Global Climate action and sustainable development, Communities and society

Tackling the climate crisis through community action; ​​in conversation with Cllr Donna Stimson

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Councillor Donna Stimson, lead for Climate Change and Sustainability in the Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead in the South East of England discusses the importance of local climate action including the recent creation of the Borough’s first Climate Partnership and the challenge of building political consensus.

Kim
If you could start by just telling us a bit about your role and what you do at the council.

Donna
I am the lead Councillor for climate action and sustainability and the instigator of the Climate Partnership, which aims to work with businesses in the borough from an apolitical perspective.

 

Kim
It would be helpful if you talked a little bit more about the Climate Partnership

Donna
The climate partnership has been in the making for the last two years. I find it quite frustrating when we are faced with this climate emergency and businesses have ESG commitments, that it is still so difficult to get community groups, councils and businesses all working together.  Silos and what we would call political presentism ( that is, politics sometimes getting in the way of progress) are worrying when needs are climate related.. I don’t think it’s intentional, but either people want to hold onto something which is obviously not helpful for climate or things get stuck from a sustainability perspective in a particular area of the council.  Then you have policy actions  that need to be sustainable from a parking or a planning or a nature perspective being delivered in another department when actually it belongs in sustainability.  And more commonly at the moment, councils have statutory obligations, burgeoning expenses, and a budget that we have to balance, so no funding for climate.  So we are delighted that we have eventually managed to form a Climate Partnership that does not sit within the council and which is independent.  And also it doesn’t have a time limit to it in terms of the administration changing every four years, which gives any business working with it more certainty.

Kim
And who’s in the Partnership?

Donna
We are just getting going at the moment. Our first task was to appoint an executive chair. This person is independent from the council, not a Councilor. And we eventually found someone who is currently the chair of the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust, who has created these types of partnerships before, worked in charities and also big businesses.  We are working with and have had board meetings with someone from Legal & General, someone from Centrica and someone from Arup, they would all be working in a personal capacity and bringing the skills of their professional experience to the Partnership.

Kim
Great, and perhaps in a year or so we could return for a chat and see how you’re getting on.

Donna
That would be great. The main thing about it in terms of how it expresses itself is that there are three areas that we are focussing on: Carbon, mainly through the lense of energy efficiency; Biodiversity; and health and wellbeing. And we feel if we covered those three areas in terms of the projects that we choose then we really will have done things within the local authority area that cover the core elements of the SDGs.  The partnership will have porous borders as well, obviously climate change doesn’t stop at borders, and neither do animals.

Kim
Yeah, it’s a big ask. Are you funded for that partnership?

Donna
Yes,  the Council has committed £250,000 every year for 3 years as seed funding. So this is the first funding, since I took over the role three and a bit years ago that we’ve had for climate. When I became a Councillor and took over the role on the cabinet there was no funding and no department for sustainability. We had one officer and we hadn’t actually declared a climate emergency. We now have a significant department, we’ve got eight officers and we’re a year and a half into our strategy and executing it. So yes, we are very lucky to have that funding. It funds the executive chairman two days a week, along with other staff and activities. We decided was that was a better way of running the partnership than having a chairperson that comes in to conduct a meeting but doesn’t understand the nuts and bolts of the problems we have to solve. We wanted someone with significant experience and a real can-do attitude.. The Board’s first task was to commission Bioregional to establish our baseline. So they will say where we are in terms of climate, health and wellbeing and, biodiversity and where we need to go and then from that, suggest what our projects could look like.   They’ve done thousands of projects all over the world. For instance, they’ve just helped with the 6,000 carbon neutral homes that are being delivered in Bicester near Oxford. So they’re incredibly experienced in this area. It’s very early days and you know, Kim and the other thing is I’m not in charge, I’m just a member of the board. It’s such a relief but, as the chief executive said to me: you know Donna you’re giving away your baby!

Kim
That takes us well onto the next point. our members across the UK and around the globe, want to know in your personal experience, Donna, how do you work with the officers in the council and the other elected members on such a broad and challenging topic?

Donna
Well, I have a very diverse background. I was a management consultant, I was also a builder. I’ve done carpentry and bench-joinery. I’ve done a Horticulture course, and designed and created gardens,  and I’ve got a lot of practical experience and I’m also nearly 60. So I’m quite well versed in life. Also I’ve had quite a tough life.  I don’t like fighting and I remember asking before I was elected: why can’t we just have Councillors who work with residents on biodiversity and sustainability? For me, I don’t really mind where they come from. So sometimes that presents a problem for both sides because people like to express their political views quite strongly. Personally, I think I work very well with the officers, and I don’t like to get into arguments.

We have the lowest rates of council tax outside of London and it’s a lot lower than our neighbours, which creates a problem because, while we have pockets of deprivation in the borough, we largely have a wealthy population, and residents typically have huge expectations for what we should achieve.  So, both members and officers have to be really creative and innovative. We have to support our officers and they us.  We have less staff because we are lean so we can’t afford to waste time arguing.

Kim
I think particularly interesting is to hear from you on how you work across the political divide, because sustainability isn’t a problem that can be tackled in a silo, as you say.

Donna
Yeah. All I can say is that I tried really hard to put a cross-party situation together within the council and I found it was incredibly difficult to do. So the result is the Climate Partnership. It hasn’t been easy and the Climate Partnership Chair is currently setting up meetings with all of the Councillors. I don’t have beef with anybody. We have to put our arguments aside because sustainability is too important. I think that people want ownership of sustainability issues on the left and the right and they can’t have it if we want our earth to be the winner.  

Kim
I understand exactly what you mean. You said in your email, ‘it’s the place to make the magic’ and if you could crystallise how you make that magic happen.

Donna
Lord Deben said that the local authorities are the places where the behaviour change needs to happen to get us to net zero.  Around the corner from where I live, a couple have tended to some council owned flower beds, filling them with pollinator friendly plants they have grown from seeds.. They are sensational. I think they’re now in the third year and he and his wife have just owned it.   I’ve taken seeds from that and grown them and distributed them. We have a repair cafe that was started by a resident, a few plastic free shops, one started by a big group of us who have invested in it,  Even the petition urging us to declare a climate emergency was started by a mother whose 7 year old daughter urged her not to give up the fight.  So, you know, in various pockets of the borough, people are doing things like this. With more flexibility, and support from big business, we could encourage more of this, instead of using the, often very good, but sometimes slow and unwieldy, channels of the council.  These community roots that are starting to take hold in an informal way are the only way that I can see us being successful because otherwise everything takes so long. I love the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, except it has at its core citizen’s assemblies and I just know how long that process takes.  So that’s why, if you can give more responsibility to smaller community groups, that’s where the magic happens.

Another example would be – making spaces where people can get warm and get a meal when winter comes. I am so worried that we are going to find ourselves with hungry, sad, and lonely residents more to the point. The government possibly should be responsible for it, but just saying that is useless. We have to do something and if we can’t do it in our own communities and we sit, waiting for someone to help us and then blame the government, what good is that? So I just think, the freedom that the Climate Partnership gives us is that we can start doing things of our own accord, and maybe some of the things won’t be perfectly formed, but at least it gives us the platform to get stuff done.

You know, people might say, oh, but you talk about a seed and that’s tiny, but at least we’re doing stuff. We’re working with schools, we’re forming communities. I think that is all really valuable. I started something called the Green Skills Library. I know how to upholster, so I can run a course on how to reupholster and give someone a new skill. These are the sorts of things that we can be doing. We’ve got so many people from all walks of life, it’s just about opening up all of those channels to help people feel valuable and valued within their communities. I just think sometimes the bureaucracy gets in the way.

Kim
Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Donna
I feel like I can really make a difference. Just to be completely frank I’ve felt very frustrated from a sustainability perspective, but I don’t belong anywhere else other than where I am. So that’s why I helped form the climate partnership.

Kim

You know, LGiU operates for local government and it’s great to celebrate the success of what’s happening at a grassroots level. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us Donna. As somebody that has worked in sustainability for a long time it’s been great to learn about the work you’re doing.

 



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