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Why South Yorkshire needed a citizens’ assembly for net zero

Oliver Coppard, the regional mayor, on his new approach to formulating climate policy.

By Oliver Coppard

The wealth of South Yorkshire was once built on the coal dug out from under our feet. So-called black diamonds didn’t just power and connect our communities. As in so many other centres of industry across the north, they provided us with an economic and social foundation.

And yet in the 1980s that foundation was ripped apart by the violent transition away from coal and heavy industries, and an attack on the social and economic model that sustained our communities.

I have been Mayor of South Yorkshire for just over 18 months, and in that time I have made it my priority to rebuild South Yorkshire’s economy: to restore the pride, purpose and prosperity of the place I call home. But as we set about building a new future on the burial grounds of our industrial heritage – creating some of the world’s most advanced manufacturing facilities on the site of the Battle of Orgreave – the violence of that social and industrial transition continues to cast a long and stubborn shadow.

Across much of Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield, there remains an invidious muscle memory of pay cheques and pastimes stolen away by a government that often felt more intent on punishment than progress; a government 200 miles away in London that was seemingly prepared to sacrifice northern communities in the name of a new future. The violence of that transition has left a complex legacy of industrial and economic decline, of health and educational inequalities, and a latent – if understandable – scepticism about promises of change.

That scepticism perhaps explains both the support for Brexit in 2016 – the demand for a past now lost – and an outsized reluctance to support measures combating climate change. Research by the polling company FocalData for UnHerd found that half of the UK’s ten most climate sceptic communities are in my region.

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As Mayor, it is not just my job to understand that legacy but to overcome it. If we do not confront it then we will never find legitimacy or support for the change that the current moment demands.

[See also: Did Blackpool South’s gamble on Scott Benson and the Tories pay off?]

The problems we face, not just in South Yorkshire but across our country, are undeniable: a stagnant, unbalanced, underproductive economy; infrastructure broken by more than a decade of underinvestment; and a cost-of-living and climate crisis. These are all underpinned by a growing sense that politics and politicians have lost the capacity to come up with ideas that are big enough, or bold enough, to truly make change happen. That’s why I am committed to using the developing mechanisms of devolution to offer a new political approach, one that restores faith in the political process, and to inspire trust that progress is possible.

One example of that new approach is our South Yorkshire Citizens’ Assembly, the largest regional assembly in the UK, designed to help us understand how we get to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. About 30,000 people, randomly selected, were invited to join the Citizens’ Assembly. From those that responded, 100 were chosen. Those 100 were in essence a mini-South Yorkshire: representative of the whole region in terms of age, race, gender, ethnicity, occupation and – crucially – their views on climate change. Together, starting on 28 October, they were asked to consider how we might respond to climate change and how we might create a thriving, sustainable future for everyone who lives here.

The Assembly is unlike any room I’ve ever been in. It is genuinely representative of the rich complexity of South Yorkshire. Over the course of the last few weeks, I’ve seen the Assembly members overcome their fears and their differences, creating space for shared, practical and at times radical demands for change to emerge.

The Assembly’s final meeting in Sheffield on 10 December was a great moment to witness democracy in action, with participants identifying the priorities that will inform the basis of our climate policy. The specific findings of the Assembly will be published in the new year, with themes including investment in skills, integrated transport, and sustainable economic growth. I can already say with confidence, however, that the process itself has offered us a new way of doing politics, a tool for renewing the connection between people and politics, and challenging the malign legacy of our industrial decline.

We live in a time of huge political challenges. Sometimes they can feel insurmountable. The South Yorkshire Citizens’ Assembly has proven to me that the confidence, energy and legitimacy we need to overcome our fears and frustrations can be found in doing politics with people – not to people. Crucially, we must give our communities the chance to help political leaders navigate a path through challenges both old and new.

This piece first appeared on the Green Transition newsletter. Subscribe for free to receive weekly analysis on the economics of net zero

[See also: Net zero’s dirty secret]

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