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How to increase public engagement in environmental decision-making

The Countryside and Community Research Institute, based at University of Gloucestershire, has undertaken a new study for Natural England aimed at increasing public engagement in building a sustainable environment.

As the Government’s advisor for the natural environment, Natural England works with a wide range of people and organisations to manage the natural environment through rebuilding sustainable ecosystems and restoring biodiversity, habitats and species.

Current projects in which Natural England is involved include improving coastal access in parts of the country and helping to create more outdoor spaces in urban areas, benefiting both mental and physical wellbeing, through the Levelling Up Parks Fund.

people around a pond

The CCRI was commissioned by Natural England to provide recommendations about how environmental practitioners and practice-enablers, such as Natural England, can better involve stakeholders, including the public, landowners, local authorities, and charities, in decisions that affect them. Stakeholder engagement is also a key consideration for policy makers for achieving environmental goals.

The recommendations from the report include integrating local and scientific knowledge; recognising how digital communication tools may enhance engagement; recognising and mitigating the potential risks of engagement; managing expectations about what might be achieved; and working to embed engagement as part of an organisational culture of best practice.

walkers in the countryside

Report author, Caitlin Hafferty, a doctoral student at the University, said: “There are many reasons and benefits for engaging the public or other stakeholders in decision-making.

“For instance, when engagement takes a variety of local interests, ideas, and perspectives into account at an early stage, this can help increase the likelihood that local needs and priorities will be met by the decision-making outcomes.

“Engagement can increase the likelihood that environmental decisions are sustainable, holistic, representative, and fair, and help to create a sense of ‘ownership’ among local communities about decision-making process.

“If engagement is transparent, open, and fair, this can help increase public trust in decisions and the institutions making them. At the same time, there are some important risk factors which need to be mitigated.”

She added: “The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated our use and reliance on digital technology because of ‘lockdown’ movement restrictions and social distancing measures.

“Different (digital and in-person) tools and approaches will work differently in different situations, and therefore will influence the process and outcomes of engagement in different ways.

“It is important to consider the role and influence of digital tools throughout the engagement process.”