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The calculus of consent: what drives local opposition to fracking?

Fracking – drilling for shale gas using hydraulic fracturing – is seen by the Government as critical in ensuring UK energy security and supporting economic growth. But without a genuine rethink about the way local communities are engaged, the prospects for shale gas exploration in the UK look grim.

The village of Balcombe (West Sussex) has recently become a national focal point for the campaign against fracking. When a private company attempted to start exploration in a site just outside the village, residents and environmental campaigners from further afield descended on the site to block the enterprise. The company insisted it was using conventional drilling techniques – it had not yet asked for or received permission to frack on the site – and that it had the permission required. But most of the locals were unmoved, convinced that fracking would be the end result. Days later the chief executive of the company claimed that protesters had sent him death threats. To speed up the commercial viability of shale gas developments and tackle local opposition, the Government is considering streamlining regulation and licensing, fine-tuning the tax regime, and improving compensation to the local communities affected. Ensuring that these communities share in the benefits of development goes with the grain of our work with the LSE Growth Commission. But this work also suggested that financial compensation and traditional forms of consultation are not enough to tackle communities’ concerns about the effects of development. A growing body of evidence indicates that opposition to development tends to be associated with perceptions about risks and the fairness of where development takes place. The risks perceived by the public are much greater than those identified in objective risk assessments. Lack of trust in government is often cited as a source of opposition. Suspicion between supporters and opponents of individual projects and distrust of experts involved in choosing sites are additional sources of opposition. In particular, conflicting, multi-party communications about the effects of infrastructure facilities risk creating an “information haze”, prompting the public to shift from asking for additional information to becoming more entrenched in pre-conceived views about development. In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that the evidence also suggests that addressing opposition to development cannot be achieved by any single administrative device – including cash payments. It also requires carefully choosing sites by taking community engagement to heart, rather than treating it as an after-thought. Giving those affected some control over the site and its potential impact is viewed by some as essential in promoting trust and addressing opposition. Creating deliberative processes for siting new infrastructure that recognise the legitimacy of differing interests and give a sense of self-determination to participants is essential in fostering greater community support. The Government is taking steps in the right direction. It is considering mechanisms that ensure that people see benefits from shale gas production in their area, including improvements in direct financial compensation. It is also requiring licensees to carry out a comprehensive high-level assessment of environmental risks, and to consult with stakeholders including local communities, as early as practicable in the development of their proposals. But the enthusiasm for the potential for compensation and more holistic risk assessments to deflect opposition to development is likely to be unfounded. Nothing short of a radical transformation of the way communities are engaged in choosing sites is likely to be enough to foster the support needed for development to take place. In the meantime, shale gas developments are likely to continue making the headlines.

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