The survey results reveal the scale of concern that the Government may backtrack from a community consent-based approach and move towards a more local authority decision-based GDF siting process – and also reveals the universality of that concern across the entire, informed stakeholder base.
98% of respondents — including all the local authority respondents – are concerned that such a move would place the siting process’ success at risk. More specifically:
Confidence is certainly fragile at the moment. Only 1 in 5 survey respondents believe the siting process will start by summer 2019, and almost half (46%) cited lack of political will as the main risk to the GDF programme. Anything which might further erode confidence and goodwill would be unhelpful.
As Ministers consider the appropriate role for local authorities in the GDF process, they should perhaps take account of comments left by some of the survey respondents:
“It will be very difficult to secure local authority support, probably in full council, at the start of the process before any information is available or any local support has been demonstrated.”
“A small cabal in a Local Authority should not be allowed to stop the process starting.”
This goes to the core of the Working With Communities policy: how to create a democratic framework which allows time for a local public debate and for the relevant geological and other technical information to be gathered upon which to base informed decisions.
Previous experience and evidence is clear: relying upon an electorally-driven decision-making process is unlikely to allow the time required for meaningful investigation of a potential GDF site, and for the related community discussions to develop. As one survey respondent commented: “Short-termist politicians cannot be trusted to do the right thing.”
Hence the overwhelming concern that Ministers may tip the fragile balance away from community-consent and leave local politicians in the decision-making driving seat.
Last week’s National Infrastructure Commission Assessment highlighted the challenges, and necessity, of how we deliver long-term national infrastructure requirements within an electorally driven decision-making system. The GDF is a clear example of the tensions created between old and new ways of democratically making long-term decisions. The GDFWatch stakeholder survey lays bare the widespread concern amongst senior and informed stakeholders that one tier of government might be empowered to intervene in a way that denies a community the right to even consider the GDF proposition.
One idea that surfaced informally amongst local authority leaders at a National Decommissioning Authority stakeholder summit two weeks ago might actually address both GDF stakeholder and Ministers’ concerns. RWM are already required to annually assess community opinion, and to develop and prepare reports and plans for regulatory approval. Why not require RWM also to annually assess or take into account the views of relevant local authorities?
And more importantly, also require RWM to produce reports/assessments on the likely impacts on those issues for which local authorities have statutory obligations. RWM will anyway have to develop assessments of the impact, for example, on local housing and welfare provision if a GDF is constructed, so why not formalise this process. This would ensure that local authorities had an ongoing overview of, and input to, the potential consequential impacts of a GDF on their future statutory responsibilities and liabilities. If at some later point a local authority felt the GDF would unbalance their plans or overload local resources, they could make a decision based on evidence and provide a transparent explanation to a community on why they were withdrawing support.
It’s an interesting idea that seems to balance Ministers’ concerns to ensure local authorities are not ‘bounced’ into accepting the impact of a GDF on their wider statutory obligations, while reassuring communities and stakeholders that the consent-based approach can get the long-term discussion process off the ground.