Rights without responsibilities

Why the Government’s new policy on on-shore wind power is only half-baked

6 June 2013

CSE’s Chief Executive, Simon Roberts OBE, explains what's missing ...

Giving communities the right to have more of a say in what happens in their localities is a good thing. It can connect people with decisions about local infrastructure and services. And it has the potential to re-ignite a sense of civic involvement which has steadily eroded over the last 30 years and yet is vital to success in tackling shared challenges such as climate change.

But it is wrong simply to give communities the right to ‘have their say’, without also placing on them a responsibility to be well-informed, reflect all local views, and take a long-term perspective.

Above all, this right for communities should be accompanied by a responsibility – a civic duty – to only exercise it having established meaningful plans to make an appropriate local contribution to society’s wider, collective needs and interests – the ones which transcend the boundary of any parish or shire. Like tackling the threat of climate change and the resulting need to transform our energy system.

Rights without responsibility is a recipe for short-term, self-interested decisions that pass the buck to others; someone or somewhere else will make up for any poorly informed, parochial decisions.

Yet this is what the Government seems to be doing with on-shore wind power; giving local views the upper hand over national interests in planning decisions on onshore wind farm proposals.

This is half-baked. Not because the policy hasn’t been cooked up for long enough, but because it has always been missing that vital ingredient: responsibility.

The Government’s approach needs to go further. It is right that voices across local communities are heard more clearly and carry significant weight in the vital local decisions. Without a strong sense of community involvement and personal agency in establishing the low carbon energy system we need, many of the other necessary changes will also fail (with Green Deal to smart meters heading the queue).

But the right to be heard and be involved in decisions must be aligned with appropriate responsibilities within communities to act with a view to wider societal interests. We call this ‘low carbon localism’. It starts from the premise that every community has a duty to make a contribution – appropriate to their locality – to the collective national effort to cut carbon emissions and change the energy system.

Because all those cuts and that change have to happen ‘somewhere’ – in localities. There is no ‘somewhere else’.

But it also starts from a belief that people must be involved in – and take some responsibility for - thinking through how this duty can best be discharged in their area. And that involvement needs to be a meaningful, informed process, a step up from the dessicated processes which currently pass for consultation and engagement. We’ve been trying to establish such a process through our PlanLoCaL programme.

Sometimes when things are half-baked, it is still possible to add the missing ingredient and end up with a perfectly acceptable and nourishing result. How could the government still do that? Put low carbon issues on the ‘must do’ part of the Neighbourhood Planning agenda and only introduce these new ‘rights’ in places where the accompanying responsibility has clearly been fulfilled.

See also CSE's response to CPRE's debate on the future of onshore wind.

Photo: Mark Bridge, reproduced under creative commons

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