Community engagement vital for green energy projects

Working with local communities from an early stage can play dividends when trying to get a renewable energy project through the planning process, as Jessica Topham, director at Consense, reports

With the coalition government committed to meeting EU renewable energy targets, UK farmers are in a unique position to tap into this market and generate new income streams from their land.

However, whether projects involve harnessing wind energy, hydropower, biomass or solar PV, many, particularly wind farms, can provoke a strong reaction and often polarise local communities.

In fact, recent figures released by law firm McGrigors have revealed that nearly half of all on-shore wind farms in England and Wales are being refused planning permission. This figure has been steadily rising since 2005 when around 29% of onshore wind farms were refused. By 2009 it was 33%, and last year it was 48%.

Against such a backdrop, many farmers wishing to explore these options may well be reluctant to go down this route. Understandably concerned about getting on the wrong side of their communities, even the lure of additional income, may not be enough to tempt farmers into green energy schemes. Added to this, there is the planning system which is already a major stumbling block for renewable energy developments and is set to get a whole lot more rigorous under the government’s new Localism Bill.

Many developers fear that proposals in the bill, which include making it a legal duty to consult with communities before submitting a planning application, could see attitudes towards schemes, particularly wind farms, hardening, especially at a local level where it’s felt they often fail to get a balanced hearing.

Worthwhile benefits

Despite these concerns, there are real benefits to full and meaningful consultation with local communities and getting them involved in developments from a very early stage. Consultation should not be a basic, tick-the-box PR exercise. It should be genuine and provide the opportunity to “get involved” to all. To do this successfully, a range of channels and activities must be adopted to ensure the process is inclusive and accessible and does not discriminate.

Our experience has shown that making the effort to engage people in innovative ways, reaching those who would not normally take part, can reap real rewards with respect to the vocal minority versus the silent majority which pervades so much of planning.

We have identified that by harnessing the web, it is possible to consult with more people than traditional methods, crucially reaching people who would not normally take part. The point is to offer different, but complimentary and easy ways of engaging people. This method also records support for developers’ schemes. Currently 60% of our online consultations are running with 50% or more of participants registering their support for our clients’ proposals.

Good community consultation is crucial to producing a solid a planning application, as opposed to a hostile application with little or no evidence of local engagement. Consultation that has provided for an open discussion and issue resolution with people likely to be affected by the scheme is an essential element.

However, whether you choose to incorporate online methods into your community consultation strategy or not, it must be remembered, there is no substitute for face-to-face engagement and consultation websites complement this activity.

Steps to effective engagement

For any landowners, developers or farmers considering a renewable energy development here is some advice on what constitutes effective community engagement.

1. Know your audience

First, know who you want to talk to and why. Begin by identifying your target consultees – who is likely to be impacted by or interested in your proposal? Think about who might be concerned about the project and who might support it and draw up a list, including:

• Closest neighbours to the proposed site

• Key-decision makers and influencers in local government

• Third party/interest groups and other interested individuals in the community

2. Develop a strategy

Once you have decided who you want to engage with, you can plan your strategy, considering appropriate mechanisms and timings according to your consultees. Think about adopting methods which are accessible, convenient and that enable broad participation, and plan them to take place at appropriate times, taking working hours, weekends and school holidays into account. Crucially, you need to ensure you give people enough time to comment and for you to then respond to comment before you submit your application.

3. Clear presentation

Consider how to present your proposal. Choose methods that will suit your target participants in terms of informing and engaging them, these may include:

• Organising a public exhibition to display your plans, answer questions and meet the local community. Gather feedback at the exhibition and keep a record of who attends

• Developing a community consultation website, split into jargon-free sections and inviting comment online. This helps reach a wider audience as well as capturing those people who may not have a strong view, or may not have time to come and meet you in person at an exhibition. It is also a good way to reach young people and supporters of renewable energy.

• Holding meetings with the closest neighbours to the site

• Presenting to the parish council

• Distributing letters and newsletters to the neighbours of the site

• Sending letters to and meeting with councillors and other key stakeholders

4. Act on feedback

Respond promptly to any questions or comments you receive. You may be asked the same queries several times, so consider preparing a “questions and answers” document before you start consulting to save you time responding.

5. Document everything

Keep a record of every piece of communication you receive about your proposal and how you have responded. It is vital to have a full audit trail of the consultation process so that you can provide the local planning authority with a Statement of Community Consultation demonstrating how you have consulted, why you have consulted in the way you have, what comments you have received, and how you have responded to the comments. Even better, demonstrate that you have been able to feed the comments you have received into your final planning application.

6. Keep people informed

Keep your consultees updated throughout the consultation period and when the consultation period is over, inform participants of the next steps. Make sure those you have engaged with are aware of the shape of the final application and how they can comment to the local planning authority. At this point, you can also ask those who have been supportive of your application so far to formally express their support to the planning officer.

Crucially, whoever you are working with to plan your project and manage community consultation, every project should be considered on its own merits and what constitutes good engagement for one application may not be appropriate for another. Think about who you should be consulting with, how you can best reach them and really involve them in your plans, and make sure you keep them engaged at every stage.

As we enter this new era of “bottom-up” planning where the community actively shapes local plans, if you make the effort to engage people in innovative ways, work with the community and let them share the benefits, then you might be surprised by the positive reaction you receive.