In 2022, Involve was appointed by the System Operator for Northern Ireland (SONI) to engage with local communities affected by plans to upgrade the grid in Mid Antrim. The purpose of engagement was to better understand local priorities and ensure balanced and accurate information about proposed new physical infrastructure in the Mid Antrim area.
SONI is the organisation responsible for developing the network that moves electricity around from where it is made to where it is used (known as the grid) in Northern Ireland. SONI needs to build new physical infrastructure (cables, towers, and other equipment) in the Mid Antrim area.They need to do this to make it easier for renewable energy, from sources such as wind, to move from where it is created in the North and West of NI to the bigger towns and cities in the east, such as Ballymena, Antrim, and Belfast where most electricity is used.This new infrastructure is called the Mid Antrim upgrade.
Community involvement has taken place in the context of a three-part development process for the Mid Antrim Upgrade. Before engaging with the community, SONI looked in detail at the area between Ballymena, Creagh, Kells, and Rasharkin and identified the best area for this new infrastructure to go considering environmental, technical, and economic factors (Part 1). When community involvement began, they had identified the best area for the upgrade, but had not decided on the final route.
To help them to identify the best route (Part 2), they wanted to hear from communities and residents of the area to better understand local needs and preferences so that the final route reflects the best option for everyone.
How the community was involved
Involve took a two-part approach to involving the community:
1. Community forum
The Community Forum was an opportunity for community representatives and other stakeholders to come together to build their understanding of the proposed route options,reflect the views of their organisation or community, and provide information or insights that may need to be taken into account during project delivery. Membership of the Community Forum was by individual expressions of interest. The Community Forum met twice, once in November 2022 and again in January 2023. Its members were unable to meet during the second phase of involvement in June 2023, but were consulted via email.
2. Citizen Sounding Board
The Citizen Sounding Board was a group of residents in the area who were selected at random (using a method known as sortition) by posting invitations to households in the area affected by the proposed new infrastructure, inviting them to take part. From those who replied, a group was selected to reflect the diversity of the local community in terms of age, gender, national identity,ethnicity and socioeconomic background.
Their involvement addresses the gap in representation that can result from only hearing from organised civil society and interest groups. It also acknowledges that ordinary citizens have the right to have a voice in, and have something important to bring to, decisions that will have an impact on everyone.
THE CITIZEN SOUNDING BOARD ADDRESSES THE GAP IN REPRESENTATION THAT CAN RESULT FROM ONLY HEARING FROM ORGANISED CIVIL SOCIETY AND INTEREST GROUPS. IT ALSO ACKNOWLEDGES THAT ORDINARY CITIZENS HAVE THE RIGHT TO HAVE A VOICE IN, AND HAVE SOMETHING IMPORTANT TO BRING TO, DECISIONS THAT WILL HAVE AN IMPACT ON EVERYONE.
The group acted as a sounding board for SONI and the Community Forum. Members helped to identify priorities and provide feedback on the proposals informed by the broad range of perspectives and interests within the local community.
The Citizen Sounding Board met for three days between December 2022 and June 2023.
Read the full report on community involvement below