A UK citizen’s assembly on nature gives us hope, but can we really change?

<span>Photograph: Wayne Hutchinson/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Wayne Hutchinson/Alamy

The People’s Plan for Nature, launched on Thursday, sets out the public’s recommendations for reversing massive declines in Britain’s nature. One hundred people were invited to come together, in a citizens’ assembly, to agree on a plan for how to renew and protect nature. Their recommendations include calls for access to nature to be a human right, the urgent restoration of rivers, transparency from supermarkets and a cross-party commitment to farming for nature. One of the assembly members, Sara Hudston, here shares her views on taking part in the process.

I first heard of the People’s Plan for Nature early last autumn, but I didn’t intend to take part because I thought it looked too simplistic. It began with a national callout for ideas about how nature might be renewed, which I felt lacked urgency and wasn’t enough given the scale of biodiversity loss in the UK.

Then a letter came in the post inviting anyone in our household to apply to serve on a people’s assembly for nature. We were one of 33,000 addresses randomly selected from across the country.

The prospect of a citizens’ assembly seemed to have much greater potential. I was curious to see how it worked. Would everyone’s voice be heard? Could people with different viewpoints agree? Are we as divided a country as political pundits say?

The registration form asked for my age, gender, ethnicity, geographical location and whether I was from an urban or rural place. I also had to rate the question, “How much do you agree or disagree with the statement ‘I feel part of nature’?” on a scale of five from “completely agree” through to “disagree”, including “don’t know”. While most respondents agreed, some were selected precisely because they disagreed, or had no idea.

Of the 277 who applied, 110 were picked, 107 started the process and 103 stayed the course through all four weekends of deliberation, despite rail strikes and winter illness. The aim was for a sample that broadly represented the makeup of the UK population, rather than strictly equal numbers of various groups. So, although ages ranged from teens to late 70s and nearly a quarter came from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the majority were aged 45 and upwards and living in urban England. Most people described themselves as white British, but a third were from other ethnicities. A quarter of us came from rural areas.

I was surprised to be picked. As a longstanding Guardian country diarist and eco-writer, I assumed I would be weeded out. When I made it through, I found that I was actually the only person with that kind of green activist background. Everyone was different, and we certainly weren’t a collection of lefty Guardian readers. I came across students, a retired farmer, a pub landlady, young immigrants, a biochemist, a gardener, an investment fund manager and a warehouse boss, among others.

We met for four separate weekends, two of them face-to-face in a hotel, and two online. We worked in ever-changing small groups of about six with an impartial facilitator, listening to a series of presentations from experts including academics, industry professionals and community project leaders. Then we would discuss what we thought should be done to protect and renew nature in relation to what we had heard. The recommendations from the sub-groups progressed through a process of amalgamation and further discussion to clarify the final calls for action.

From the beginning, food was a big debating point. True to the assembly’s aim of representing all shades of opinion, members included vegans, vegetarians, flexitarians and frequent meat-eaters. At the first weekend, most people ignored the vegetarian food options, choosing chicken or beef. Many people in my discussion groups saw no issue in meat-eating and were wary of making any recommendation about diet because they thought that would be unfairly restrictive.

The majority started the process not knowing how much agricultural land is used for meat production in the UK, or the ecological impact of many of the farming systems involved. It was noticeable how people’s views changed, especially during the weekend that concentrated on food, farming and fishing. It wasn’t only farmers that came in for criticism – there was a high level of dissatisfaction with supermarkets for their pricing policies towards both growers and customers.

By the final weekend, assembly members agreed that UK meat, dairy and fish consumption needed to be reduced by at least a quarter by 2030. This was an astonishing change of view from where we started and perhaps the most radical recommendation in the whole plan. And yet when we had dinner in the hotel, most of the people sitting near me chose meat dishes once again, even though they were made from animals reared in the conventional farming systems they had expressed such disquiet about.

I found it illuminating to see how, far away from Westminster, a group of people with differing standpoints could reach consensus on divisive issues. In fact, they can do it quite easily when their prejudices are not being goaded by politicians.

But I was left wondering why it is that, as the diet issue showed, even people who care about nature, who have dedicated themselves to hours of learning and discussion, still don’t quite close the gap between what they say and how they act. Is this hypocrisy, or are we just too enmeshed in our current lifestyles to be able to change?

What will it take to shift our individual and collective behaviours sufficiently? The assembly’s calls for action give me hope, but only if we follow through with them. Can we do that?

• People can add their own voice at peoplesplanfornature.org