Cllr Georgia Gould writes about Camden’s Citizen’s Assembly

This blog post was originally published on 17th January 2020

On the morning after the general election I rather exhaustedly headed down to Camden’s Pop up ‘Think & Do’ climate space feeling dejected at the prospect of five more years of austerity. Sitting listening to residents share their ideas, from a Camden Forest to community meals, looking at the walls covered with pledges, I felt my hope and energy returning. The residents who came together that morning reminded me that we have the people power to change things from the bottom up.

A few months before it was the people power of our young citizens who broke through the noise of Brexit and put the climate crisis on the news agenda. In Camden at the time we were experimenting with new ways to share power with citizens. Camden 2025, our vision for the borough had been written by a citizens’ assembly and as a result it is not just a plan for the council but a call to action for our community. Residents were increasingly worried about the fabric of our social mix being pulled apart and the rise in loneliness, disconnection and hate. They wanted power over their own lives and to work with others to improve their community, country and world.

Our work around participation and power sharing is inexorably linked to our belief in social justice. In a borough like Camden some residents have access to decision makers, influence and information, and other residents feel powerless. Citizens’ assemblies are representative of the community of Camden in all its diversity, and everyone has an equal voice in the discussion. They create a space for relationship building, bridging and deep dialogue about complex issues.

Watching the young people marching, it felt like the right moment to put this existential challenge to our residents and ask what more we should do to tackle the crisis. Camden already had a long term commitment to climate action which had seen carbon emissions reduce by 40 per cent and a comprehensive clean air strategy but the next steps would require radical action not just from the Council but from our communities. We wanted their buy in and imagination, which is why Camden held the UK’s first citizens’ assembly on the climate crisis in July 2019.

The climate citizens’ assembly brought together people who believed that Camden persecuted car users, those who thought all cars should be banned and everyone in the middle. Our Community Researchers, who live and work in Camden, initially recruited 150 participants from across our community, from which the Assembly was selected using random stratified sampling. The process was supported by an independent advisory board and the deliberation was led by a participation charity. Before the assembly started we led a big community call out which provided over 600 community ideas from residents, schools and businesses for assembly members to consider.

The Assembly came together over three sessions to review these ideas, alongside evidence from climate scientists, environmentalists and community energy practitioners before developing 17 firm proposals for how Camden should address the climate crisis. These ranged from actions people can take in their own homes to large scale action from the Council. I could feel the energy and buzz in the room on the last day of the Assembly as residents told me how their scepticism had turned into a deep sense of purpose and excitement, or as one man put it, ‘this is the first time I have felt part of my community’.

At Camden’s full council meeting, councillors from all parties, children from Camden’s schools, Extinction Rebellion and other environmental groups, and members of the Citizens’ Assembly debated the proposals and how to translate them into community-led actions and develop a borough-wide Climate Action Plan. The Council agreed to take forward all 17 recommendations and these are already progressing from installing Solar Panels to a new approach to transport schemes.

One recommendation was to develop a community led campaign and Camden environmental leader, Farhana Yamin suggested creating a ‘Think and Do’ pop up space to continue the civic collaboration. Within weeks we had worked with the community to open a new space where residents could learn about the Assembly ideas and help action them. The space was full from morning to evening with residents and council staff bringing ideas to life, such as tree give-aways, young people leading clothes swaps and collective policy development. It opened a groundswell of energy and after six weeks community members have come forward to lead a community cafe and we are planning ‘Think and Do’ climate pop ups in libraries, estates and businesses across our borough.

For the first time our latest residents’ survey showed our residents’ biggest concerns for the future are air quality and the climate emergency. The Citizens’ Assembly has helped us all think differently about what is possible. It’s inspired our staff who are leading workshops in their departments about taking forward the ideas. And it’s left me feeling hopeful again.