Until just a few years ago, it would have been strange to hear environmentalists calling for new infrastructure. Put those two nouns together, and they’d have brought to mind images of unwashed protestors in trees. But climate change has overturned some tables in that respect.
Many environmentalists now agree that the transition to a low carbon economy requires concrete change on the ground: wind turbines, solar farms and extensions to the electricity grid. Railways, rather than runways.
The scale of change required to build a green economy has been compared to the Industrial Revolution. A key difference today – aside from the lack of smog and workhouses – is that, during the Industrial Revolution, infrastructure developers didn’t have to bother with environmental impact statements and pre-application consultations to make their case to the government. New projects were railroaded through.
A new approach is needed
But this isn’t the 19th century. It’s not even the 20th century, where the political franchise was enough of a novelty for elected representatives to be able to claim they had a public mandate to make these decisions. Politicians can no longer hope to convince people of that. We’re in the 21st century, and we’re well overdue for a new approach to decision making. This doesn’t have to mean taking decisions out of politicians’ hands, but it does mean building real public engagement into the decision making process. And any engagement expert will tell you we have the tools and technologies to do that.
At Green Alliance, we’re environmentalists. We want those wind turbines. But we’re also pluralists and democrats. And when we started looking at infrastructure decisions in this light, we began to see real problems with the way the public is involved at present. It is neither pluralist, nor particularly democratic.
More haste, less speed
We agree with the many infrastructure experts that advocate adopting a long term approach to infrastructure planning. But a perceived urgent need for new infrastructure is not an excuse to try to compress or limit debate. It’s a case of more haste, less speed.
Public engagement is not about eliminating controversy; that’s impossible. But it can build understanding amongst all parties: government and business, as well as the public. And it can create more opportunities for identifying ways to compromise.
Engagement needs to happen, not only at the stage when developers are designing specific projects, but when the national and local governments are making plans and strategies. The results can then provide greater clarity for developers, who will find it easier to design more appropriate projects. This should reduce the likelihood of costly delays late in the process, such as appeals, judicial reviews or civil disobedience.
We set out three proposals in our new report Opening up infrastructure planning, and we’ve captured how they fit together in the diagram below:
Our first recommendation is a more strategic approach to infrastructure planning at national level. Such an approach would be long term, using an evidence based assessment of needs, considering demand side along with supply side options, and taking into account carbon budgets. A civil society council should advise on this strategy, including a diverse set of interests such as conservation organisations and consumer groups. Members would be able to provide insight into which outcomes are most valued by the people they represent or work with.
Second, we recommend spatial planning at city region or county region level, like Greater Manchester. This would be the ideal scale for infrastructure planning, as it fills the gap between abstract national policies and finer grained local planning. It should be informed by local infrastructure dialogues, with discussions grounded in place so they’re tangible. Dialogues would cover the outcomes made possible by different types of infrastructure, and the best places to locate it.
Giving citizens a voice
The first two recommendations demand an increase in public engagement. To provide that capacity, our third proposal is the creation of an impartial facilitator, which we’ve called Citizen Voice. This would be a source of engagement expertise, available to local authorities to support infrastructure dialogues. It would ensure the involvement of a cross section of society, not just interest groups. And it would also facilitate the civil society council at national level, and promote the sharing of lessons learned at different levels.
These proposals are not a delaying tactic. We would favour an evolutionary approach. For example, the first national strategy could be non-statutory, and then, once the local infrastructure dialogues have a chance to get going, their outputs could feed into the next iteration of the national strategy, which could eventually become statutory. The formation of city and county regions is still in its early stages; so these changes won’t happen overnight. Planning and construction would be able to continue while the improved engagement structures take root.
A sceptical public is good for democracy
It’s important that engagement is not used as a propaganda tool. It is misguided to believe that simply informing or attempting to ‘educate’ the public will necessarily lead them to agree with you. That strategy will backfire, increasing mistrust of decision makers. We’ve seen this with the government’s clumsy approach to fracking. There has to be meaningful dialogue, and that involves all sides being prepared to see new perspectives and, if necessary, shift position.
There’s often talk about how to build the public’s trust in industry and government. But perhaps a wary, sceptical public is a good thing for democracy, and the more pressing need is to build the government’s trust in the public’s capacity to understand the country’s problems and participate in designing the solutions.