By Tom Hayes - Oxford City Council’s Cabinet Member for a Safer and Greener Environment

Can you remember Friends debuting 25 years ago? Do you recall the OJ Simpson trial leading the news in the summer of 1994? Can enough time ever pass by for you to put up with Wet Wet Wet’s ‘Love Is All Around’ after it pushed out every other song in 1994? For me, the answers have to be a solid Yes, Yes, and No.

The year 1994 doesn’t feel a long time ago, does it? Yet, over the last 25 years, our planet has burned more fossil fuels than in all of the centuries before. We need to deal with climate change before it deals with us.

Every individual can do their bit but that doesn’t mean it should inevitably be a burden. National politicians could support local councils to offer incentives to go green, rather than telling people they should be taxed more or have their cars taken away. We must support citizens to, for example, make the switch to electric vehicles. That’s precisely what we are doing as a council by arranging for hundreds of EV charging points.

But, how much we do is determined by how much money we have. Oxford City Council has brought in significant funding for measures to tackle climate change and polluted air, but we continue to struggle under cuts. I highlight this challenge not to shift blame to Government, but to be open with you about the trade-offs we will need to make to step up action on climate change in the city. In a time of broken politics, it’s right to be upfront about just how constrained our ambition to do more is. Otherwise people, especially the younger generation invigorated to take action and politically engaged right now, will feel let down.

The best way to inspire hope to overcome our challenges is to show that we are already doing some of the work needed. New data, from Aether-UK, shows Oxford’s strong progress in reducing carbon emissions and raising renewables generation across the city. From 2016 to 2019, there has been a 24% reduction in Carbon Dioxide emissions and a 56% rise in renewable electricity generated within Oxford (as a proportion of the overall demand).

So, how do we build on this, meet the urgency of our crisis, and create consensus on the measures needed to tackle climate change?

That’s where a Citizens Assembly can help by breaking out of the bubble of the traditional green viewpoint to hear from a real representation of views. We want to hear from voices that too often go unheard. We also must ensure that we don’t create greater inequality or poverty in Oxford by rushing measures without listening to those affected – often those whose voices don’t get heard – and doing environmental policies badly by talking past each other.

On Earth Day, I announced plans for a Citizens Assembly, for September to reflect the urgency surrounding the need to take action. There will be a representative sample of citizens, randomly selected by an independent body, supported by experienced independent facilitators, and compensated for their contributions to ensure disadvantaged groups can take part. Today, I’m outlining the ways the Assembly will have further independence.

First, the governance and oversight for the Citizens Assembly will come from the establishment of an independent advisory group that includes cross-party political representation, together with environmental and democracy experts and local industry representatives. It’s crucial that party politics are taken out of the Citizens Assembly and we work together to deal with climate change.

Second, that group will provide governance and oversight for crucial features of the Assembly including its creation, structure, and operation. Key decisions involve selecting experts to give evidence to participants, the size of the Assembly, and how long it will run for. As the figure who receives the recommendations of the Assembly, I should not be in the advisory group, which will be chaired by the City Council Leader, Councillor Susan Brown, who will provide leadership around the group’s guidance in a non-party political role.

The Citizens Assembly will support the City Council in its final decisions around how to adopt measures that will help achieve our vision of getting to Zero Carbon by 2030, if not much sooner.

Creating a Citizens Assembly, the first in the country to deal with climate change – supported by an independent advisory group – could be the path to climate change consensus. With MPs already latching on to our idea, we could hopefully create a model for doing politics better.