We have an opportunity, let’s seize it: more representative and meaningful engagement can help developers put forward better plans and allow local authority decision-makers to take better decisions.
Onshore wind is back! Or set to make a comeback in the UK following Government announcements this spring that developers will be able to bid for price support. This is welcome news, necessary for the transition to Net Zero and receiving a lot of support via recent calls to #BuildBackBetter for a #GreenRecovery. Yet it got me thinking back to what felt like a light-switch being flicked off in the sector, as projects stalled and were shelved, and jobs were lost.
In England it was getting increasingly tough to get local planning consent, as anti-wind campaign groups lobbied harder against new sites and council planning officers got more stretched as austerity set in. Then the Cameron Government changed policy, in effect shutting down the market for years.
So, what can we learn from last time?
We need to think about the process. Developers must demonstrate they have consulted and engaged with the community. Yet this often took the form of a leaflet drop, a parish council presentation, and some pop-up banners in a draughty village hall. Participants were frequently only those who felt most strongly about the proposals – for or against. Did the engagement really develop understanding and leave people better informed?
Once the application is submitted to the Council, the planning department also consults. But again, who would read the lengthy reports and write in? Then, after sometimes years of studies and planning, a committee of councillors would come together, often in front of a vocal audience and after a matter of hours vote yes or, quite likely, no.
I say from personal experience, that it’s only human to be influenced by an email campaign or a room full vocal residents – after all you’re there to represent local people, right!?*
How could better engagement help?
Increased public representation
Best practice engagement would ensure that a more representative audience is involved. Using more robust engagement and social research methods, commonly used in other sectors, could ensure that both the developer and the decision-makers are hearing opinions that really reflect the local community.
You could top up any open public consultation with a survey or focus groups to help ensure respondents broadly reflect the local community. Representative surveys such as the BEIS Public Attitudes Tracker show consistent levels of support for renewables, and this spring, support for on-shore wind was at 81%. But does this translate into support for a local wind farm?
It’s still fundamental to understand the concerns of the nearest neighbours, but on the issue of where our electricity comes from, the wider view should also be heard. After all, the context of climate change impacts us all. This becomes ever more important when you consider that local councillors are not particularly diverse themselves, so there is value in taking the time to seek out and engage with more diverse community groups.
More meaningful dialogue
Better engagement would give participants the time and tools to take on more information and give more considered input. At Traverse we find that if you give people the necessary support and space, they always have useful ideas and a wealth of local knowledge.
Equally, engagement should begin when there is scope to shape plans, and continue, to maintain participation at key stages. For example, starting by ensuring participants understand the planning constraints and site selection process, and asking them to help shape a community involvement strategy.
Convening public and/or stakeholder reference groups, reflective of the local community, and engaging with them using deliberative techniques can add huge value. A deliberative approach allows time for participants to hear and question information, then take part in a facilitated discussion where views and recommendations develop and are shaped collectively.
For more meaningful dialogue you also need trust in the process. Developers often appoint communications and public affairs agencies to work with them. This is understandable when you need to reach a large audience and the decision-makers are elected politicians. However, it can lead to a tendency for engagement which feels like a communications exercise, and participants worrying that their views won’t be accurately reflected. Involving independent parties in the process can help mitigate this, and at Traverse independence in representing participant views is key to our practice ethos.
Going a step further, what if Local Authorities convened residents in deliberative processes such as citizen assemblies to act as formal consultees, either before or after the plans are submitted!? Could residents be called up on a rolling basis, much like jury service?
So, let’s be more ambitious in our engagement this time!
Let’s live up to the ethos of the Localism Act: an approach that will be ever more important as our power grid becomes a more localised system, transforming our homes, commutes and indeed lives!
If you want to shoot the breeze (hah) on engaging communities about renewables, find me @byAmelieT or for a fuller conversation on how Traverse could help, email me firstname.lastname@example.org
*I recognise this is an issue inherent to any kind of planning application, not just onshore wind. As a former Councillor I thankfully didn’t have to sit on a planning committee!