Greater Manchester’s Green Charter: The responsibility of whom?

by | Apr 16, 2018 | All posts, Sustainable cities | 0 comments

It is not yet clear whether the GMCA is accepting or denying political responsibility for the environmental problem. Julia Kasmire considers some early indicators of the combined authority’s position.

Andy Burnham’s Green Summit, which was held on 21 March, laid out Greater Manchester’s ambitions to become (almost) carbon-neutral at latest 2040. The steps towards this will become clear in the city-regions ‘green charter’, which is expected to highlight necessary changes to transport, energy, and waste management, among many other relevant aspects of life within Greater Manchester. In so doing, Andy Burnham and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) are “owning” the green problem by creating or influencing its public definition as a matter of carbon and the changes needed to achieve carbon neutrality.

By owning the problem, GMCA is establishing itself as an authority on the problem, a source of answers, trustworthy claims and a body to which progress must be reported. Importantly, owning a problem is not the same as taking causal or political responsibility for it, meaning that defining a public problem does not entail claiming to be the reason the problem exists nor agreeing to take action to resolve the problem. Of course, owning a problem and taking responsibility, either causal or political, for it is not mutually exclusive. The GMCA owns the green problem by defining it in terms of necessary change toward carbon neutrality but, being newly formed, cannot be interpreted as having it. Until the green charter is published, it is not clear whether the GMCA is accepting or denying political responsibility for the problem by agreeing to take action.

If the GMCA accepts responsibility for achieving carbon neutrality, then the ‘green charter’ that emerges from the Green Summit will be a list of actions that the GMCA has agreed to take. In contrast, if the GMCA denies responsibility, then the green charter will contain statements about how the responsible party is not known or is someone other than the GMCA.

How might GMCA respond?

The green charter is not yet published, but some hints about whether it is likely to accept or deny responsibility come from two sources: the reactions of a GMCA representative of the pre-Green Summit listening events and the ‘What We Do’ section of the GMCA website.

Listening event

  • On February 19, a pre-Green Summit listening event aimed at PhD researchers began with Mark Atherton (Director of Environment, Greater Manchester at Association of Greater Manchester Authorities) laying out GMCA’s carbon neutrality ambitions. He also explained that how to do that was not yet set in stone and would require public participation. This listening event then broke into small groups, each discussing topics such as transport, energy, waste, or open spaces. The groups sought to identify a shared vision of a sustainable future, the barrier to that future, strengths to build on or opportunities to move forward. At the end of the event, each group summarised their discussion and Mark responded.
  • The responses included some clear interest and enthusiasm from Mark, but a notably recurring response was that Mark expressed doubt about whether or not the GMCA was the right actor to act on some point raised by the groups. For example, when one group suggested that GMCA should consider approaching homeowners with information about solar energy options that was not commercially motivated, Mark suggested that GMCA would be too slow to react and that market forces would enable private interests to do that better and faster. Other suggestions were met with responses suggesting local authorities, community leaders, individual homeowners, private enterprises or other relevant stakeholders would be more suitable to take on responsibility for the proposed action.

GMCA website

  • The GMCA is the oldest of the UK combined authorities but was only formed in 2011. Given this, it is not entirely surprising that the role of the GMCA is not entirely clear. This lack of clarity is further evidenced by the About page of the GMCA’s website which contains a ‘What We Do’ section with only three sentences: “ The GMCA gives local people more control over issues that affect their area. It means the region speaks with one voice and can make a strong case for resources and investment. It helps the entire north of England achieve its full potential.”
  • These sentences are very positive but also inarguably vague. Mark’s response at the listening event makes perfect sense; saying that the GMCA may not be responsible for the suggested action is perfectly valid when no one has a clear idea of what the GMCA is or should be responsible for.

In conclusion, by calling for a Green Summit, clarifying the intention to create a green charter and setting out ambitions of becoming (mostly) carbon neutral by 2040, the GMCA is owning the green problem by defining that problem and by setting itself up as an authority on the problem. At the same time, by emphasizing public participation, by shrugging off some suggested actions and by describing its own role in vague terms, the GMCA is not accepting political responsibility for taking action on the green problem which it owns.

To be sure, responsibility is always shared and the GMCA cannot shoulder all of the burdens. What’s more, the green charter may yet prove to be an unambiguous declaration of action that demonstrates the GMCA is both owning and accepting responsibility for the green problem. However, if the green charter proves to be a denial of responsibility, then the GMCA may want to rethink its listening events; there is little value in listening to the public unless there is some willingness to listen to what the public says about who should take responsibility.


Julia Kasmire is a Research Associate at the Sustainable Consumption Institute (SCI) / Alliance Manchester Business School, The University of Manchester.

This article was originally published on Policy@Manchester.