Community engagement for renewable energy transition

How local planning authorities can accelerate renewable energy deployment

Project duration: September 2021 ongoing

We know we need to massively increase renewable energy deployment (to roughly four times the level of currently installed capacity) to address the climate crisis. How can we do this whilst maintaining public support?

We also know that public support for renewable energy is at an all-time high, yet why does this support often disappear the moment a planning application is submitted?

Research suggests the following reasons:

  • Communities feel decisions are being taken remotely from them, and they are not sufficiently involved in the trade-offs between the different options available.
  • People’s emotional attachment to their place and feelings for their local landscape are not taken into account in policy formulation.
  • Communities don’t benefit enough from hosting projects within their area.
  • The UK planning system is a largely adversarial process. For most people and communities, the point at which they become involved in any meaningful sense is when a planning application is submitted and they feel under threat.

So while most people understand the need to scale up renewable energy to phase out fossil fuels, they also have legitimate expectations that they will be able to meaningfully influence how, where and what renewable energy projects will happen within their communities and landscapes.

These expectations are not being fulfilled by current community engagement approaches.

At CSE, we believe more nuanced public engagement processes are vital if we’re to roll out renewables at the scale needed to reach net zero targets. If we increase renewable energy generation solely through top down imposition, we could easily see a further backlash against renewable energy, like that which led to the halt on onshore wind development in 2015.

CSE’s proven renewable energy workshops enable local communities to develop an informed consensus to the type, location and scale of renewable energy that they might accept or support at a parish scale.

Our workshops are built around the following insights:

  • Every locality has a duty to make an appropriate contribution to renewable energy generation – there is no opt out because there is no ‘somewhere else’.
  • Given good objective, technical information, people can be trusted to make sensible, decent choices.
  • Conversations should take place with a focus on the locality as a whole and all of the options and opportunities available, without addressing specific renewable energy planning proposals which may be about to be submitted.
  • The process starts by exploring what people value about their locality and their lives within it.
  • The framing of the question is also key. Rather than ask ‘What are you going to do about cutting carbon emissions?’ instead ask ‘How can we contribute around here?’ This tends to stimulate positive responses rather than defensiveness or dismissal and embeds a sense of local agency and choice.

The essence of our approach is that we set the community the challenge (to meet more of their energy demand from local renewable sources), provide unbiased resources so people learn about the issues, sufficient time and autonomy to consider the pros and cons of different options, and support them in developing a shared understanding around what would be acceptable in their community.

When the issue of renewable energy is approached in this way, ambitious community scale energy plans can be developed. And because the workshop attendees have gone through this thought process themselves, they own the outputs and are more likely to support local plan policies based on them. Further detail on the rationale behind this approach can be found here.

CSE is leading a five-year project to scale up and disseminate this approach. The project will:

  • Support three local authorities to work with local communities to co-produce energy strategies and ambitious renewable energy policies in Local Plans.
  • Produce replicable guidance for local authorities across England, so that they may follow the same process.
  • Create peer-to-peer learning, with the opportunity for councils and community groups to shadow the process.
  • Influence the UK government through the dissemination of long-term evidence regarding the value of these approaches.

The project is funded by the MCS Charitable Foundation, with match funding from North Somerset and South Cambridgeshire councils, where we will be running the workshops.

Please get in touch if you would like to join our shadowing group to receive free training and updates on this approach. All of the resources to run these processes yourself will be made available for free on our website.

For further information contact:

Dan Stone | 0117 934 1417

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