The sociopolitical challenges RWM faces were starkly revealed by the community sector’s response to a recent major Government funding announcement. Their reaction suggests that the package of GDF-related investment and other funding, while being ‘necessary’, is not necessarily ‘sufficient’ to secure a community’s consent to start initial discussions or formally enter the siting process.
At the forefront of the sectors’ concerns is ‘collaboration’, and more active involvement in shaping policy and how it is implemented. This aspiration, particularly in the context of a ‘consent-based’ siting process, is likely to become a key area of discussion as RWM seeks to build awareness, trust and confidence with communities.
The evidence for this analysis can be found in the community/civil society sector reaction to the Government’s recent £1.6 billion ‘Stronger Towns Fund’ announcement. Instead of welcoming the extra cash, across the board there was frustration and concern that once again there had been no consultation with those affected, that this was another top-down solution, and was throwing good money at bad means of delivering real benefits to communities. Those expressing this opinion included:
Their reaction suggests that RWM cannot simply throw money at communities – instead communities and their representatives are more likely to seek much greater collaboration and involvement in creating and implementing the GDF siting process.
And acquiescing to these demands (which it will be difficult to resist in a consent-based process) might actually lead to more robust, sustainable and trusted community partnership frameworks.
There is a wealth of experience in the sector in managing citizen and community participation in decision-making and long-term planning, and much work has already been done by the sector in reforming the relationship between communities and local government. This experience and expertise is core to the fundamentals of the community partnerships envisioned by the Working With Communities policy.
Communities may have no expertise in radioactive waste management, but RWM has zero experience of building local democratic institutions. This sounds like an environment ripe for co-operation and collaboration.
GDFWatch has flagged this issue on previous occasions. Whether that be the similarities between the GDF siting policy and Localism Commission recommendations, or the range of research and publications by the civil society sector around empowering communities and citizens. There is also a wider public political debate about the state of our democracy and making decision-making more relevant to ordinary people.
Initial political, public and media reaction to RWM’s current Site Evaluation consultation underlines the difficulties faced in building trust with communities. Aside from expected NIMBYism, there is also appears to be a widespread , underlying lack of belief that the GDF siting process is actually “community-centric”.
The whole ‘consent-based’ approach is novel and new to the United Kingdom. But people have little trust in such government pledges. A more collaborative approach to determining how a community partnership might operate, decisions are made, and the right of withdrawal is protected, is likely to be critical to building community trust and confidence in the siting process. Radioactive waste is a difficult enough ‘sell’ but is complicated by an honestly-proposed but cynically-regarded community-based decision-making process.
Nobody would necessarily choose to host a GDF, but like every other country we need to find somewhere to safely and responsibly dispose of our radioactive waste. Thus, the process by which we go about finding a willing community and suitable geological site becomes critical. The siting process needs to be transparently fair, balancing the rights and needs of the community and the developer. Involving the civil society sector and drawing on their experience and expertise in developing the consent-based community partnership approach, is likely to be a key and productive step towards building community trust in the GDF siting process.