There aren't so many local authority leaders or senior councillors who find themselves for days on end giving TV, radio and press interviews, not just nationally but internationally, about a new policy initiative. But that's what happened to the leader of London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and some of his senior colleagues in October and November 2006.
The cause was the launch of the council's consultation on charging differential rates for resident parking in controlled parking zones (CPZs) according to a vehicle's CO2 emissions. It was a straightforward stick-and-carrot approach – people would pay more if they had bigger, more polluting cars and less if they had smaller, more environmentally-friendly ones.
Though focused on quite a narrow area – reducing CO2 emissions in CPZs – the purpose was as much to engender a debate locally about climate change and what a difference individuals could make by changing their behaviour. The administration had been elected in May 2006 on a manifesto which aimed to put the environment at the heart of the council and ensure everything possible was done to combat the adverse effects of climate change.
So around the same time there was also a major expansion of the recycling service, energy-saving schemes, a focus on the benefits of public transport and a host of other, discrete initiatives to emphasise the need for change and how small adjustments on the part of individuals and organisations could have a beneficial cumulative effect.
The consultation process was extensive and showed a high level of awareness about how personal behaviour and choice could impact on CO2 emissions.
Moreover, and encouragingly, the findings showed support and agreement that people would reconsider their choices when replacing their car – and be more prepared to opt for something more environmentally-friendly (64% of residents and 58% of business indicated that they would consider opting for a lower emission vehicle).
Yet while there was majority support for the scheme from individuals, it was small (49% in favour, with 39% opposed, and 12% undecided) and in relation to businesses the majority were opposed (30% in favour, with 47% opposed). The debates in the council's overview and scrutiny committee and cabinet raised some interesting objections – notably that it was a covert revenue-raising device (it wasn't), and that in focusing only on CPZs the council was penalising a minority of the borough's population since CPZs cover only about a third of the borough.
There was an interesting angle to this argument too which went something along the lines of 'the people with gas guzzling 4x4s all live in big houses with garages and driveways' – so even if they lived in CPZ areas they weren't being hit!
There was also a much-repeated complaint that if as a result of the policy people immediately went out and bought a new, more environmentally-friendly car, the process of manufacturing a new car increased CO2 emissions.
I certainly learned that the pluses and minuses of CO2 emissions – let alone their contribution to climate change – was complex and controversial. Yet it's fair to say that on the whole local people consented to the policy change and broadly understood and had a degree of sympathy with its purpose, if not all its details. Certainly when we carried out a survey of residents' views a year later the result showed a high level of satisfaction with the council's work on climate change.
Recession and the environment
Now some two and a half years later what has changed? A number of other authorities have adopted similar schemes. Buoyed up by the public support, or at least acquiescence and given that the technology has moved on, earlier this year the council decided to consult on extending the differential charging to car parks and on-street parking.
This time, the reaction has been much less supportive. The difference seems to be that we are in recession. The fact that the proposal delivered on what some of the criticisms had been two years earlier seemed to count for nought. Businesses, in particular the retail sector, opposed anything that might influence people to stay away from Richmond's shops.
There was a sense that it was acceptable to have innovative policies which encourage people to think about and change their behaviour in the good times, but in the bad it was a case of battening down the hatches and just getting through. The council recognised this and has amended the proposals so that there is a lot more carrot than stick. Amendments made as a result of the consultation include lowering the cost of on-street parking for the first 20 minutes, to encourage local shopping, and introducing a very low tariff in car parks on Thursday afternoons to encourage shoppers to stay longer in the area and to enjoy what the borough has to offer.
As part of the work on this we have also begun to get the first hard data that people are making specific choices for smaller, less polluting cars when they purchase a new one. In particular the figures show a 7% reduction in ownership of cars in the highest three car tax bands and 8% increase for the lowest three bands. Part of the problem is that it's not easy to disentangle the various possible influences at play.
It might be that people simply see buying a new car as an opportunity to lower costs and smaller cars cost less to buy and run, coupled with the fact that manufacturers are making more efficient (and therefore less polluting) engines. Certainly the government's car scrappage scheme will have an effect and I suspect we will see a continuing downward trend. The council's polices are unlikely to be the only factor, but they may well have influenced people's thinking.
Lessons for changing behaviour
What have we learnt about changing people's behaviour through this and other programmes we have run?
*First, political drive and ownership are key. The council has been most successful when politicians rather than professionals have been championing the policy.
*Second, any stick element creates an opposition and this will quickly identify any woolly thinking or weaknesses in the policy. Consequently, carrot-only policies are much easier –for example the council has run a hugely successful Competitive Edge programme which has seen almost all young people in the borough's schools having two hours of PE and sport each week, more than half involved in inter-school sporting competitions, and again just over half involved in community sports clubs – making a significant contribution to healthy lifestyles.
*Third, people need to be involved and understand how their actions in changing their behaviour link to the achievement of desirable outcomes. So we have helped people increase recycling significantly partly by making it easier but also ensuring they understood that they were, albeit in a small way, reducing the demand on finite resources and helping to save the council money.
*Fourth, talking about behaviour change is a sure fire way of making sure it doesn't happen. In Richmond we've never started there. But we have started with reducing CO2 emissions, encouraging competitive sport and recycling. And sometimes in a very high-profile way – like CPZ emissions based charging – and sometimes in a rather more low-key way – like Competitive Edge and recycling – we've worked with borough residents to effect behaviour change and so achieve desired, and desirable, outcomes.
Gillian Norton has been Chief Executive of the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames since 1999. Prior to that she was Chief Executive of Wokingham, initially as a district and then unitary authority. She is one of the chief executive leads for a London-wide piece of work on behaviour change, run through Capital Ambition, the regional improvement and efficiency partnership.