How to make industrial decarbonisation relevant and fair for local communities? By Huei-Ling Lai

Published on 18 January 2024

Portrait photo of Huei Ling LaiBlog by Huei-Ling Lai, Postdoctoral Research Fellow University of Exeter

Lai’s blog explains how her project ‘Delivering a place-based just transition in industrial clusters’ seeks to prompt place-sensitive thinking among policymakers and stakeholders of ‘industrial  clusters’ across the UK and beyond.

Update – Originally published on 17 October 2023 this blog has been updated with links to the project’s findings. All the project outputs (including 1 integrated framework, 3 contextualised action plans, and 1 policy brief) are now available on the IDRIC website. Also included is a recording of an online policy and practice workshop with policymakers, industry, cluster developers, and researchers across the UK. The workshop includes  a summary of their work and an exciting exchange of experiences and ideas.

On the sunny Friday 6 October, several researchers from University of Exeter, Manchester, Leeds, and Sussex and a visual resource expert gathered in a seminar room on the Exeter campus. They were here for one purpose: to explore a framework that synergises their individual research findings to help the delivery of place-based just transitions in the UK and beyond.

Many places in the world have experienced increasing devastating effects of extremes weathers. Growing government, industry, and academic efforts have been directed to accelerating low-carbon transitions. How to speed up such transition in the industrial sector in a socially just and acceptable manner is a question desperately in need of workable answers. And the important clues to the answers can lie in the existing industrial places.

Industrial decarbonisation plans requires social support for successful implementation. In turn, they will generate lasting economic, social, and physical impacts on industrial areas and local communities. The competitive cluster approach adopted by the UK government since 2018 has showed some recognition of industrial decarbonisation as a place-making process. This is exemplified by the objective of transforming UK’s industrial heartlands into ‘SuperPlaces’ with the deployment of carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) and hydrogen infrastructures. Such place visions have been invoked in the discourses of many industrial clusters to attract inward investment and public support. However, how to deliver these place visions in existing industrial areas in a socially just and inclusive manner remains unclear. This poses an emerging challenge for cluster development moving toward the delivery stage. Insufficient support from local communities and society at large can result in unexpected resistance, costs and delays in the deployment of decarbonisation projects.


A Combined Approach for Place-based Just Transitions

To address this gap, an interdisciplinary, cross-institutional impact accelerator project was launched in October with a grant from the UKRI-funded Industrial Decarbonisation Research and Innovation Centre (IDRIC). This 3-month project, titled ‘delivering a place-based just transition in industrial clusters’ involves social scientists from 4 IDRIC Wave 1 projects:

Despite differences in approach and research focus, the four projects share the following recognition and observation:

  • The creation of net zero industrial clusters is a social and spatial project as much as a techno-managerial one.
  • A more pro-active, meaningful engagement with place and local communities in the UK’s cluster building processes is needed, if inclusive regional development along with effective industrial decarbonisation are to be achieved.
  • The lack of constructive engagement with place and local communities can increase challenges for the creation of a social mandate and just transitions.
A multi-stakeholder workshop in Ellesmere Port

A multi-stakeholder workshop in Ellesmere Port

A Multi-stakeholder, Multi-level Strategy

Together, these researchers, including myself, will develop actionable knowledge for a place-based just transition through conducting several activities and outputs with stakeholders across places, sectors, and levels. We will start with creating an integrated framework that provides guidance to make industrial decarbonisation more locally relevant and socially just. In practice, we will work on the action plans for three industrial heartlands in three UK industrial clusters:

  • Grangemouth (Scottish Cluster)
  • Ellesmere Port (North West Cluster)
  • Milford Haven (South Wales Industrial Cluster)

This will be done in cooperation with industry stakeholders, cluster leads, local authorities, local communities and associated organisations through three face-to-face workshops in these localities. The lessons from the 4 projects and 3 workshops will also be summarised in a policy brief to share with governments across devolved nations and levels. These policy recommendations will then be introduced in a policy and practice workshop (online) in early December 2023 to prompt place-sensitive thinking among policymakers and stakeholders of industrial clusters across the UK and beyond.

These project activities and outputs are designed in accordance with the findings of the four IDRIC projects. For instance, as an effort to enhance a place sensitive mindset in policy and cluster making, my colleagues and I in the ‘Net Zero Sense of Place’ project have been developing a Net Zero Sense of Place Framework (to be released in late October). This NZSoP framework is to enable an inclusive, place-based decarbonisation process through pro-active engagement with local communities’ feelings and vision for the place, experiences of industry and place changes across time, and knowledge about the social and bio-physical environment. We tried out our preliminary ideas about the framework in 3 multi-stakeholder workshops respectively held in Grangemouth, Ellesmere Port, and Milford Haven in September 2023, and received encouraging feedback from participants across sectors. This experience suggests that there is a great interest in and a need for an approach that brings together people across a wide range of interests and backgrounds to form constructive dialogues in the process of industrial decarbonisation. The new Impact Accelerator (IA) project will provide more mutual learning opportunities for various stakeholders and places who have not been properly connected.

Translating Concepts to Actions

This IA project also responds to the growing appetite for a place-based approach for industrial and regional development in the UK. For instance, the ‘Place Principle’ has been introduced to local development and just transition plans in Grangemouth and elsewhere in Scotland. Meanwhile, the decarbonisation projects in Ellesmere Port and Milford Haven have been invoked as a significant element of recent place-branding and place-making projects initiated by local authorities and developers.

Multi-stakeholder workshop in Grangemouth

Multi-stakeholder workshop in Grangemouth

Given the novelty of a place-based approach and challenges ahead, we will work with several non-academic partners in these three localities and clusters, including Grangemouth Future Industry Board, Cheshire West and Chester Council, Milford Haven Port Authority, and Net Zero Industry Wales. Together, we will explore potential gaps, trade-offs, and action plans for a low-carbon industrial transition that can be considered just, credible, and legitimate. We will also work with partners from the Humber Cluster and the Solent Cluster to explore how the framework and research outputs can benefit other industrial clusters in the UK and beyond on their exciting journeys to net zero.

All the project outputs (including 1 integrated framework, 3 contextualised action plans, and 1 policy brief) is available on  the IDRIC website. Also included is a recording of an online policy and practice workshop with policymakers, industry, cluster developers, and researchers across the UK. The workshop includes  a summary of their work and an exciting exchange of experiences and ideas.

About Huei-Ling Lai

Huei-Ling Lai (Lynn) is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Geography at the University of Exeter. She is the principal investigator of the IDRIC IA project titled ‘Delivering A Place-based Just Transition in Industrial Clusters’. She is a political ecologist and human geographer trained in the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Before joining Exeter in April 2022, she worked and published on various topics regarding place-making dynamics and community-based projects for sustainability in Taiwan.