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Bursting the London ‘policy bubble’ in order to bring #sustainability to the masses

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Ever noticed how all the climate, energy and sustainability policy briefings and seminars all seem to take place in London? It may be the UK capital, but it’s far removed from where the sustainability messages need to be heard if we want to take it mainstream.

From NGOs to think tanks, it’s noticeable that the majority of them and their people are all based in London.

That’s understandable given that London is the seat of government and therefore where a lot of lobbying and influencing will naturally have to be focused in order to achieve policy changes at the national level, but the fact is that it won’t just be the people and businesses of London that make those changes in practice.

That task will be shared among the rest of the population, including businesses.

They need to be much better engaged in the process of making and communicating policy, or there’s a risk that they’ll remain largely ignorant to the changes that will be needed in order to deliver on the COP21 Paris Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals, for example.

That means policy wonks of all colours and stripes need to get out into the regions more, both to take the pulse of local opinion and understanding, but also to raise awareness of the issues at stake.

The case for ‘Devo Policy’

One size very definitely does not fit all.

The UK, small though it might be when compared to its nearest neighbours, is actually a very socio-economically, geographically and industrially complex place.

When it comes to developing and implementing sustainability policies, it makes sense to tailor them more to the circumstances that exist in different parts of the country.

For instance, if we’re concerned with boosting solar PV deployment on domestic rooftops, it might be better to change the feed-in tariff so that it encourages uptake where solar irradiance is greatest – effectively targeting subsidies where they’ll lead to the biggest gains in respect of solar output. Yes, that might see installations in Cornwall attract more in FIT payments than installations in, say, Aberdeen, but then that’s precisely the point because taxpayer Return On Investment will be better.

Volume house builders could be made to construct homes that meet the most stringent standards for energy efficiency, grey water reuse, emissions and micro power generation on higher specification properties in more affluent areas (where arguments about additional build costs and reduced margins don’t apply as much because house buyers are less price sensitive) but where the rules are relaxed or even not applied at all in economically deprived towns and cities.

The very worst thing we can do is craft policy in London and then expect it to be embraced uniformly across the country.

Tell everyone about it, not just the policy echo chamber

In creating policies to address national needs, it’s clear policy-makers need to make sure local circumstances are properly considered and factored into future policy formulation.

But just as importantly, policy needs to be properly and appropriately communicated to stakeholders across the UK and not just in the London policy bubble.

The problem is that it’s easy to get caught in the trap of preaching to the converted and only ever sharing developing information with the same (comparatively) small circle of people with similar interests. That’s what happens every time there’s a Grantham Lecture on climate change, or a new policy paper produced by the Green Alliance (I’m not knocking them by the way) that takes place at a London venue. The people that hear about it directly every time are the same policy-makers and journalists because it’s on their doorstep in London.

Meanwhile, the people who really need to hear and understand what’s going on – ie. everybody else – miss out.

The working class family living in a two-up, two-down terraced house in Gateshead, that are going to be expected to adjust their lifestyle (using less power, driving fewer miles, consuming less in general) aren’t going to hear policy discussions taking place in London, much less engage with them.

The SME business owner in Newport, Gwent, that’s primarily concerned with cash flow right now (because her business is part of the Tata supply chain at Port Talbot) will probably also not be aware that Christiana Figueres was delivering a lecture at Imperial College London this evening, and much less be motivated to travel into the capital to find out what she had to say.

Policy needs to be much more earthy, more connected to the masses, and made much more immediately relevant if there’s to be the slightest hope of inducing the changes needed to make the UK more sustainable.

What do you think? Are you disenfranchised by the fact that policy on energy, climate, the environment and sustainability all seem to emerge from London rather than the regions? Or do you think that’s sensible?

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