The establishment of the first Community Partnerships is a milestone achievement for the GDF siting process. A key challenge for 2022 is whether they will command credibility in the wider communities in which they operate.
Listening to the observations, experiences and expectations of community players from areas in which there have been initial or working group discussions, provides an outline roadmap of concerns to be addressed — even if some of those concerns are misplaced or based on misconceptions. For while Community Partnerships may have been established administratively, their future membership and modus operandi have yet to be fully defined.
The experience of the early and working group stages of the siting process still leaves many community players worrying about ‘justness’ and the ‘balance of power’ within this unique and untested consent-based approach to public participation and decision-making. These concerns are rooted less in ‘the science’ of geological disposal and are much more focused on ‘the rules of the game’, ie who will be on the Community Partnership and how, in practice, will it operate.
Regardless of location, or from which community demographic the community players come, the core concerns seem to be:
• the role of principal local authorities and local politicians
• the capacity and capability of local communities to engage on an informed and ‘equal’ basis
• perception of RWM’s actions and behaviours
Given that this is a unique and very different process from any previous infrastructure project, these concerns are unsurprising. Many of the concerns may just be ‘of the moment’, to disappear or be resolved as the siting process moves forward this year. However, if left unaddressed, some of the concerns have the potential to either stall the process at an early stage, or inadvertently be baked into the process, to emerge as a problem in latter stages.
Role of local authorities & local politicians
There are two distinct key areas of concern amongst community participants about the role of local authorities and local politicians – when the local authority is an active participant in the siting process, or when local politicians express disapproval.
There was a perception amongst community players that the working group stage was largely driven by RWM, with the active cooperation of a local authority, and little meaningful wider community participation. The RWM/local authority relationship is seen as potentially ‘too cosy’, stoking underlying fears that a siting outcome will keep being progressed regardless of local participation and sentiment – these fears only fuelled by the fact that to date the initial membership of Community Partnerships comprises only RWM and local authority reps.
Working Groups are not intended in themselves to be broad-based bodies, but designed to lay the ground for Community Partnerships, which are intended to be the broader based bodies within which to manage longer-term dialogue between developer, local authority and communities. Given these have been the very first working groups, there was always going to be scope for misunderstandings and misplaced-expectations, from which to learn. It would seem that one of the earliest issues to address within the Community Partnership is clarity of expectation, and even of ‘language’, as different sectors, whjch don’t normally meet together, can sometimes have different interpretations and understandings of simple words, phrases and concepts.
Many of the concerns expressed, whether well-grounded or misplaced, should start being addressed during 2022. The selection and appointment of Community Partnership members will indicate how broadly the community is to be ‘represented’ on the Partnership. Once these members are on board, the outcome of discussions about how the Partnership will operate can contribute to providing the foundations for building higher levels of clarity, and of community confidence and trust.
More interestingly, is the question of how RWM reacts in situations where community groups show interest, but there is little local political appetite (or even active opposition) to engaging with the siting process.
RWM’s current position appears to be that before starting a working group stage, they need confidence that the process can move to a community partnership (which requires local authority participation). This approach is understandable from corporate risk and programme management perspectives, but does seem a divergence from the core rationale and principles of the Working With Communities policy.
There is a danger that the lessons learned from the review of the previous failed siting process may be lost. One of the key lessons was to avoid over-dependence on local authority and local political relationships – local authorities and politicians come and go, while the community is perpetual. These issues are assessed in more detail in this associated analysis.
Capacity & capability of local communities
In any local community there will be a finite number of individuals and organisations with relevant skills, experience, and local networks to support the work of a Community Partnership – and they will each already have their own existing time and resource constraints. Thus, there are concerns from potential community participants about the extent to which they can engage with the siting process on a sustainable basis, or re-direct the resources of their local organisation.
Moreover, regardless of any locally-relevant knowledge, potential community participants are conscious that there will be significant issues for the Community Partnership to consider or scrutinise that go beyond the competence of anyone living within their community.
Although funding for, and access to, independent advice is enshrined within the Working With Communities policy, how that is realised on a day-to-day basis remains an issue of concern for many of those interested in participating in a Community Partnership. Their concern starts at the very first step – given that Community Partnerships are completely new models of community engagement and participation, community players worry they “do not know what they do not know” in terms of defining the functions and processes of the Partnership in a way that will adequately provide a just balance between the interests of all participants.
This suggests that even before Community Partnerships start to consider the results of geological investigations, or longer term socioeconomic and environmental ‘visioning’, they may need external support to help give shape and form to how the consent-based framework operates in a way that works locally for both RWM and the community – ie, establishing the ‘rules of the game’ for how the Community Partnership, in practical terms, will go about its business.
Perceptions of RWM’s behaviour and actions
Although many individual staff are respected and regarded, it is hardly surprising that RWM, as a corporate entity, is still viewed with some suspicion and despair. It was probably ever going to be thus, with trust taking time to evolve, and through deeds rather than words.
Community players report a level of dissatisfaction from early interactions, with complaints about queries and questions being responded to too slowly (and sometimes not at all), commitments made but unfulfilled, and a closed mindset to considering alternative courses of action that deliver the same outcome, or willingness to try and understand an issue from someone else’s perspective. These feelings are generally expressed in terms of:
• RWM’s “omnipresence” – by providing all the secretariat staff and support services, working groups and Community Partnerships are viewed as being more local implementation arm for RWM rather than being partners in the process;
• “group think” – that the wider governmental geological disposal ecosystem has established paradigms, a belief in the ‘rightness’ of their own opinions and approach, and too quickly dismissive of others’ proposals;
• perceived “controlling” behaviours – that RWM seek to be involved in every conversation and activity, creating a sense that RWM lacks trust in others, and is dictating and directing activity for fear of losing control of the process.
It is almost certainly true that some of these concerns are misplaced or arise from misunderstandings. For instance, given the early stages of the process, RWM is currently the only organisation with the remit and resources to provide the necessary administrative support – this presumably will change as Community Partnerships develop their own infrastructure and start managing their own affairs; considerable thought was given to the Working With Communities policy, much of which may be new to individual local community participants, but RWM is not in a position to renegotiate or re-open; after failures in previous siting processes, the developer (RWM) was specifically given a ‘place at the table’, and some of its actions will be shaped by governance and other duties/obligations to Parliament and the taxpayer.
There is some evidence to suggest that ‘language’ is already a barrier to communication and understanding. For instance, RWM take a legal/constitutional interpretation of the phrases “community representative” and “decision-making” — members of the Community Partnership do not ‘represent’ the community as they have no elected or legal mandate, and the Partnership is not a legal ‘decision-making’ body like a local authority.
But community players hear something else when they are told they do not represent nor can make decisions for the community. From their perspective, even if they are only an employee of a local organisation, their membership on the Community Partnership would be to help articulate (ie ‘represent’) a particular opinion within the community (why else would they be on the Partnership?); and while a Partnership has no legal authorities, it will make decisions, eg on how the community might be engaged, which expert might advise on interpreting geological data, when to call for a Test of Public Support, etc. So while RWM are trying to accurately explain the purpose and limits of the Partnership, community players hear an unintended rejection of the community dialogue and consent-based principles underpinning the Partnership.
But none of these perceptions and concerns are unique to the UK. They reflect tensions that nuclear agencies globally have in their relationships with communities, as evidenced from discussions at an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) workshop with mayors and community leaders from around the world. Acknowledging, and then addressing, such community concerns, over issues real or perceived, is core to RWM’s challenge — with the ‘how’ you do it as important as the ‘what’ you do.
Like everyone else in this unique, new and untested process, RWM is having to find its feet, working out new relationships and ways of doing business. It almost certainly needs to become more ‘self-aware’ as an organisation — sensitive to how it is perceived, and how its behaviours impact on others. There is a risk to being too defensive too quickly when challenged. As much as RWM wants, and needs, others to learn and adapt, so it will also need to learn and adapt.
The GDF siting process is not just another standard major infrastructure consultation project, as the consent-based principle means this is a wholly new approach to implementing public policy. RWM clearly recognise this, as they will shortly announce a social science research project looking at new models of citizen engagement and participation. This is a welcome step.
But none of the concerns expressed to date are surprising, or terminal. They do reinforce the requirement for all parties in the process to be understanding of the needs and concerns of others. And they will inevitably start to be addressed during 2022 in the discussions on how Community Partnerships will conduct their business, as a vehicle for dialogue between RWM, the local authority and the local community. Given the siting timescales involved, there is no immediate need for anyone to hurry or rush to any judgements.