Hounslow: demonstrating the importance of engagement in Community Wealth Building

With the aviation industry hit hard by the pandemic, the London Borough of Hounslow is providing training for 60 ‘green jobs’, as part of a plan to deliver Community Wealth Building and sustainable growth. Those applying for the training tended to come from the communities where need was least acute. The council wanted to make sure that environmental jobs and economic equality were not mutually exclusive, so it set out to understand the barriers stopping deprived groups from applying for green jobs. The findings showed, among other things, that the term ‘green jobs’ was itself a big problem. The council has since changed the way its training is marketed and delivered, to make it more locally rooted and inclusive.

The challenge

Hounslow is an Outer London borough with a diverse population and pockets of extreme poverty. There is a heavy economic reliance on Heathrow Airport, as a consequence the COVID-19 pandemic hit the area particularly hard. Uptake of the furlough scheme was amongst the highest in the UK, and many residents suffered financially – especially ethnic minority groups and wards with acute deprivation.

There is also a growing awareness, within the borough, about the seriousness of climate change – and about the risks for sustainability of relying so heavily on aviation. As a pilot scheme, to try and deal with these issues, the authority set out to upskill 60 people, equipping them to apply for green jobs. These would primarily be entry-level private sector opportunities, such as energy assessment roles for residential properties.

The scheme is part of a Community Wealth Building initiative, aimed at creating a more rooted local economy. It will be supported by the Greater London Authority’s (GLA) Green Jobs Escalator, and by the government’s COVID recovery fund.

However, an immediate issue identified was the fact that interest in green jobs tends to come, disproportionately, from parts of the community that are affluent or white. There was also less interest from women than from men. The council was worried that the initiative would do little to address the inequalities exposed by the pandemic, and wanted to broaden the appeal of their ‘green jobs’ offer.

The solution

LB Hounslow’s engagement team worked closely with the team delivering the initiative, to try and understand the issue. This stemmed from an ethos at the council, which emphasises that ‘engagement is everybody’s business’ and must be integrated within each decision – not incubated within a single team.

In late 2021, they carried out two qualitative sessions with community stakeholders, representing some of the groups identified as least likely to apply for green jobs. The aim was to identify the underlying barriers.

A key finding to emerge, and a potentially counter-intuitive one, was that the council’s emphasis on inclusion was too broad. People were suspicious of the idea that there were no barriers at all, and did not consider such claims credible. There was a desire for more transparency and honesty about who jobs would best be suited to.

Following this, the council carried out further engagement with ‘Community Reference Groups’ specialising in green issues and young people. These are long-running resident panels set up by the council, themed around different issues and effectively acting as mini-citizen’s assemblies.

A key piece of feedback to emerge from these groups was that the term ‘green jobs’ was itself off-putting for some. People assumed that such jobs were out of reach, or that they required extensive prior knowledge of environmental issues.

The importance of role models who came from the same communities as those applying was also cited as a key factor, as was the need to keep opportunities ultra-local.

The impact

These findings have fed into the development of the scheme, with the decision made not to use the term ‘green jobs’ when advertising. The focus was instead on the training being designed to equip people for secure, well-paid opportunities.

The engagement phase also fed into the design for the training. This will be delivered in housing estates within the borough, with a particular focus on areas where the groups least likely to apply are most likely to live. It is hoped that this familiar, neighbourhood-focused approach will encourage those who are less confident in applying. The structure of the course itself will create ‘cohorts’, so that there is an element of mutual support in job-hunting afterwards.

Meanwhile, the face-to-face channels used during engagement will also be deployed when publicising the programme. Tenants’ and Residents’ Associations, community leaders and other institutions rooted in the community will play a role in marketing and outreach. This again stems from the engagement phase, which found that trusted messengers were essential in encouraging local people to get involved.

Lessons learnt

In terms of pure numbers, the scheme itself is relatively small. But it helps to settle a tension at the heart of UK efforts to build a ‘high skills, low carbon’ economy. It shows that the green economy can be a vehicle for social inclusion, rather than a barrier to it, if there is serious engagement around how it is conceived and delivered.