CAMPAIGN: Islington stages green referendum

In June 2007, Islington was the first council in the country to hold a referendum on climate change and car use and they needed a campaign that expressed the issues and encouraged people to vote without influencing the referendum results...

Islington Council: the first council in the UK to hold a referendum on climate change
Islington Council: the first council in the UK to hold a referendum on climate change

Campaign: The Referendum Campaign
Client: Islington Council
PR Team: In-house
e: April to June 2007
Budget: £90,000

With the Electoral Reform Services, Islington balloted its 127,000 residents on the electoral roll to ask whether the cost of a residents’ parking permit should depend on how much a car pollutes.

To raise Islington Council’s profile as a council that listens to residents and engages them in debate. To encourage residents to think about the environmental impact of the cars they drive and find out what lifestyle changes they would be willing to make to tackle climate change. To achieve a minimum response rate of 20 per cent.

Strategy and plan
As the policy was not new, but the public debate element was, the council packaged the referendum as a ‘people power in Islington’ story. This was targeted at the motoring, environmental and news correspondents in local, regional, national and specialist media.

To get local people interested and help them make an informed decision, the PR team stimulated debate among opinion formers, with leader of the council, councillor James Kempton, acting as official spokesperson.

The council also involved residents both for and against the policy, plus local celebrities including Alan Davies, Arabella Weir and Boris Johnson.

A consistent identity for the campaign was created around the catch-phrase ‘Have you voted?’ and a ballot pack was sent to all residents on the electoral register – including all 17-year-olds.

The campaign launched with a ‘Speakers’ Corner’ debate on Islington Green, between the Association of British Drivers and Friends of the Earth. This featured actors dressed as people-power icons Citizen Smith and Suffragettes. Information and a video of the launch was accessible through the council’s website, and the council organised a secondary schools debate to raise awareness among parents and educational communities.

Measurement and evaluation
A cover story outlining the debate ran in residents’ magazine Islington Now, while the Islington Tribune and Islington Chronicle followed the issues closely and included interviews with local celebrities. Regional interest included thelondonpaper and the Evening Standard and interviews with Kempton featured on several London radio stations including LBC, London Tonight and BBC London. The story was also picked up by The Financial Times, Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph.

The council exceeded its target with a return rate of 28.8 per cent and by 25 June, 56 per cent of respondents had voted ‘yes’ to the question: ‘should the cost of a resident’s parking permit
depend on how much the car pollutes?’

In a follow-up survey of its Citizen’s Panel, a representative group of 1,000 residents, 93 per cent of respondents said the council should hold referenda on other important issues in the future.

thelondonpaper’s environment rep­orter Widiane Moussa says: ‘The council’s press team secured residents representing both sides of the argument, as well as figures from opposing campaign groups so that our coverage contained a range of opinions.’


James Wright (l), director of CSR, Trimedia Harrison Cowley: I followed this story with great interest during the summer. How do you present a parking charge scheme to tackle climate change in an objective way? Climate change evokes strong opinions from people, and it would have been challenging for the council to remain neutral and not be accused of money-making.

Charging cars based on CO2 is complicated, but Islington’s proposal to correlate charges according to engine sizes makes far better sense than the London Mayor’s proposals for targeting just Band G vehicles.

The arguments against congestion charging apply to parking charges too. How do you account for those using larger cars that are carrying more people, thus emitting less CO2 per head, than someone travelling in a smaller car on their own? Will car emissions be reduced? Ultimately, will the scheme change behaviour?

No doubt these arguments were explored via the platforms the council provided and this was why the outcome was so close.

If I were an Islington resident I would want assurance that the money generated is being invested in environmentally friendly propositions. I trust that it is, particul­arly as Islington is one of the leading authorities on this front.

Overall, it was a very democratic approach that successfully positioned the council as listening to the views of its residents on important issues.

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