Community participation in planning schemes for major wind farms, biomass plants and other green energy projects should be supported by government funding, according to research at UCL (University College London).

The research, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, found weaknesses in participation at every stage in the decision-making process for planning Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs), which came into force under the 2008 Planning Act.

"The Act provides for multiple opportunities for consultation with interested parties but consultation is not defined - it can be just a tick box process,” says Professor Yvonne Rydin who led the research.

"We found some schemes where developers were fully engaged with local communities, but others where communication was limited, particularly at the crucial pre-application stage."

Common obstacles faced by local people, including small businesses and environmental groups, ranged from time and funding constraints and lack of technical expertise to difficulties communicating via websites and email and to feeling intimidated at public hearings. 

"Local people had diverse views of the NSIP processes," Yvonne Rydin explains. "Some were positive, but others thought there were imbalances between the various participants or were sceptical about agreements reached to lessen negative impacts of the project. There was also a feeling that once an infrastructure project had been designated by government as a national priority, it was a done deal and local public opinion wouldn’t count."

The input from local authorities throughout the process was also varied. "Those involved with a number of major infrastructure projects had more experience about communication and participation. On the other hand, if they were dealing with a single project and were short of resources to provide evidence like Local Impact Statements, this could have an impact on the depth of their involvement with consultation," says Yvonne Rydin. 

Although the planning agenda for major energy infrastructure is set by central government, the study urges local authorities to engage robustly with the NSIP process, right from the pre-application stage when they can help bridge the communications gap between developers and local people.

The research findings are based on a study of twelve low-carbon energy infrastructure projects in England and Wales, including two onshore and seven offshore wind farms, a tidal lagoon, an energy from waste project and a biomass plant. Data was collected from an analysis of NSIP Examining Authorities' final reports, focus groups with local people and an online survey of local people and organisations associated with the 12 projects.

The report includes some practical tips for more effective participation. Local community groups are advised to band together, perhaps in an umbrella NGO, to make a real effort to understand the system and to submit evidence in the same style and format as reports from consultants and technical experts. They should also attend meetings, formal hearings and site visits and they should be prepared to answer questions asked by the Examining Authority in charge of the examination of the proposal.

The report also has some recommendations for Government. "We make the case for supporting local interest groups through small grants to help with communications and the cost of participating.  There is a also need to help local small businesses, such as tourism, to put together a joint representation to deal with the impact of the project, in the same way that the fishing industry is supported through the Fishing Liaison with Offshore Wind and Wet Renewables process," says Yvonne Rydin.

Recommendations

For Government

  • Government needs to provide adequate funding for statutory bodies (Natural England, the Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales, etc.) to meet the special demands placed on them by the NSIPs process, and its calls for evidence-based decision making.
  • A dedicated funding stream should support the involvement of local residents and local business representatives in the NSIPs process, including at the pre-application stage. It is not appropriate to rely entirely on developers’ commitment to community engagement at the pre-application stage.
  • Protocols for involving and recognising the impacts on local businesses beyond the fishing industry should be established.
  • An accessible central government repository for the collection, aggregation and management of data from monitoring of NSIPs should be provided.

For Local Government

  • Local authorities should engage robustly with the preapplication consultations undertaken by the developer, emphasising the importance of full inclusion of local communities.
  • Local authorities should host a website setting out all preapplication representations received by the developer, and the developer’s responses to them. This should remain accessible throughout the process.
  • Local authorities should develop better intelligence on their local area, especially the local economy. They should invest adequately in Local Impact Reports, so that these properly represent the local area.
  • Local Authorities should take seriously their obligations to monitor and enforce compliance with the DCO. They should explain to their local communities exactly what they are doing, and how local people can report concerns.

For NGOs and local stakeholders

  • Those representing local interests will have greater influence if they engage fully with the process, including the preapplication process, attending hearings, joining site visits and responding to rounds of questions put by the Examining Authority.
  • Local interested parties will be more influential if they provide evidence that is commensurate in rigour and depth with that offered by the applicant and expert agencies. They should be aware of the importance of sourcing relevant expertise.
  • As well as presenting their own views and concerns as rigorously as possible, local interested parties should critique the representations of others where appropriate.
  • Local interested parties should give consideration to coordinating with each other and / or to consolidating their representations through an umbrella NGO.
  • Local interested parties should keep a careful watch on the development of Statements of Common Ground.

Further recommendations can be found in the full report.