Putting Brent's residents at the heart of climate action

Brent LBC introduced resident-led decision making on how to spend local money to cut carbon emissions. Shazia Hussain explains the thinking behind the trailblazing Participatory Budgeting approach.

The UN has described the climate crisis as the ‘biggest threat modern humans have ever faced' – but the scale of the challenge can sometimes feel so huge that some people feel powerless to do anything.

Having declared a climate emergency in 2019 and pledged to do everything in our power to reach zero carbon emissions by 2030, the council knew we needed to address the interlinked problems of climate change and some people's feeling of powerlessness by trying something new.

This is why we introduced resident-led decision-making on a major public grant to reduce carbon emissions.

Participatory Budgeting is a model first used in the city of Porto Alegre in Brazil that empowers communities. It has a proven track record of increasing participation, engagement and trust. The approach directly involves local people in making decisions over how public money is spent in their community. This means engaging with residents, community groups and representatives from across communities to generate spending proposals before they discuss them and vote on them. I first stumbled across the concept about 10 years ago and, although it has been used in other parts of England, it is the first time we have tried it in Brent.

Fast forwarding to January 2022 and ‘CO2GO' meant residents were in the driving seat to allocate community grants as part of our new ‘You Decide' programme. Brent residents took ownership of the £500k Carbon Offset Fund – which aims to reduce carbon emissions in the borough by at least 100 tonnes.

The residents' led Planning Group designed the funding criteria. Residents and local groups submitted project ideas and voting powers were handed over to the community. A diverse range of almost 250 residents attended the ‘Decision Day' event, which was open to all Brent residents, and voted on the green projects that they felt best reduced carbon in their neighbourhoods.

The first pot of £400k was awarded to flats, maisonettes and houses that will undergo sustainability works to reduce their carbon footprint. These properties have combined as clusters to maximise the benefits of green measures. The second pot of £100k was awarded to community groups to run educational projects to help residents reduce carbon emissions, save money, and make positive and healthier lifestyle changes.

There were some great projects put forward and selected such as the Brookway biodiversity project to plant fruit trees and extend wildflower meadows, which will provide a sustainable way to reduce carbon in the borough. Other successful projects will teach young entrepreneurs to think sustainably and understand how businesses of the future can reduce their environmental impact and carbon footprint.

A project from Advice for Renters will involve a ‘Catch the Bus to Cut the Bills' energy advice bus for the local community, and CO2 awareness sessions working with communities from different cultures and spoken languages.

We are really excited by the fantastic involvement of so many talented and engaged people at the first residents' led Decision Day. The ideas that came forward were from the heart of the local neighbourhoods, submitted by people who live there. The submissions were brilliant and it really shows that our strength lies in empowering local people to create local ideas for local change.

As well as helping us on our journey towards zero carbon emissions, by delegating some democratic power and a specific budget to residents, Brent has not just found some fantastic ideas that will now become reality but built trust and enthusiasm among residents to tackle one of the biggest issues we face.

CO2GO was the first trial of Participatory Budgeting in Brent and our ambition now is to support more activity that gives residents the power to decide on local projects for their communities.

By empowering and trusting citizens to help create solutions to the shared challenges we all face, we can not only tackle those issues more successfully but also build trust in institutions and, when that happens, that is how we create a powerful movement for lasting change.

Shazia Hussain is assistant chief executive at Brent LBC



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