Cheltenham Borough Council has deployed its Climate Impact Assessment Tool within internal decision making processes to ensure new projects and policies are aligned with the Council's commitment to climate action. The tool is designed to enable officers and decision-makers to easily evaluate the environmental and social impacts of projects and policies from the very start of decision-making and project development processes. This 'from day one' approach results in more robust, climate-friendly projects and earlier opportunities to mitigate and improve the social and climate impacts of the Council's projects.
Cheltenham Borough Council declared a climate emergency in 2019 and subsequently established a pathway to become a net zero Council and Borough by 2030. In the Council’s Climate Emergency Action Plan: Pathway to Net Zero, the council outlined how it would rise to the challenge by undertaking mitigation and adaptation projects across the council's service and property portfolio.
Despite best efforts to reduce their climate impact, the Council found that projects and policies were continuing through the decision-making process without adequate consideration of social and environmental implications until they reached the Cabinet report stage. Teams were only actively prompted to consider these issues late in the day by their standard Cabinet report template. When a proposal was presented to Cabinet Members for approval, it was often too late to make any significant changes and improvements. Almost instinctively, officers and Members consider the financial implications of any decision - but social and environmental impacts were less naturally reflected on.
The Climate Impact Assessment Tool presses officers to consider a range of potential social and environmental impacts stemming from a planned project or policy. This consideration is embedded in our decision-pathway from the very start, encouraging up-front thinking on these issues and greater opportunities for mitigation and adaptation measures to be taken.
The officer team are prompted to consider each aspect of their project, e.g. traffic and materials, and input the level of climate impact (positive or negative) that their current approach would have. Based on their inputs, they are presented with a colour-coded report wheel as a visual representation of the likely climate impacts. This clear visual tool showcases opportunities for improvement and mitigation.
The tool was designed in collaboration with West Oxfordshire District Council who intend to deploy use of the tool later in 2022. Cornwall County Council’s ‘Decision Wheel’ was used as a starting point for the project, and Kate Raworth’s Donut Economics referred to throughout development. We are keen to communicate that the outcome of using Cheltenham’s tool does not determine any decision, therefore we have labelled it as an impact assessment tool.
To ensure transparent use of the tool, segments coloured red (conveying negative impacts) are not enough for the dismissal of a project. Although red segments are a cause for concern, officers have an opportunity to make changes to this area of focus, or to mitigate negative impacts elsewhere. At the very least, if changes cannot be made, the officer will need to justify and explain why. The tool was designed to be thought provoking and to prompt conversation around different topics such as biodiversity, air quality and health & wellbeing, pushing officers to consider where positive changes can be made.
The tool was designed with officers at West Oxfordshire District Council, with additional input from officers working for Cotswold and Forest of Dean District Councils, as part of a partnership approach within the Council-owned Publica Group. The tool will be rolled out among the partner councils later in 2022.
While the financial implications of a project remain a key consideration for officers, the Council are now seeing officers thinking about how they can positively impact the environment and their communities with the decisions they make at the same stage in the planning process. Officers are openly discussing and gaining a greater understanding of wider climate and social implications of their projects. Members are consulted at the initial stages of project design, and with this new early-stage approach have adequate opportunity to shape a robust project with minimal negative social and environmental considerations.
The visual representation has streamlined how the Council communicates the impacts of their decisions on the environment and their communities and made this information more accessible. Positive impacts from this tool are not limited to decision making. During the design and development of the tool, the Council took advantage of an opportunity to work collaboratively with West Oxfordshire District Council. A greater understanding of local threats and opportunities were gained, valuable Excel skills were developed, and relationships were strengthened through focus group sessions.
How is the new approach being sustained?
The Impact Assessment Tool was developed with input from officers across the Council, in climate and non-climate related roles. This ensured they had initial support from a cross-section of officers who helped to embed its use within teams and now act as ambassadors for the tool. Internal engagement officers were consulted and advised that embedding the tool across the council needs a phased approach. Starting with a pilot phase by testing the tool on a number of key decisions will demonstrate how easy the tool is to use and show how it can bring change.
A database of completed impact assessments is providing an audit trail of initial designs and the improvements made based on the output of the tool. Sharing case studies and examples of where the tool has been used to bring positive change helps officers to understand the benefits of using the tool. Member support has been vital in the sustained use of the tool and there is a conversation underway to take a countywide approach with this tool to make sure they are designing robust projects and policies across the County.
Feedback from initial focus groups made it clear that if the Counci; wanted officers to use the tool it could not be too time-consuming. Officers are already tasked with a number of different assessments and project initiation documents that asking for them to complete a detailed report would reduce the uptake of any such tool. They found a balance of asking for enough information so that the responses would be valuable but not too much that it would put users off. A bottom-up approach was taken with the development and a wide range of officers were consulted before presenting to Members. This co-development process has helped officers see the value of the tool and communicate this to their teams.