Cornwall Takes the Wheel

Cornwall is a place that relies on its natural environment to survive and prosper. Not only is it a key source of wealth for us, be it through tourism, farming or our potential for renewable energy generation, but it is something that underpins the Cornish Identity. Whilst as a Council we have promoted sustainable stewardship and investment through policies such as our Environmental Growth Strategy, environmental concerns have struggled to find a formalised place in our decision-making processes. Declaring a Climate Emergency last January changed all that. A key priority identified in our Climate Change Action Plan was to incorporate holistic sustainable thinking processes into the way we debate and come to major democratic decisions. To this end, we developed our decision-making wheel.

The tool itself is based around Kate Raworth’s theory of donut economics, that to live and prosper there is a certain amount we need to take from the world, a certain amount of damage we must do whilst at the same time there is only so much we can take before we exceed the planet’s capacity to replenish itself. In between lies a just and fair space where we can live sustainably. This tool embodies and embeds this principle in its design, with an inner wheel comprised of broad socio-economic factors such as wealth and homes and an outer wheel of environmental factors such as greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity.

Lead officers complete one of these wheels during project / policy development to illustrate the positive and negative impacts of the decision being made in an easily accessible form that draws decision-makers to key issues that may require further debate, mitigation or even cancellation.

Below is an example of the graphic produced by the tool for a project that involves the creation of a new set of walking and cycling routes across Cornwall called the Saints Trail. This graphic helped focus the debate onto the key issues surrounding habitat fragmentation, health and environmental benefits and the risk of crime along these routes. At present the use of these graphics is confined to the Cabinet decision-making process with these graphic sitting front and centre in the executive summary of all cabinet papers for consideration.

To assist with lead officers rating each segment accurately the tool is accompanied by detailed guidance with questions about each category carefully tailored in collaboration with representatives from key departments across the Council. An Officer in the newly-created Carbon Neutral Cornwall Team has been placed in charge of developing and embedding this tool and is currently training all relevant staff in its use through meetings, conferences and lunch & learn sessions.

Having been used in all decisions since September 2019 work is underway to embed the tool across a much broader range of processes including investment boards, budget setting processes, commissioning and lower level decision-making committees. A second version of the tool is also being developed based around a questionnaire which scores the wheel segments automatically depending on the answers given. This will be combined with the Council’s existing risk assessment tool for new projects and policies to create a single project planning and impact assessment tool to be rolled out in the near future. It will also help generate a more quantitative picture of our impacts as a Council through aggregating the scores it generates and will feed directly into the council’s carbon inventory to give an annual account of the decisions we are taking as well as the progress against our own carbon reduction targets.

In addition to helping with the decision-making process, this exercise is helping build understanding of relevant social, economic and environmental concerns for the work that we do across a broad cross section of people involved in shaping the future direction if the work that we do. It is embedding a new way of thinking at the Council, helping people understand the inter-connectedness of our lives with the environment in which we live by demonstrating the trade-offs between generating social, economic and environmental growth. It is focusing the limited resources of our decision-making structures onto the most relevant issues which, at last, formally include the environment and our impact on it.

In adopting the wheel Cornwall Council are looking to enable our people and planet to thrive, a decision which Amsterdam recently followed having adopted a similar approach based on the doughnut model for their response to the economic challenges brought about by Covid-19. Like climate change, Covid-19 cannot be treated as a one-off or finite event with a clear beginning or end, we must ensure our decision making helps our residents, businesses and communities to become more resilient in a period of unprecedented change.

Written by: Alex Rainbow, Carbon Neutral Cornwall Assessment Specialist, Cornwall Council

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