Published on August 13, 2013

Who’s afraid of the big, bad publics?

By Clive Mitchell

Clive Mitchell is Head of Operations at Involve.


The controversy, anger and active resistance over plans to drill a test well for shale gas in Balcombe was wearily predictable. Balcombe residents had their concerns initially stoked by a public meeting which seems to have been characterised by poor corporate and government communication. The Guardian reports that for many residents the public meeting was the first they had heard of plans to drill in their area. This has now been followed by the inevitable scenes of protest once the drilling teams turned up on site. Yes, on one hand the protests demonstrate active citizenship, but they also indicate public alienation and a failure of good governance by the planning authorities.

What is it with our planning system? And why are decision makers so reliant on PR instead of open and transparent communication? Damian Carrington writes persuasively about the latter in this Guardian piece. There has to be a better way of engaging the publics (the ‘s’ is important because the public is not some homogenous mass) in issues as important to all of us as our nation’s future energy needs and local quality of life.

Behaving defensively (closely managing the ‘messages’, keeping consultation formal, etc.) when engaging members of the public on difficult and contentious issues is perhaps natural. But it’s not helpful. At the end of the day, public acceptability will make or break the decisions, so it’s in everyone’s interests to try and improve the process.

Members of the public are perfectly capable of engaging sensibly in working through the difficult issues and trade-offs that come with decisions about energy and land use. A brilliant recent research report by Karen Parkhill and others on public values and attitudes towards energy system change concluded (amongst a number of important conclusions) that “Actors involved in energy system transitions need to treat public viewpoints with integrity, valuing the contribution they make to envisioning transitions” and that “Actors involved in energy system change need to ensure that their actions are transparent and mirror rhetoric“.

Members of the public have values. They are also pragmatic and can bring ideas and solutions to problems, not just opposition. Planning authorities and industry need to see and value this. Otherwise Balcombe will not be the last name to be added to the long list of predictable conflicts in the field of land use and energy.

Image: Will Ockenden


5 Responses to “Who’s afraid of the big, bad publics?”

  1. August 19, 2013 at 3:47 pm

    So interesting to see you raise this Clive …. the unproductive practice we can see within the planning system seems so obvious that it surprises me when I see it happening again and again. And I don’t think this is just because I research around it (and have blogged previously on how treating people as a ‘NIMBY’ pretty much makes them behave like a ‘NIMBY’!)….. I have interviewed switched-on developers and policymakers who have learned the hard way that some approaches work better than others.
    However, we can’t escape that more diffuse publics – e.g. the kind we imagine when we do surveys and then report that 80% public support renewable energy – are not the same entity as the public within a local community who are dealing with a specific proposal. Often we are asking quite different questions … publics may well be “perfectly capable of engaging sensibly in working through the difficult issues and trade-offs that come with decisions about energy and land use”, but by the time a developer comes along alot of those issues and trade-offs have disappeared because they aren’t relevant to that particular stage of the planning process. It looks like England needs better regional spatial plans that facilitate a space for (a)public debate around energy use and generation and what that might look like locally, and (b)allows developers to move into an existing conversation. At *this* level, we can consult publics in an adult fashion and start to make use of dialogues about where energy is used and where it comes from, including those difficult issues and trade-offs.

  2. August 19, 2013 at 4:03 pm

    PS More blogs on local authorities and science/technology/engineering governance please – huge blind spot for, umm, everyone :o)

  3. Clive Mitchell
    Clive Mitchell
    August 20, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    Many thanks for the comments Bev. Yes, the focus and tone of the conversations will be different, depending on whether it’s abstract policy or right in my back yard – even though it’s the same publics. The sharp reality of a planning application on the ground needs much more open, transparent and responsive engagement. And, as you say, the process should start with the up-stream big plans and form something of a continuum through to specific developments.

    We will see what we can do about more local government / technology/governance blogs! Am with you on this.

  4. August 21, 2013 at 9:24 am


    Great piece. It staggers me that companies still use PR companies to try and “sell their schemes” rather than engaging in dialogue as early as possible. Evidence and experience suggest that the latter works but it seems to be a difficult message to get across.

    BTW Is it ok to include your piece in my blog?….

    • Clive Mitchell
      Clive Mitchell
      August 21, 2013 at 11:16 am

      Thanks Chris – yes, please do include in your blog.

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