31 Mar 2010
Transition Training and Consulting: a day with Norfolk County Council
It was with some fear and trepidation that Alexis Rowell, a Camden Borough councillor and the author of the upcoming Transition Guide to Local Authorities (LA), and I arrived in a deeply conservative part of the country, Norfolk, to do a day with them on peak oil, climate change and the Transition town model and practice. For those that don’t know it, Norfolk is a stunningly beautiful part of the country which is partly comprised of two areas, the Norfolk Broads, a large inland waterway system and the Fens (see pics below) which is partly wild and very intensively farmed, it being one of the UKs most productive farmland. It is also largely at sea level therefore at the hard edge of climate change policy. As the Helen and Newton Harrison’s work, Green House Britain makes clear, a 5 metre rise in sea levels will mean a significant part of East Anglia would be under water.
Despite being a Conservative Council, the Members have endorsed a climate change strategy & carbon management programme, although it would be fair to say there is a fair amount of sceptism. There are also some green Councillors who are vociferously supportive of the climate change agenda. Norfolk is an interesting mix of Conservative and green with Norwich being the only Labour stronghold.
This fear was confirmed by our first view of County Hall, with this Tornado fighter jet installed at the front entrance. We joked with a member of Traffic and Transport who we walked with and wondered out loud if instead of a bike stand Norfolk CC offered a fighter jet stand, although he assured us there were several bike stands. The RAF has a number of bases in Norfolk, a legacy of the Battle of Britain and the strategic importance of this part of the country, which explains this interesting cultural statement!
Our fears were largely allayed as the make up the of two ½ day workshops was largely made up of officers and strategic partners who were largely aligned with a Transition Town message and environmentally literate; although peak oil was for many a new concept. We were asked to do a detailed peak oil presentation, which I did, drawing out the many implications of peak oil rather than dwell on the ins and outs of OPEC phantom reserves, and advanced oil recovery technology. I used the UK predicament as a close to home illustration of what happens when an oil province goes from exporter to importer and made the point that rather than see the declining North sea oil and gas production as a problem, that you can look on them as a great opportunity. The gap between supply and demand both emphasises the energy security aspect of peak oil (a point I find goes down well in conservative quarters) and the tremendous opportunity for risk takers and entrepreneurs that this holds for low carbon and renewable businesses and infrastructure.
I also drew on the latest Feasta and Resilience/Risk Alliance report Tipping point; Near term systemic Implications of a Global Peak in Oil Production, which makes an extremely compelling case for the end of a debt based financial system when investors realise that peak oil means peak energy, and that means peak money- or no more debt. The rush for the exits in the global casino to exchange paper assets for an order of magnitude less real assets will create a tipping point, this report argues, into a new social/financial/economic regime. No need to argue for ‘regime change’ Mr Market will do it for us is the rather scary conclusion.
The effect of, for some, hearing about peak oil for the first time and laying out some of the implications, especially in financial terms scared the bejesus out of some. You could hear a pin drop in the room for both morning and afternoon sessions. However it also led to some interesting outcomes. Not least of which was the reaction of two Norfolk Resilience Forum members in the room and their realisation that they had none of this information and felt it caused a gap in their planning. As a result of the Civil Contingencies Act (2004) every local authority in the UK has a UK Resilience section that deals with emergencies and risks to business continuity amongst other things. Although Resilience Forums take a narrow view of resilience, mainly focussing on the ability to withstand shocks and maintain function, it is none the less an important function of government and interesting that the UK government is starting to use resilience in this way.
The rest of the work shop had two main focuses. The first was to initiate some strategic scenario planning thinking, and the second was a nuts and bolts look at the synergies between LA’s and Transition Initiatives and what might a Transition LA look like.
We have found that one of the main reasons why LAs and other organisations (and maybe individuals) have not taken up the Transition model is the lack of belief or understanding that the future might not be like the present, and that there is compelling evidence for the next 20 years not being anything like the last 20 years. For this work we used David Holmgren’s Future Scenarios; and the work of Royal Dutch Shell’s pioneering work on scenario planning. There is a certain irony in this which I am sure will titivate peak oil conspiracy theorists no end.
These future scenarios we used were Business as Usual, Green Technology, Transition/ Energy Descent, and Collapse. We devised a game that centred around matching cards that each had on them an event or a technology with these 4 potential stories of what our future might hold. This exercise enabled participants to think clearly about say electric cars and whether they ‘described’ a green technology or a collapse scenario. I saw many people for the first time questioning what kind of future we might have and what might that look like, in very concrete terms (no pun intended). I wish to emphasis that this exercise was not about getting participants to agree to or sign up to a particular scenario as the right one, but rather to think about the world we are creating and the pathways to one scenario or the other, and how we might start to plan for or design a future we actually want.
Lastly Alexis ran a session on what other LAs are doing around the country and how a LA can use the Transition initiatives in their area to cost effectively deliver services. There are dozens of National Performance Indicators (NPI) that Transition can help their Authority to deliver, and there are now some good examples of them doing that. There are also many ways in which a council can lead the way by, amongst other suggestions:
- Setting up Revolving Water Efficiency Funds; when an efficiency is created by water recycling or rain water capture the money saved in put into a fund that finances further efficiencies and savings.
- Creating mini food chains; linking local food producers and consumers.
- Greening Council transport fleets by creating bio methane using anaerobic digestion
- Building using Passivhaus standards
Our participants were very complimentary, some of the feedback:
- Keep it up, you’ve inspired me
- It was great to see such a range of people and Norfolk County Council departments represented – very encouraging that a momentum can be built up.
- Very enjoyable with passionate enthusiastic presenters. Thanks.
- Very thought provoking!
- All relevant, an excellent session
- Very well delivered, engaging and spot on in terms of the information, content and style.
We all had an enjoyable day discussing and exchanging views and ideas on significant issues. We are looking forward to the work the many Transition groups in the area will be doing with their Council. My only regret for the day is that I didn’t get a ride on the Tornado, but maybe that would have been against the spirit of the day.
Our sincere thanks to the Gaia Trust for their generous support in helping us create and pilot this workshop, and to Esme Holtom, Climate change officer for Norfolk County Council, for her vision and hard work in making this happen.
Naresh Giangrande for Transition Training and Consulting.
There is a workshop day planned for the 23rd of June in London designed for Local Authority and NGO officers on Peak oil and Climate change strategies and engagement using the Transition Town model and practice. Email Cliona O’Conaill <cliona (at) transitionnetwork.org> for more information.