An important, and a novel idea for the nuclear sector, on community engagement can be found deep within a weighty tome on risk-assessed decision-making produced by the US independent watchdog, the Government Accountability Office (GAO). It speaks directly to what is required for the UK GDF siting process.
The GAO performs a similar function as the UK’s National Audit Office (NAO). It’s recently published Environmental Liabilities report is critical of the US’ Department of Energy (DoE) for still failing to introduce risk-informed decision-making into its environmental cleanup plans. With a US$600 billion liability, which is ever-rising, the GAO believes the DoE is not doing enough to account for human health and environmental risks within a finite budget.
More importantly from our perspective, is a fascinating section on community engagement and involvement in the decision-making process. This is not just a US issue, but is relevant to every nuclear agency across the world. And is particularly relevant in the UK, in relation to the formation of Community Partnerships and how decisions are taken in evaluating and determining a potential GDF site.
The GAO make clear that there will always be differing opinions within local communities, and between different stakeholder groups. Currently, nuclear agencies make a decision and then try to get support for that decision. This is fraught with difficulties, polarises and generally antagonises everyone, and can lead to lengthy (and costly) legal and appeals processes.
The GAO’s ‘radical’ idea is to engage communities and stakeholders in co-designing a decision-making framework. This recognises that not everyone is going to like the final decision, but if the process for arriving at that decision has been discussed and agreed in advance by all the key parties, there will be more legitimacy in the outcome. The GAO also notes that decisions often require a high-degree of specialised knowledge, and can’t easily be left to those with limited technical understanding. And that is the reason why a decision-making framework that is widely accepted across the stakeholder spectrum is required.
Key points the GAO makes include:
With complex issues, generating conflicting opinions and emotions, it is not always possible to seek consensus for every decision. We can only resolve this problem through creating a decision-making process which commands widespread legitimacy.
In the UK GDF siting process context, this suggests that RWM should not develop a community-based decision-making framework on their own, and then try to get everyone to agree to it. They should start discussions with the community sector on jointly developing a decision-making framework that commands a high degree of ‘legitimacy’, so that decisions which are eventually made will stand public and critical scrutiny.
This is how democracy works. We set up rules within which we delegate decision-making. In the UK there is a widespread view that our democratic processes at every level are failing us and need renewal. As GDFWatch has previously argued, the GDF consent-based site selection process could not only deliver a repository, but also help reform our political and social decision-making processes. The GAO model offers RWM and the UK a credible way forward to achieving this.
Stakeholder speculation about the future direction of RWM was inevitable after the announcement of current MD Bruce McKirdy’s retirement.
What’s striking, as you listen to influencers across the stakeholder spectrum, is the degree of unanimity of opinion outside RWM on how the organisation might progress. Regardless of whether you speak to someone in the nuclear industry, local government, public agencies, trades unions or academia, there are common perspectives on the situation.
RWM has been undergoing an internal transformation, as well as investing in new skills and resources. Changes are not always visible, but it is an increasingly different organisation to when it was founded 5 years ago. Bruce McKirdy’s departure focuses attention on the skillset and experience his successor will need, in the next phase of development, to effectively marshall those changes and best deploy the new skills and resources in order to move the siting process forward.
Across the stakeholder map there appears to be a common view that prior nuclear experience is not necessary. The emphasis of opinion on the required skillset is towards finding someone experienced in “people” and “politics”. Whether that’s someone with previous public agency, infrastructure, local government or other leadership experience seems less important to stakeholders than having a record of understanding how to work with local government and communities, of building relationships, and of managing Whitehall and Westminster.
As the GDF project progresses to actual site investigations and beyond, everyone recognises that different resource priorities, skills and leadership will be required at different points of the journey. But at this stage in the GDF programme’s lifecycle it appears commonly accepted that it is primarily a social and political initiative, to build trust and open a discussion.
Whoever is appointed will clearly also need to demonstrate the capability to manage complex technical and regulatory issues, maintain RWM’s excellent technical reputation, ensure appropriate governance, account for the expenditure of taxpayers funds, and successfully argue the case for further public investment. If there is a stakeholder worry, it is that in a risk-averse nuclear sector culture, the chosen candidate will be a “safe pair of hands” administratively, but lack the dynamism to drive the siting process forward in conjunction with communities and local government.
There is no underestimation amongst stakeholders of the difficulty of this recruitment challenge, to find someone to make progress with one of the most challenging public policy projects imaginable. However, there is little that is new in these stakeholder perceptions of how RWM should evolve.
In the past five years, RWM has conducted two major, in-depth surveys of stakeholder opinion. The results of these surveys have yet to be published, but GDFWatch understands that both surveys reveal a universal high regard for RWM’s technical competence, acknowledgment that RWM was making changes in the right direction, but a residual concern that the organisation was not backing up its words with sufficient deeds in terms of being an effective community engager.
We may know by Christmas who is to lead RWM into the next stage of its development. Whoever that is will have one of the most challenging jobs in Britain. Their success will be defined not just by their organisational & management skills but on their ability to effect real change in the outside world — a world in which they need to secure other people’s ‘consent’.
RWM are experts in packaging nuclear waste, but have no experience in creating local democratic institutions. As RWM explore how to engage constructively with communities, there is a wealth of expertise, and a huge amount already going on, in the civil society sector.
In a consent-based local democratic decision-making process which requires the active participation of the community, there seems to be no reason for RWM not to engage in a more collaborative way with the civil society sector. The sector’s expertise and activities can help flesh out the barebone principles of the ‘Working With Communities’ policy.
What that collaboration looks like remains to be discussed, but the kinds of areas where civil society organisations can play an important role can be easily seen in a high-level overview of announcements and activities from just the past 4-6 weeks. The following list is far from comprehensive. It is simply provided to stimulate ideas, raise mutual awareness, and encourage further discussion.
This is but a snapshot. GDFWatch has previously profiled a wide range of organisations and their work, and how the GDF siting process would not only benefit from these organisation’s input, but that the siting process might also actually help deliver these organisation’s wider ambitions, eg:
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.
Entering into the geological disposal process seems like a voyage into the unknown. The complexity and length of the process itself can be a barrier to entry for most communities. However, the recent Environmental Court Hearings in Sweden, and testimony from people involved in the Swedish process provide helpful guidance for UK communities contemplating the journey.
The Swedish Court Hearings are the culmination of a journey which has taken more than thirty years. The Environmental Court didn’t even exist when the municipality of Östhammar first put itself forward for consideration to host Sweden’s geological disposal facility (GDF). And much else has changed over the period: from the people who now live in Östhammar; to the state of scientific knowledge; to the public’s expectation of, and the laws governing, protection of the environment.
So how do the Environmental Court Hearings and the experience of those involved in the Swedish GDF process help UK communities begin to understand the journey ahead of them?
Firstly, the Court Hearings provide a clear ‘destination point’. The voyage is not into the unknown. After three decades of geological analysis, scientific data gathering, developing technical plans, environmental impact assessments, and dealing with community concerns and aspirations, all of the information is being independently reviewed before Sweden can move on to the next stage of the process – securing local community consent.
The Swedish GDF legal process is of course different to the UK, but the underlying principles are the same. At some point in the future, all of the information will have to be reviewed before a UK community is asked to make an informed decision on whether it wants to proceed. And a community can walk away, without any obligation, at any stage before this point.
Secondly, the experience of those who’ve long participated in the Swedish GDF process offers insight and advice on the journey for those in Britain following their path. It is the testimony of ordinary people tackling an extraordinary issue. Residents, local politicians, environmentalists, and the industry offer their thoughts below. Common themes appear: the need to build trust; an ever-changing world; the importance of openness and honesty; satisfactorily answering every technical and community question before moving to the next stage.
First elected to the local council twenty years ago, Jacob Spangenberg has been Mayor of Östhammar since 2006. Over that time he estimates half the population has changed through death, birth and migration, and notes that very few elected councillors remain from when Östhammar first entered into the GDF process.
“Retaining awareness in the community has not been easy”, he says. “There are long periods, when research and analysis is taking place, when there is little to talk about. Three-year gaps between updates on the project’s progress were the norm.”
But he praises the work of the Regulators and SKB (the Swedish GDF developer) in earning the community’s trust and helping to sustain the community’s engagement with the process, saying: “The Regulators provided neutral advice and information, and took time to regularly speak with community representatives. SKB learned lessons about listening to community concerns, and actively engaged with environmentalists and other opponents, treating their worries with respect.”
Honesty and openness were fundamental to sustaining community support. Spangenberg says everyone knew where everyone stood, and that even if you disagreed there was never any feeling of hidden agendas. He sums up his advice to others: “ask every question because nothing can happen until every question you have asked has been answered to your satisfaction.”
The GDF process in Östhammar has spanned Birgitta Söderberg’s teaching career. When it started she was a young teacher who held strong anti-nuclear opinions. But as she progressed to being Headteacher, and now advising the council on future education services, she says the honesty of the discussions now mean she believes the facility can be built safely and contribute to Östhammar’s community growth and development.
“Chernobyl was a defining moment. We were very affected, even having to ban outside picnics that summer. But it prompted a debate in schools which started to change opinions. If we have waste, we need to keep it safe. Though we were clear from the start, this should only be Sweden’s waste, not anybody else’s.”
Critical to building her trust and providing reassurance has been the honesty of all involved, even shaping how she votes at election time: “People increasingly vote for personality over political party. How someone managed questions about the GDF issue helped determine whether I trusted and respected them.”
Looking ahead to the future Söderberg believes the GDF will play a significant role in helping support expansion of educational provision in Östhammar: “More young people are staying in Östhammar because they can get the qualifications they need, and increasingly there is skilled work available locally. Better educational services will also make it easier to attract inward investment and skilled workers from outside.”
Johan Swahn still has major reservations about the safety of the proposed GDF, but recognises that the process for deciding whether to proceed has been fair, with everyone afforded the opportunity to express their concerns.
Swahn leads MKG, an NGO focused solely on radioactive waste, which is publicly-funded to ensure there is an independent community voice in the GDF process. MKG still has major concerns about the long-term safety of copper canisters and questions their reliability to isolate waste for over 100,000 years. The organisation has successfully shaped the debate and influenced how the process has evolved, with Swahn mentioning community concerns about nature: “SKB were initially focused purely on geology and nuclear waste safety, with no regard to habitat and species protection. This was an issue of great local importance, and we ensured it became integral to the wider GDF process.”
During the decades since the process in Östhammar started, Swahn points out that national environmental protection attitudes, expectations and legislation changed significantly. He was initially concerned that the Environmental Court might be shackled by other regulators, and be a mere rubber stamp for the GDF. However, experience has proved otherwise: “The Court has not only proved its technical competence, but has challenged the regulators on their approach. The Hearings were extended, and the Court went out of its way to ensure every voice that wanted to speak was heard.”
In offering advice to other communities, Swahn also stresses that the process is not just about geology and safe storage of nuclear waste, but that broader community concerns need to be addressed: “The impact of construction vehicles on local roads, noise pollution, the transport of nuclear waste, as well as protecting the local wildlife and environment are all factors that need to be properly considered. It is important that ordinary day-to-day impacts on the lives of local people are taken into account as well as the long-term safety of the stored waste.”
The Industry Rep
The long, slow GDF process has also had profound impacts on the developer. Apart from the natural turnover of staff any organisation would have over 30 years, Erik Setzman of SKB says planned change management has been critical to ensuring the company was responsive to the needs of local communities:
“At its core this is an engineering and nuclear waste management project, but that doesn’t mean we’ve always been led by engineers and nuclear experts. Developing relationships with communities has meant that over time we’ve had to prioritise resources and recruit senior managers with other skillsets.”
Setzman says SKB learned from early mistakes: “It is important to give communities access to experts. But not every expert should be exposed to a community. It takes particular skill not to come over as arrogant. Building trust requires listening, and then responding sympathetically to community concerns. Even if the issue seemed tangential to the core project, if it concerned the local community, the issue had to be dealt with.”
The project also survived the decades, according to Setzman, because there was a stable long-term national political commitment and financial platform to support community engagement and the necessary detailed technical analysis of the proposed site. He notes that at the recent Court Hearings, no new issues or questions were raised: “It is not surprising that no new issues arose. We’ve had over thirty years of open dialogue and analysis. Everything that needed to be asked had been answered. But it was only at this point that you could start seeking the necessary permissions to proceed to construction.”
Another Resident: The Urban Planner
Torsten Blomé has only recently moved his young family to Östhammar. He knew about the GDF, and it was one of the factors that made the move exciting. Although he has not personally participated in a process which started before he was born, his new job depends on him understanding how Östhammar has changed over the past decades as he helps plan for its future.
Historically Östhammar was an isolated rural community, with educational, employment and wealth indicators below the Swedish average. That has changed. The Forsmark nuclear plant and other factors have contributed, but even the possibility of hosting the GDF has also given the community leverage to secure important infrastructure investment, as Blomé notes:
“The new Route288 has improved road connectivity with Stockholm, opening up new economic opportunities. Not only does it support the growth in tourism – about half the houses in Östhammar are now summer homes owned by people from Stockholm and elsewhere – but we are also diversifying the local economy and attracting interest from overseas investors.”
Such growth has increased land and property values, but with an expanding and increasingly skilled and better-paid community (unemployment is now half the Swedish national average) Blomé is confident about the future: “Increasing revenues will allow us to invest in a range of public services, particularly in education, so that we can create a community which attracts, retains and sustains people and high-skilled, better paid jobs.”
UK communities contemplating a GDF journey can turn to friendly and informed independent sources for advice on the voyage ahead. These ‘experts’ need not be scientists or consultants, they could just be ordinary people like yourselves.
As the nuclear industry wrestles with how it can communicate better with the wider public, a recent workshop in Vienna may one day be looked back upon as a seminal moment of change.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) invited mayors and municipal leaders from around the world to explain how the nuclear sector and its activities are viewed from a community perspective, and what might be done by governments and the nuclear sector to better address public concerns, for example when seeking a site for a geological repository – concerns that if not addressed can block a repository programme.
The issues raised at the Vienna workshop point to the need for further continued change in the way in which the nuclear sector engages with the wider public. Examples of some innovative and productive industry-community collaborations were presented at the workshop. Despite the progress of recent years, mayors still felt more could be done to more openly engage with communities – well-intentioned nuclear experts still too often try and resolve a problem just amongst themselves. Such an approach is akin to being lost with no roadmap, but not wanting to ask local people for directions.
There is no satnav for managing public sentiment. Local people are the best guides. Ask us, and we can help — that was the unified underlying key message from mayors and municipalities from around the world at the Vienna workshop. Municipalities are the first tier of democratic community representation, and have planning and other legal authorities which can thwart or assist a nuclear project. As such, they represent the most obvious initial partner for the nuclear sector to learn how to change interactions with the public.
Communication is not the same as Dialogue
“Please talk with us, not at us” was a core plea from mayors. Mayors with many years of experience engaging with the nuclear sector feel that the industry still sees the provision of technical and safety information as communication and engagement. Providing such information is a necessary but is not a sufficient condition for successful community engagement.
The industry enthusiastically imparts technical and safety information to communities, but most municipalities still feel that it rarely actually listens to the community and its concerns – most of which are not technical or scientific. Communication is often perceived by mayors as a ‘one-way’ discussion, and not a two-way dialogue.
Unsurprisingly, government, politicians and the nuclear sector are at the bottom end of the ‘trust hierarchy’ in every country. This is not just an emotional response. There is basis in fact for this trust deficit. There are no shortage of examples from around the world of historic secrecy, cover ups and past bad behaviours by the nuclear and governmental sectors which justifiably drive public distrust.
Building trust is based on deeds, not words. It is also a two-way process. The nuclear sector needs to learn to trust municipalities, and to support the growth of a community’s own ability to be a responsible and equal partner in the development of any nuclear project or programme.
Empowerment & Independence
Engaging with the nuclear sector can be overwhelming for municipalities. The balance of knowledge, authority and power is weighted against local communities. This sense of inequity is not the best foundation to build a constructive relationship.
Municipalities need the capacity and capability to defend and promote their community’s interests, able to interrogate technical data, and feel confident that they are engaging with the nuclear sector on a more equitable basis.
Failure to support the community’s own independent capability to engage could potentially cost a nuclear project more money and take more time – many municipalities have legal powers that can be used to block or slow down projects. Investing in a community, so that it can acquire skills and expertise that make it feel it can engage on a fair basis, may be the most cost-effective and rational approach.
The recent workshop is thought to be the largest event to which the IAEA has invited mayors and municipalities into its Vienna hub, seeking their insight into some of the nuclear industry’s most difficult issues. It’s rarity generated some local media and some social media coverage.
A bit like Starfleet Academy from Star Trek, the IAEA’s HQ is a place where people from all cultures and countries come together to ensure the greatest wisdom is brought to bear in resolving nuclear technology issues. It is an admirable example of how humankind can co-operate as one.
We hope the IAEA continues to proactively engage with municipal audiences, as they represent voices which are too often unheard, but can provide much wisdom in helping to resolve nuclear’s non-technological issues. As one mayor said in Vienna, “if you want to know what people want, just go and ask them” – time perhaps for the nuclear sector to follow municipalities’ sage advice.
A new opinion poll revealing the depth of public despair at how our current democracy operates is published on the same day as GDFWatch argues in a leading community sector magazine that the GDF siting process could also be a major social infrastructure change programme to help address the local democracy deficit.
Communities in Control: a local democracy laboratory
A Government policy announced without fanfare just before Christmas potentially has implications for everyone working to enhance local democracy and empower local decision-making, writes Roy Payne, executive director of GDFWatch.
The new policy, called Working With Communities, provides a framework — and more critically, the funding – to help communities exert more influence over, and be more involved in, long-term social, environmental and economic planning in their area.
Although created to support delivery of a major nationally-significant energy infrastructure programme, the new policy is effectively a huge social infrastructure change project.
It establishes a new and unique Community Partnership framework designed to proactively and pragmatic solutions to some fundamental issues of community representation and engagement. For example, how do we best:
The Government has also made significant commitments to fund a wide range of activities, including:
The policy framework and funding might be in place, but the project currently lacks any flesh for these barebone principles. That’s where the localism, local wealth creation, local democracy and community development sectors might now have a role to play.
Cynics will observe this all seems too good to be true. To be sure, there are inevitable caveats. But what makes this policy different from anything that has gone before, and why it might pique the sector’s interest, is that the Government requires a community’s ‘consent’ throughout this process.
Let that sink in for a moment. The Government requires your consent. You can walk away, without obligation, at any time. That changes the whole negotiating and power-balance dynamic. It provides the community sector with new and unique leverage to secure an equitable and meaningful partnership with central and local governments.
So, what are the caveats and constraints? First of all, over the 10-30 year lifecycle of the project, it is likely that no more than 10-12 areas will be involved. Any area in the country could be involved, but only a handful are likely to be actually involved. This offers the opportunity to create ‘mega pilot projects’ in which new ideas and techniques around community participation and empowerment can be trialled and evaluated. The lessons learned applied to other areas of public policy. The evidence built to show central government that local people can be trusted with decision-making responsibilities.
But the biggest hurdle is the subject matter. Nuclear waste. The international scientific consensus, on a par with that behind climate change, is that every country needs to build a specialised facility deep underground. The international political consensus is that any site must have the approval of the local community. These are huge projects. The UK’s facility is likely to cost around £20 billion, with an operating life in excess of 150 years. Wherever it is sited it will have profound long-term implications for the surrounding communities and economy.
Finland, France, Sweden, Switzerland and Canada are all well ahead of us in securing community consent to build such a facility. The UK has learned from their experiences. The requirement to gain a community’s consent is the driving force behind the Working With Communities policy. It is a radical and new approach in the UK to how communities can shape and determine infrastructure projects. But the principles of ‘consent’, and experience learned from direct community involvement, could be applied across a wide range of public policy challenges.
We live in the most centralised ‘democracy’ in Europe. Despite paying lip-service to devolved decision-making, Westminster does not yield power easily. The Government have been required to introduce the ‘community consent’ principle because it is international best practice. The consent principle offers a foot in the door to wider local democracy reform, if we can show Government hard evidence that people can actually be trusted to evaluate complex issues and make pragmatic decisions.
Rebalancing power and bringing decision-making closer to those affected is one of the key challenges we face as we look to a society beyond Brexit. Nuclear waste may not be the issue you would choose to engage with. But if we are to develop new and more democratic ways to govern our affairs in the 21st Century, perhaps resolving one of our ‘dirtiest’ intergenerational problems is the best place to start.
A community’s frustration at not being allowed to even consider hosting a geological repository (a GDF) is amply demonstrated in this interview on Nevada Public Radio.
Dan Schinhofen is vice chairman of the Nye County Commission. It is his community which would host the US’ geological disposal facility at the proposed Yucca Mountain site. He and his fellow residents are angry that their community’s concerns, aspirations and interests are being ignored by a distant urban-based political and commercial elite.
During the interview he makes the following key points:
The written article accompanying the audio interview can be read here.
Bizarrely, an obscure government consultation may hold the key to advancing true Localism. Odd as it may sound, but nuclear waste management policy could be a vehicle for turning recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Localism into reality, by supporting the creation of a radical new democratic model that empowers communities to shape their own future.
Localism & WWC: the parallels
Parallels between the Localism Commission’s Report and the ‘Working With Communities’ (WWC) consultation document are not immediately obvious. That’s not surprising: they may have been published in the same week, but the two documents come from very different worlds. However, take a closer look, and if you try to “translate” the WWC text into the language of localism, it becomes clearer that while the documents started in different places, they’ve arrived at very similar destinations.
Locality Chief Executive Tony Armstrong recently said,”power starts with people. It lies in our communities. The task of the political system and our local leaders is to harness this power through ongoing relationships, engagement and co-creation.” Vidhya Alakeson, Chief Executive of Power to Change added, “localism should enable local solutions through partnership and collaboration around place.” These sentiments, though articulated differently in the WWC document, are central to its proposals.
The Community’s Consent: a radical solution
They are central because government needs a community’s ‘consent’ in order to construct the waste repository. It cannot simply just impose a solution, it needs to negotiate. Previous attempts to find a consenting community have foundered on the flaws of local authority and short-term decision-making. So government has been fundamentally reassessing what it needs to do to gain a community’s ‘consent’. They’ve reached a radical conclusion: you need to work collaboratively in equal partnership with the community, in a process that works alongside of, but is independent from, local authority governance.
The WWC proposals may have accidentally stumbled into a reimagining of localism, but they certainly give substance to what Lord Bob Kerslake calls “the four domains of localism”: institutions, powers, relationships, and community capacity.
Institutionally, the WWC proposes that the key decision-making body would be a ‘Community Partnership’. Membership, roles, responsibilities, powers, and dispute resolution would be set out in a ‘Community Agreement’. Negotiations for this Agreement would necessarily involve discussing a rebalanced relationship between local authorities and the affected community. The Agreement would also set out how the wider community engaged and participated in the decision-making process.
More importantly, the WWC proposals recognise the critical requirement to build community capacity. Community participation and engagement costs would be borne by government, with the community able to fashion how their capacity needs were met. And there would be “significant” additional short and long-term funding to help the community invest in and realise it’s ambitions.
A localism laboratory?
The reasons why the waste repository may never be built in a particular community are legion. It might be decades before a final decision could even be made. But during those years, the WWC proposals, if implemented, could be used as a ‘localism laboratory’, testing ideas and learning lessons that could be applied more widely, to create case studies that showcase the effectiveness of community-led local democracy.
Much depends now, given other pressures, on whether the community sector has the capacity to assess this unexpected opportunity. From a localism perspective, the WWC proposals are ‘raw’ and do need informed shaping while they’re still out for consultation. Supporting the interpretation and implementation of the proposals will also be welcome, especially by those communities already with an interest in entering the process. Because those communities which do become involved will need the counsel and support of the wider sector, to help protect and promote their interests as the terms of this new and unique community partnership model are bartered and rolled-out. The subsequent experience of operating the process would undoubtedly help inform and advance the wider localism agenda in very practical ways.
Better ideas: a localism legacy?
The Localism Commission concluded that “we need radical action to strengthen our local institutions; devolve tangible power resources and control to communities; ensure equality in community participation; and deliver change in local government behaviour and practice to enable local initiatives to thrive.” Reading through the WWC proposals with a localism lens, you can begin to see the possibility of achieving those objectives.
The Commission observed that until the Brexit furore settles down, there is little expectation of the localism agenda being advanced. In the absence of any immediate alternatives, the WWC proposals may merit a look. If you want to find out more about the WWC proposals, open public workshops are being held around the country in February and March. These may be a helpful starting point for considering how the WWC proposals can be developed. Even if we don’t ultimately solve our nuclear waste problem, on the journey there we might still create a localism legacy.
As BEIS and RWM develop a consent-based community partnership framework within the context of radioactive waste management policy, there is a danger of a wheel being reinvented. There are already multiple initiatives, funded and led by other Whitehall Departments, on enhancing local democracy and increasing community involvement in planning local, sustainable well-being and wealth creation.
We have previously looked at how the Working With Communities policy dovetails with the work of a wide range of local government and civil society organisations, eg:
More recently the New Local Government Network (NLGN) supported by Local Trust published a report based on research about the experiences of residents, volunteers, councillors and officers in Big Local areas. The report provides new insight into how the relationship between the citizen and the state can be recalibrated in practice — shifting away from a traditional paternalistic role with the council as provider and community as recipient, to one which involves communities themselves playing a more active role. Such analysis is at the heart of the GDF siting process and Working With Communities policy.
The research summarises five core principles in establishing effective partnerships with communities:
These principles are at the very heart of the GDF Working With Communities policy. As RWM interprets and implements policy and turns it into a practical and workable framework, it needs to engage with and embrace the skills, knowledge and ambitions of those involved in advancing local democracy, local wealth creation, and local well-being.
The problem for the community sector, is that many of these initiatives stall through lack of funding. The Government have committed to funding the GDF community partnership programme. This means the GDF programme could become a local democracy laboratory, funding activities from which learning could be applied to other social and policy contexts.
Finding a GDF site depends on suitable geology and a willing community. There is a risk that by not fully embracing what is already happening on the ground in communities, with a siting process led by technical and procedural considerations rather than community needs and aspirations, that a golden opportunity is missed not only to resolve a major environmental problem (radioactive waste) but also to create a wider socioeconomic and democratic legacy.