The “Working With Communities” consultation – we have serious concerns

As Cumbria Trust reported previously a consultation which aims to define how communities will work with the siting process for geological disposal was launched in January.  We have serious concerns about this consultation.  It appears that areas which volunteer are potentially trapped within the process for up to 20 years.  For all the talk of volunteers having a continuous rights of withdrawal, the document paints a much darker picture of coercion and a supposed partnership where the real power rests with one party.  We have highlighted four examples of paragraphs which are of particular concern below:

5.8 The method and timing of both the right of withdrawal and the test of public support will be determined by the Community Partnership. As part of the Community Agreement, the Community Partnership will need to determine the way in which it will agree both the method and the timing of both processes. The relevant principal local authorities, as members of the Community Partnership, will be integral to this process and a test of public support cannot be designed or enacted without their support 

It seems that even though a Community Partnership may include parish councillors and other community representatives, once the process has started, they will be powerless to withdraw if the local authority decides it wishes to continue. There could be a partnership of around 12 people, where the 2 or 3 representatives of the local authority can overrule the other 9 or 10 members and force the partnership to continue against their will.  This sounds less like a partnership and more like a hostage situation.

4.87 The test would only be taken after extensive community engagement and consultation, when the community has had an opportunity to ask questions, raise their concerns and learn about the safety of a geological disposal facility. To ensure flexibility, to reflect the different needs of communities, and to allow for the possibility of new methods for securing community consent emerging, it will be for the Community Partnership to decide exactly when the test should take place and the most appropriate method. There will only be one opportunity for a test of public support in each Potential Host Community. It is separate to the ongoing monitoring of public opinion that the Community Partnership will be carrying out throughout the siting process.

During the last MRWS process, there were several tests of public support before moving to the next stage to ensure that the public view was being represented.  This time we have a process which potentially lasts for 20 years and during that time only one test of public support is allowed, and controlled by the local authority.  This appears to be intended to take place at the end of the 20 year siting process.  So once a local authority has volunteered, the community are in effect locked-in for 20 years if the local authority wishes to continue.  During that time there is potential for very significant blight which may damage businesses, particularly those which rely on image such as tourism, and may make some properties unsaleable.  It is clearly unworkable for there to be a single test of public support over such a long period.

4.76 The Community Partnership, including the delivery body, should make all attempts to address the concerns of the community and their own concerns before consideration is given to withdrawing from the siting process. An independent facilitator could help mediate in this situation to ensure concerns are heard, understood and attempts have been made to address them.

This suggests that it will be very difficult to withdraw, which seems to go against the principle of voluntarism.

4.57 The Community Agreement should also include the manner in which decisions will be taken by the Community Partnership, such as potential voting mechanisms. This could include whether votes require unanimity in order to be carried or alternatively whether a single relevant principal local authority is afforded the ability to individually carry a motion with their vote. As new members join the Community Partnership, the decision making processes in the Community Agreement should be reviewed and updated where appropriate. 

Again this suggests the potential for a complete power imbalance within the partnership – if a local authority is able to ignore the views of other partnership members and carry a motion themselves, this is not a genuine partnership.

Of course this is still a consultation, but past experience suggests that DBEIS and its predecessor departments simply cherry-pick the responses which suit them and ignore the rest.  As it stands the consultation document suggests that this process has been designed to be easy to enter and extremely difficult to leave.  Communities need to exercise extreme caution before volunteering.  

Cumbria Trust expects to produce a formal consultation response by late March, and we intend to produce some guidance for members who wish to make a consultation response at around the same time.  Responses need to be submitted by April 19th.