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2020: Year of The GDF ??

i Jan 12th 4 Comments by

Expectation is that 2020 will see the first visible ‘community’ steps in the revised GDF siting process. But what might those first steps look like, and what early hurdles will the siting process likely face?

And how will the newly-elected Government, with a mandate for change, and a majority that’s likely to provide 5 years of political ‘stability’, impact on RWM and the siting process?

Initial Community Engagement

There is some evidence to support RWM’s confidence that the first communities expressing initial interest in hosting a GDF will start coming forward during 2020. GDFWatch has been approached for advice by a number of local groups, but how many of these mature into more formal expressions of interest remains to be seen.

This is perhaps the first key feature to note for 2020 — Attrition. The siting process is designed to encourage multiple initial enquiries, but then over time filter down to just one preferred site/host community. It is therefore inevitable, particularly in the early stages, that more communities will leave the process than remain in it. So expect a degree of churn and turnover.

Reasons for such attrition will be myriad, but are likely to fall into three broad categories:

  • overwhelming initial opposition from wider local community
  • attitude and involvement of relevant Local Authority
  • lessons learned in trying to implement an otherwise new, unique and untested site selection process

The first category is hardly a surprise. No community anywhere in the world has initially welcomed the idea of a GDF with joyous open arms. The challenge for RWM in 2020 will be to create sustainable local platforms for dialogue and negotiation that can weather the initial reaction from some parts of the community — a reaction that may not reflect actual wider local opinion, but is sufficient to halt the siting process prematurely by making it politically toxic at local level.

At this “working group” stage, Local Authority involvement is not required. But their involvement in the next “community partnership” stage is. With local elections due, it is unlikely that LAs will meaningfully engage, even in informal discussions, about the siting process before then. So, the second point to note for 2020 — don’t expect much activity until AFTER May’s local elections.

How to interpret and implement the ‘Working With Communities’ policy is also likely to become a much wider and more visible public debate in 2020, and will influence the willingness of communities to enter into and/or remain within the siting process. The policy’s principles have been widely welcomed, but how they are applied will run into realpolitik on the ground, in communities. The lack of template or draft documentation has been raised by several groups and local authorities as a potential barrier to entry.

Community ‘Exit Strategy’

A key example of this policy/reality frontline, is the reassurance communities will need that they can withdraw from the siting process at any time, and that the final test of support will be vested in the community. Does any of us trust that a Government in 30 years time will uphold commitments given by a Government today? How this issue is formally resolved will be critical.

It is hard to see how communities would enter into long-term, detailed technical, safety, environmental and socioeconomic analyses without first nailing down their exit position, and then agreeing a set of ‘rules’ about how the siting process will operate and how their interests will be protected. Thus, another point to note for 2020 — expect much more public discussion about the ‘rules of the game’, before communities get into detailed technical GDF issues.

Political Environment

Advancing GDF policy has inevitably been hobbled by the political instability of the past five years. However, there is now a Government with a large majority, and an agenda for change which the GDF could help support on several policy fronts. RWM does not have a reputation for sophisticated political networking or cross-Whitehall policy management. But in 2020 there are opportunities to secure the political leadership and funding the programme requires, and to position the GDF programme as a much more broadly-based contributor to social, economic and environmental policy. For example:

  1. Chief No10 Aide Dominic Cummings has stated he wants to address contentious issues at the start of the 5-year term — what could be more contentious than the geological disposal of radioactive waste.
  2. The Government has come to power with a pledge to refocus infrastructure and economic investment towards the regions — what else is the GDF but a huge regional/rural infrastructure investment programme.
  3. The new administration has also indicated it wants to review how longer-term planning and local decision-making processes operate — the GDF siting process offers a practical framework for exploring new models for long-term infrastructure and socioeconomic planning, and for local democracy.

Whether it happens or not, 2020 offers an opportunity for the GDF programme to rise up the political agenda, and embed itself into the new Government’s wider policy objectives.

Summary

There is a clear expectation across RWM’s stakeholder universe that visible progress needs to be made in 2020. The evidence suggests that RWM will start meeting those expectations during 2020. But the evidence and environment also suggest that any progress will likely be small initial steps on a longer journey.

What does seem likely in 2020 is:

  • nothing substantive will happen until after May’s local elections
  • significant attrition, with fewer communities moving onto formal discussions than initially expressing an interest
  • more public discussion about the ‘rules’ of the siting process — how to turn the principles of the ‘Working With Communities’ policy into practical and effective mechanisms which build communities’ trust and confidence in the siting process and help the process proceed
  • an opportunity to position the GDF more centrally within the Government’s wider regional, economic, social and environmental change programmes

One thing is for sure — no visible, external activity by RWM in 2020 is not an option. 2020 will be the year things start getting real.

Comments

  1. Gary Bullivant
    13th January 2020 at 12:51 pm

    The first communities came forward in 2019 but the process has been slowed by the general election and by Brexit. Although not necessary for the WG stage, 125 Councils including Copeland held full local elections in 2019 so they should now be well positioned to engage. I expect there will therefore be some visibe movement after January but before May.

    Reply
    • rpayne
      13th January 2020 at 1:25 pm

      Let’s hope you’re right!

      Reply
  2. Dr David Lowry
    13th January 2020 at 5:44 pm

    What areas if the country are the local groups from which you report have approached GDFW?

    Reply
    • rpayne
      14th January 2020 at 8:40 am

      David, aside from a ‘client confidentiality’ principle, most of those who’ve been in contact haven’t indicated where there are from. And I haven’t asked. The nature of their enquiry was ‘generic’ rather than location-specific, so geography did not arise in discussion.

      My concerns, and their issues, are more about ensuring a fair, transparent process in which the community’s interests are properly protected and promoted in an otherwise unique and as-yet untested selection process for a highly-contentious project. This is not just another everyday infrastructure and planning regulations exercise. There are new opportunities, and risks, to embed citizen participation and engagement in decision-making.

      But, to answer your question more generally, from what I can piece together, interested groups appear to be from different parts of the country — going beyond the ‘usual suspects’.

      Reply

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