Early evidence worryingly indicates that either there has been a loss of ‘institutional memory’, or that the Working With Communities policy is being interpreted too conservatively by those who were not around at the time of the policy review debate. Either scenario presents significant risks to the potential success of the GDF siting process.
The role of local authorities was one of the most keenly discussed issues during the policy review (2013-2018) that followed the last, failed siting process and which laid the foundations for the current siting policy.
The final balance in the Working With Communities policy was described by one local authority leader at the time as the “perfect, have your cake and eat it” policy for local politicians: at no immediate point are they required to take decisions, and they can reserve their public position until it becomes clearer what their voters actually think.
Feedback from community participants involved in the early and working group stages of the current GDF siting process focuses around two key local authority issues, which were flagged during the policy review and public consultations as situations to avoid – over-reliance on partnership with a local authority, or conversely, allowing local politicians to veto community discussion.
Given that we are at a very early and still explorative stage of the siting process, there is undoubtedly plenty of scope to amend and evolve how the siting process is implemented. Thus, perhaps helpful to quickly remind ourselves of key issues and debate that informed, shaped, and underpin the original intentions of the Working With Communities policy.
Key policy review issues
The Community Partnership model emerged from debate about how you could sustain a complex and difficult public discussion over many years (and electoral cycles) before sufficient information was available, and before any decisions were required – and that when required those decisions should be made by a community on an informed basis (the consent-based principle).
Analysis of previous siting processes highlighted the shortcomings of relying upon a local political decision-making process that was driven and motivated by shorter-term considerations, and an aversion to addressing complex longer-term issues. Furthermore, although local authorities are legally the representatives of their communities, the policy review revealed widespread public cynicism about how well they perform this ‘community representation’ function.
The Working With Communities policy was therefore designed to:
a) create a flexible framework to account for the different circumstances in which communities might enter into the siting process;
b) allow ‘space’ and time for a public discussion that was not prematurely foreshortened by local electoral or minority opinion pressures;
c) ensure that all parts of a community were engaged and able to participate in, and influence, those discussions;
d) prevent any local authority, individual, or group to ‘veto’ (or continue) the process without broader community agreement.
It is a unique and novel (and even ‘experimental’) approach to addressing a long-term public policy issue through a more participative decision-making framework. Since there is no prior ‘template’ or pre-determined/well-trodden path to interpreting and implementing the policy, its success will depend on a more open-minded and expansive approach, rather than one driven by risk-aversion and remaining within a comfort zone – a progressive approach, which from initial feedback from community participants, is not yet seen as being fully embraced.
Local Authority ‘dependency’
Local authorities clearly need to be involved in the siting process. Given their responsibilities for social and economic development, and other statutory obligations, it would be folly to exclude them from the process. However, the risks in too closely relying on a local authority remain unchanged from the policy review debate, eg:
• hostage to being entangled in local authorities’ processes and electoral pressures, at a time when such entanglement is not necessary to progressing siting process community discussions;
• individual local authorities may disappear, but the community is perpetual – the ONS record a history of local government reorganisation every decade since the 1960s, and we know further change is likely, with this Government’s ‘Levelling Up’ White Paper imminently due — notwithstanding the ever-present potential for further change over the 20-30 year lifespan of a local siting process;
• perception within the community that the developer and local authority will drive this project through regardless of local sentiment – which is at the core of current community participants’ concern, and has become a very ‘live’ issue in the latter stages of the Canadian siting process because of the perceived too-close relationship between municipality and developer.
It is perhaps not unsurprising (and at the very earliest stages of the GDF siting programme possibly unavoidable) that the initial working groups and community partnerships should all be of a similar ‘local authority-led’ model. However, if this becomes the ‘standard’, the risks of repeating errors of the past remain self-evident, and, more importantly, risks closing down any alternative ‘community-led’ models envisaged within the Working With Communities policy — models that are potentially more viable, and sustainable, over the longer-term.
An ‘ideal’ scenario envisioned during the development of the Working With Communities policy, was a siting process led by a broad-based community coalition, self-motivated on ethical, environmental and economic grounds, taking the time to consider the issues and scientific evidence before coming to a final conclusion.
This was not a ‘romantic’ notion, but based on evidence that the sustainability of a siting process would be enhanced if the community felt a degree of ‘co-ownership’, rather than feeling that the exercise was being ‘imposed’ on them by their local authority.
It was recognised at the time, that such ‘community-led’ models may meet opposition from local politicians and authorities – as understandable an initial reticence as might be felt in any part of the local community. Therefore, in support of ‘community-led’ models, the Working With Communities policy rules out any ‘veto’ by local political leaders over a community-inspired desire for initial discussion.
However, there are concerns that such local political ‘vetoes’ are currently being allowed. In effect, quashing innovative, community-led approaches, and closing down democratic community-led conversations — with potentially grave consequences for the wider GDF siting programme.
Notwithstanding the obvious difficulties of supporting a community-led exercise in the face of initial local political and authority opposition, failure to support community-based coalitions will send a poor signal to similar groupings wanting to kick-start a process in other localities, and will reinforce concerns amongst community participants in ‘local authority-led’ siting areas that the community’s voice is secondary to local authority and political preferences. Either scenario does not augur well for successful siting process outcomes.
No part of the GDF siting process is without its difficulties, especially in these early stages. Addressing initial opposition, whether that is from the community or local politicians, will be par for the course. There may be initial comfort and a sense of reassurance by focusing on those areas with a willing local authority and politicians from the start, but avoiding the risks of engaging with less willing local politicians and authorities creates its own risks to the longer-term success of the broader GDF programme.
The ‘local authority-led’ and ‘community-led’ models will require different approaches. The latter may take more time to move from working group to community partnership stages, as initially reluctant local politicians will want and need to see how their community/voters react to the discussion before agreeing to participate in a Community Partnership.
But it will be many years before local politicians are required to take a position or make formal decisions. Any impacts on existing social and economic development plans will also be many years in the making, and can slowly be incorporated over time into ongoing local authority planning. Indeed, a Community Partnership could even be seen as a cross-community blue-sky think tank, exploring ideas. Should any of those ideas gain traction, presumably local authorities and politicians would then make them their own!
If it did become apparent that there was real, broad-based community support for GDF-related investments and impacts, how many politicians would continue to stand in the way of their electorate, even if they had been reticent/cautious earlier in the process? Hence the comment from a local authority leader about the “perfect, have your cake and eat it” policy.
Given the fundamental ‘experimentalism’ inherent within the Working With Communities policy, there are risks to the siting programme in it either being perceived as working too closely with a local authority, or it inadvertently shutting down innovative community-based models at a premature stage.
Advancing the siting programme on a more sustainable longer-term basis almost certainly requires stepping into uncharted, and initially uncomfortable, territory rather than taking an over-cautious, business-as-usual approach to community consultation and engagement. This is a truth relevant to potential participants from all sides of the process.