

*And if anyone questions whether or not people in Didsbury need pushing on climate issues, please do go and look the the CREDS Place-Based Carbon Calculator which gives data on the per-person carbon footprint for every ward in the UK.  Nina de Forges showed us the compelling graphics from the site, demonstrating how much higher the footprint is for a resident of Didsbury for things like flying and food and drink than, say, for someone living in Woodhouse Park.


We welcome guest blogs on topics such as these, and thank Alison for her contribution. If you have an idea for a guest blog, or want to write about a similar event that happened in your ward, then you can get in contact with us at . 

4 thoughts on “Community engagement means working with the public as equals”

  1. I much appreciate the above report.
    I’m one of the locals who didn’t bother to turn up to the meeting on Wed 17 Nov 21.
    I was put off by the agenda of tired topics; and the emphasis on children in the Party email: ‘All welcome, particularly children.’ Greta & co have demonstrated the importance of children, but Greta & co also know that it is the adults who must reduce their carbon emissions, starting right now. Nor do children get to vote. Nor probably did the vast majority of East Didsbury voters know of the meeting. I suggest that the proposed development of 95 new rented flats to be built on the East Didsbury Tesco car park might be a timely built-environment project to target with sound ideas on how new homes should now be built to achieve lasting near-zero carbon emissions: . Meet the development team on Wed 1 Dec 3.30pm – 7.30pm Didsbury Cricket Club.
    John Watson

  2. I was at the meeting and I think 30 people is an overestimate, I’m pretty sure residents were outnumbered by presenters and organisers. As you say, most of us knew each other and came from a fairly narrow demographic – largely well meaning and left-leaning. It was interesting but ultimately a missed opportunity to engage residents of our ward. It was billed as a launch of our ward action plan which has been developed by MCC (not the residents) and seems to lacking substance or much sense of urgency.

    I would like to join you at the meeting on the 18th Dec to discuss follow up on this – what time?

    1. I’m glad you saw this, and it is disappointing. I’ve asked Alison for the time of the event – 1-3 pm.

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