One of the most challenging questions we’ve faced since beginning the Oxygen Conservation journey is what exactly does local mean?
It is widely accepted that it is incredibly important to respect local cultures and traditions, to engage locally, and to help create opportunities for local people. Each of these aspects are of course fundamentally good things to do, but incredibly hard to measure if you don’t have a clear definition of what local actually means.
I’d like to share some of my frustrations, thoughts, and findings and conclude by offering what I think is our working definition of local in the context of our work.
YOU CAN’T FINISH LOCAL ENGAGEMENT
Not a day goes by without us being asked about the degree to which we’ve engaged with the local community. Often the question comes from a perspective or presumption that engagement is something that can be done or completed. The reality is of course it never can. Engagement and consultation are a constant ongoing and naturally evolving process. In many ways, much like the natural world, the risks involved are similar if you try and intervene too much, too soon, or sometimes too little.
DEFINITIONS OF LOCAL
In search of an answer to these questions, increasingly I’ve learned to ask people across our portfolio of Estates what local means to them. Answers have varied dramatically from ‘one or two houses over,’ to ‘the next three villages’, and at the furthest extent, ‘within fifty miles’ of a particular space or place – making it a very elastic definition. To give this some context, dependent on the Estate this can be anywhere from a handful of people through to several million people.
Sometimes the answers aren’t restricted to space or time. they have also included ‘those that care about a place’, ‘visit a place regularly’, ‘travel there for fun’ or perhaps the most tenuous link of all, ‘those that have’ or ‘plan on visiting the place’.
Whilst each of these definitions has a certain openness and warmth, perhaps even a romanticism to them, the potential to meaningfully engage with virtually anyone that might have or be thinking about visiting a place is impossible, never mind absolutely commercially unviable – stretching the definition to breaking point.
Where I have always sought a measurable definition of local, most logically linking this to space, place, distance, or time, there is also a fascinating social (de)selection criteria operating within communities. Where a person doesn’t share similar political, economic, social, or environmental views they can find themselves considered, “not really local”. We have seen this behaviour within the same town or village, between neighbouring properties, and even on the same Estate where people aren’t considered part of a particular local community. An individual or family’s definition of the group they belong to is sometimes but not always consistent with the views of the wider group. This then results in a huge array of individual local community groups, each with different viewpoints and perspective, with much but not entirely complete overlap.
How then should we answer the question we perhaps hear the most, “what do local people think?”
GEOGRAPHY & TOPOGRAHY
Another fascinating factor in determining local has to do with geography, topography, and positioning. We have Estates that occupy incredible areas of land from the valley floor to the mountaintop. This means very few people, unless they exercise their right to roam the land, can see, hear, observe, or experience the landscape. Dissimilarly, we have wonderful lowland areas where many of the nearby land holdings, properties, and places can literally observe the changing days, weeks, months, and seasons. Few would argue these people aren’t at least in some way impacted by their surroundings – we’d certainly consider these people directly impacted.
The third fascinating consideration of local engagement related to statutory consultees such as regulators, local authorities, and councils. Interestingly these instruments developed at least in part developed as a means of democratising and centralising local consultation in recognition of difficulties of achieving widespread local engagement. Put simply, you can’t listen to everyone so instead listen to small often elected groups that represent everyone. Society’s essential abandonment of these institutions and groups surely signals that they no longer characterise the communities they were intended to represent, nor provide the engagement and consultation communities want to enjoy. I wonder how much longer they will persist?
BENEFIT NOT IMPACT?
The most interesting challenge in relation to our exploration of the word local came from our wonderful Head of People, Andrew Dewar. It’s perhaps helpful to explain that Andrew has an elite performance psychology background and whilst committed to living more sustainably doesn’t have an ecological or land management background.
We almost always talk about impact when it comes to defining engagement, appreciating our intent is always to deliver positive environment and social impact. Andrew however, delivered one of those wonderful challenges, one where your mind is immediately opened, and you find that absolute clarity that you might feel diving into an ice-cold pool or river. An observation that once it lands wraps around you just like the cosy dry robe waiting for you on the bank and leaves you wondering how on earth weren’t we thinking this way all along. Andrew asked why we always talk about those impacted by a change and not those benefiting from a change!
This range of discussions highlights the reality of trying to deliver large scale land use change. It is difficult and most people recognise the need for change but not here, or not in this way, or not in a way that changes what I want to do in a place or space. And whilst we’re committed to being open, accessible, and transparent about everything we do and why we do it, there are very few people living and working in the environment sector making it impossible to be everything to everyone, or explain why we can’t. But of course, Andrew is right, engagement should be about creating opportunities to share how our work will deliver benefits for people, wildlife, and the environment.
WHAT LOCAL MEANS TO US?
After much debate, discussion, and careful consideration we are therefore left with what we believe is a meaningful, manageable, and achievable definition (and measurable).
Local to us means, the immediate neighbours to a property and those who will be directly impacted by any act or omission.
Appreciating Andrew’s point about seeking to share the benefits of our work we felt that it would appear disingenuous not to talk about impact as even the most positively intended interventions, such as the planting of trees, the creation of a new wind farm, and the building of new homes has negative impacts alongside their many positive benefits.
By choosing this definition, we’re seeking to engage meaningfully with those whose opinions we feel matter most, and the ones that will hopefully benefit most from the work we do. The world is so noisy, and the need to act is so urgent that we cannot engage with everyone, nor do we think it will it appropriate to do so.
What does locally mean to you?”
PS. A second question I often ask alongside what does locally mean, especially when talking to landowners or neighbours is how do you go about seeking local views and perspective about your land? I only ever receive one answer – why would you ask anyone, it’s my land, I own it.