The Local Solution to Energising Democracy

The Government’s localism agenda has changed the planning system in a number of important ways over the last five years. Regional Spatial Strategies, which many Conservatives perceived as too prescriptive and top-down, were abolished, with new neighbourhood planning powers offered to parish councils and other local groups.

Underpinning new tools such as Neighbourhood Development Plans and the Community Right to Build is the belief that NIMBYism is in part caused by overly-centralised approaches to planning; people recognise the need to build new homes, schools and other community facilities, and if they have the chance to shape their development, antagonism will diminish. Pre-2010 speeches from prominent Conservatives like Grant Shapps, then Shadow Housing Minister, reveal a faith that NIMBY opposition was primarily a result of process.

Shapps’ faith was toned down in Government, with important limits to these new community powers. For example, while they can give communities more say in how to meet local housing demand, for example, they must fit in with the local authority’s wider strategy, and thus cannot be used simply to block any new developments. These neighbourhood planning powers have only received a limited take up.

However, in energy generation, this pragmatic balancing act between national and local goals and democratic process has not been matched. On the one hand, communities are to be given the power to block wind farm developments in their area, and there is no indication that this will be qualified by the need to conform to any national or local authority generation targets. On the other, the Independent has reported that test drilling for fracking will no longer require local consultation with residents.

Here, in contrast with housing, a choice is clearly being made from the top that the need to move forward with fracking is more important than local democratic control, while onshore wind is not. The Government is pro-fracking and anti-onshore wind, and so is trusting communities to take the decision they want to see in the latter, but not the former.

Of course, one could argue that the need to keep the lights on is too important a national goal to allow the NIMBYs to block fracking. Unlike housing, we can’t have a bit of it everywhere, with every community doing their bit to meet local authorities’ plans and, in turn, national targets.

However, the decision to dictate how communities contribute to keeping the lights on does seem to go against the grain of the Government’s localism. Onshore wind, unlike fracking, allows more communities to ‘do their bit’, rather than specific parts of the country facing all of the costs.

Leaving the fracking debate to one side, the model the Government has adopted for housing could be mirrored in energy, albeit with some tweaks. Of course, some local authorities have more resources available than others, and so could produce more energy. But local targets could be set to account for these disparities, and community incentives could be provided to promote local energy generation.

Communities could then decide for themselves, whether they prefer wind, biomass, or other forms of generation in their area. The development of smart grids will facilitate the movement towards decentralised generation we are likely to see over the coming decades.

If the Government genuinely believes that participation offers a route out of NIMBYism, it is worth exploring in energy too. Most people are amenable to principles of responsibility and reciprocity, and moves that tie energy consumption to the non-financial costs of generation in a more immediate sense could help the Government to achieve not only its generation goals, but also its carbon reduction targets, as well as helping local democratic participation to thrive.