Thursday, 12 July 2012

Community engagement and trust in government A couple of years ago I was told a story about residents in a rural farming area who objected to plans for a wind farm, got very organised and vocal, and saw off the proposals. My first reaction was to reach for the old quote from the days of Thatcherism – ‘you wonder if the middle ages will ever come to an end.’ Then more practically I reflected on the apparent likelihood that while the objection was presented as an argument against wind power – and it’s hard to sustain that argument for long – it was really an objection to surrendering certain rights to land and its value. It seems that, while this farming-based network was sufficiently well-armed with hayforks and tradition to stomp up to the city hall and stop proceedings, they hadn’t worked out that the same community energy could generate collective income from the process and retain ownership. Oh, and generate renewable energy at the same time – although in this case that doesn’t seem to have been a consideration. I was reminded of this by the news (via Planning daily) that the House of Commons science and technology committee says that giving communities more ownership of local energy infrastructure by offering shares in projects 'could be conducive to building trust and acceptance'. You don't say? But there’s a catch. Here in one paragraph from the summary is how far the committee has come and, towards the end, where it’s headed: ‘Community benefits are an important way of building trust and negotiations can enable the public to feel a greater sense of control, choice over and ownership of energy projects. We encourage the further use of current community engagement processes led by energy companies, working with local government and the public, for building trust around nuclear new build proposals.’ What a falling off was there. You can get precisely the same effect with the next paragraph: ‘We were impressed by a citizen partnership model being developed in Germany for wind farms and suggest that enabling communities to feel more ownership of local energy infrastructure by offering shares in projects could be conducive to building trust and acceptance. Partnership models could form part of community benefits discussions for new nuclear build and other energy infrastructure.’ Well, if your government favours nuclear energy, would you rather have policy to promote it without community engagement, or policy that required it? But it is hard to read this without suspecting that they want the phrases ‘community engagement processes’ and ‘community benefits discussions’ to mean ‘coercion’. We want people to have a say in deciding on what we want them to decide on. The problem is that the closer that policy gets to ordinary people, the more barriers to trust it seems to have to build. In my lifetime I have witnessed how, first, people lost trust in government as detached-authority which did not see the need to consult; then how, more recently, government that consulted without engagement lost more trust...

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