One of the keys to scaling up Transition will be a healthy and mutually beneficial relationship with the local authority. How best to nurture, build and sustain such a relationship?
- Recognise that officers in local authorities are usually people like us trying to do good things
- Identify the best person to approach first, often a Community Support Officer
- Get up to speed, read background information so you know where they are coming from
- Remain apolitical
- Seek common ground
Michael Dunwell lives in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. He didn’t have a background in local government, nor any training. He was an artist, a painter, who exhibited his work and was doing fine until Transition came along. Involved in Transition Forest of Dean and Transition Newent, he found himself picking up the local government aspect of the group’s work when a fellow member stepped aside.
The group had successfully bid for Local Strategic Partnership funding, although the small print of the grant said it could only be spent by the local council and the Transition initiative working together. The only problem was that the Council neglected to tell the Transition group that the bid had been successful, leading to the Transition member who had been working with the council to resign on principle. But the seat needed to be filled, so up stepped Michael. He told me:
“It was never a desire of mine in the first place, but it has been an amazing learning curve. It’s been fascinating. People working in local authorities don’t feel very well connected with the public. They feel nervous of them, if not actually paranoid. But at the end of the day, they are ordinary human beings who need our assistance. My experience has been that Transition ideas are more in line with what they are doing than we may realise”.
I asked Michael what his advice would be for a group wanting to approach its local council. “I’d say to first make contact with the Community Support Officers”, he told me. “They are the key people. They are very valuable if you are wanting to join in with what’s already happening. They can link you with all their contacts, which tends to be a huge network”.
Michael studiously avoided getting involved with local councils all his life, an approach which he now regrets. Not a naturally assertive person, he found his role to be listening and talking to people and trying to understand what they are trying to do. As a result, the Transition group’s role on the Council is now valued.
Another piece of advice is to know what the council is already doing, especially in the field of sustainability. Being effective involved a process of “getting up to speed”, reading lots of documents in order to get to understand stated policy and the thinking behind it. It means you are able to understand their priorities as an organisation.
“You can create an Energy Descent Action Plan through a series of Transition workshops”, he told me, “but if you take it to the Council and expect them to be bowled over by it you’ll be disappointed. They’ve been working at this stuff, in the light of, and shaped by top-down directives, to the point where they’re exhausted. You need to acknowledge what they’ve done, to understand the trials and tribulations of running a local authority. My take is one of extreme sympathy with the officers.
So what does Michael think he has brought to the Council and its work. Michael told me “I have consistently said that we do have to take notice of climate change and of how we manage and utilise our local resources. They have, by now, got used to my saying this over and over. There’s no real disagreement. In theory, what we are saying and what they are doing are pretty much the same thing.
I asked him whether he struggled with getting involved in politics (with a small ‘p’). Councils can be pretty cut-throat places, how does he cope with that? He made clear that he works with officers, not with eh elected officials, meaning that he sidesteps most of the politics. “My stance is apolitical. I’m an innocent”, he told me.
Within the Transition group it is now established that having a role on the Council is an important part of the group’s work. “We have established a bridgehead in the Council”, he told me. Michael is now standing down, and two new people are taking his place. Having seen them in action at a recent meeting, Michael says “I am very proud of them”.
We end our conversation by returning to Michael’s original career as an artist. “Since I’ve been involved in Transition”, he said”, “what I’ve done has been just as creative. For me Transition has been an enormously creative process”. Here is a video filmed last May where Michael sets out his vision for the Forest of Dean: