Discover how Cornwall Council used a simple, locally-tailored tool to check the social and planetary impact of its plans and guide decision-making right across the council. Checking whether council decisions would help or hinder climate action forms part of Action 1 of the 50-point Climate Action Plan for Councils.

21 Jul 2023

How is Action 1 tackling the climate crisis?

Cornwall Council has set a target for Cornwall to be carbon neutral by 2030. The authority is also keen to respond to the complexities of the climate crisis with ambition and imagination.

Part of its solution has been to implement the ground-breaking "doughnut economics" model. The principle is simple: to meet the basic needs of our population we must extract resources from the world. However, the amounts we extract and the way we do this can exceed our planet’s carrying capacity to allow us to sustainably meet our needs going forward.

Economist Kate Raworth argues we must find a safe and just space for humanity that allows us to continually meet the needs of our population while preserving and enhancing our planet’s ability to regenerate. This is visualised as a green ring (a doughnut, pictured below) between both extremes, and is the space our policies and actions must aim to land in.

Diagram showing the principle of doughnut economics
Principle of doughnut economics © Wikipedia Commons

This principle is at the heart of a new tool developed by the council, called the Cornwall Council Development and Decision-Making Wheel. This tool guides officers considering a project or action through a series of questions relating to different areas, from water health to wealth inequality, and asks them to assign a score representing the potential impact of the decision in each area – positive or negative.

When the scores are brought together in a clear and simple graphic, the decision wheel offers a snapshot of a complex interconnected system that decision-makers can easily digest and engage with. Since September 2019, every decision made through the council cabinet has used the decision wheel to present the potential impacts across the social and planetary boundaries. The wheel is now being rolled out for wider use in the council’s decision-making, including its 2021-22 budget setting and sustainable commissioning processes.

What is the impact?

The tool is embedding a new way of thinking at the council, ensuring that climate is a key consideration in decision-making.  It is focusing the limited resources of the council’s decision-making structures onto the most relevant issues which, now, formally include the environment and our impact on it. What’s more, the tool also makes it easier to identify the potential for co-benefits (alongside carbon reduction), such as job creation or improved health.

The use of the tool allows decision-makers to consider the inter-connectedness of people and place in Cornwall, where the environment is inextricably linked to the lives of residents through tourism, farming, energy generation and a sense of collective identity. The reality that councils face is that there are no perfect decisions in a complex system. Every action will have both positive and negative consequences, but the important thing is to recognise them and build in actions to mitigate the negatives.

An example of Cornwall Councils decision making wheel in action
An example of Cornwall Councils decision making wheel in action © Cornwall Council

For example, the wheel was put to good use in winter 2014 when it was used to assess the impact of the development of Cornwall Spaceport at Newquay Airport. The council had identified that there’d most likely be a serious emissions impact from the project but that this impact was not fully understood. The wheel helped establish emissions as a formal consideration in the decision-making process, and so the University of Exeter was then tasked with producing a study to estimate the emissions.

The results of the study prompted major investment from the spaceport operator into large-scale energy efficiency improvements at the airport. Without the decision wheel, there may not have been a formal mechanism to identify and mitigate against this drawback of the project.

What made this work?

The development of the wheel followed the council’s climate emergency declaration and its target of becoming net zero by 2030.  Key to this going ahead was the council’s recognition that it needed to improve how its decision-making could better take into account its own wider social justice and environmental policies and aspirations.

Strong support from the Elected Members and the Chief Executive were key to enabling this to go ahead. The initial development of the wheel was funded as part of the duties of one officer. As the tool evolved into an app during a second development phase, money was drawn specifically from the funding for the Carbon Neutral Cornwall Team, set aside for supporting the projects specified in the Climate Change Action Plan.

What resources were needed?

An officer in the Carbon Neutral Cornwall Team was initially placed in charge of developing and embedding a first version of the tool, adapting it from the original Doughnut Economics model to fit with the priorities and powers of a local authority, as well as the unique environment of Cornwall itself. Usability was also a key factor in its development, with the idea that those creating and those assessing the wheel would not need to be experts in any of the areas. To this end, a set of simple and easy-to-understand questions for each segment – such as land use or air quality (see all segments in the diagram above) – was developed in conjunction with council experts in different fields, to reflect the authority’s ambitions and powers in each of those areas. This initial process took around three months.

A second version of the tool is currently being rolled out. This automatically generates scores for each area based on input into an online app. It combines with the council’s existing Comprehensive Impact Assessment tool for new projects and policies to create a single project planning and impact assessment tool. It also has an in-built cumulative assessment system which gives an annual account of the decisions the council is taking.

The first version of the tool was Excel-based and managed entirely by the original officer assigned to the task. The new format makes the tool much more suitable for use early in the project and policy development cycle, and so it’s better placed to achieve positive change through mitigation and evidence gathering.

Developing the second version of the tool into a minimum viable product took around six months. This work was undertaken entirely in-house using funding from the council’s climate change budget. It’s being rolled out to the rest of the council, with widespread officer and member induction training in the use of the tool. 

Challenges and lessons

The council’s approach to implementing the project was straightforward. The principal investment in time and resources happened during the development of the second version of the tool, though this was still carried out in-house at a comparatively low cost. 
Factors essential to success include:

  • Gaining the support of the council’s leadership.
  • Securing the resources needed to fund the development of an initial version and making sure it’s tailored to the needs of each individual local authority.
  • Buy-in from senior staff.

Cornwall faced few, if any, barriers to development once these conditions were met. Officers and councillors have found the tool intuitive and extremely useful in both helping shape projects and policies to reduce the council’s impact on climate change and assessing the impacts in an easy-to-understand way.

To help lead officers rate each segment accurately, the tool is accompanied by detailed guidance with questions about each category carefully tailored in collaboration with representatives from key departments across the council. The guidance can be found here. This was key to securing buy-in from senior staff.

Councils can tailor the Cornwall Wheel’s segments and questions to their own needs and policy landscape (please contact the Carbon Neutral Cornwall team for more information). But successful implementation will need active support from the highest levels of the council, and at least one dedicated officer to take ownership of it.

"While carbon neutrality can be measured, our response to the climate emergency is not an exact science. As we make progress towards our 2030 target, we must also progress our ability to understand and respond to complexity and ensure the decisions we make acknowledge and embrace uncertainty. This is how we move from declaring a climate emergency to responding to a climate emergency, and most importantly, how we create a Cornwall in which one and all can thrive."

Councillor Martyn Alvey, Portfolio holder for Environment and Climate Change, Cornwall Council

Useful information

For more information about the Cornwall Development and Decision Wheel please contact the Carbon Neutral Cornwall Team at [email protected]

Download a flier about the wheel produced by the council.

Related projects

We've found some examples of other council activity on this topic.

Friends of the Earth's view

Clear decision-making tools such as that developed by Cornwall Council will help officers and councillors make better decisions that tackle the climate and ecological emergencies whilst delivering wider benefits for their residents.

Cornwall’s tool is innovative and should be replicable by other councils. Time will tell whether the tool is truly transforming decision making. The example in the case study shows the tool can mitigate the impacts of a project the council was already committed to but will the council be bold enough to halt projects that would result in more carbon emissions?

Friends of the Earth is showcasing specific examples of good practice in tackling climate change, but that doesn’t mean we endorse everything that a council is doing.

This case study was produced by Ashden and Friends of the Earth. It was originally published in March 2022. The council was approached for an update in June 2023; no update was provided.

Climate Action