The following response was submitted by SOOLE to a consultation by the UK government's Department for Energy Security and Net Zero entitled Developing Local Partnerships for Onshore Wind in England. The consultation is on a proposal to embed more formally (as a requirement in the planning system) some currently informal guidance (described as best practice) on community consultation.
SOOLE does not take a stance on wind power: as academics, we survey from a perspective that is neutral to the issues we survey opinion on. SOOLE aims to support democracy by informing decision-makers about the opinions we measure, and the implications of them. The SOOLE consultation response was critical of the government's proposed reforms because they risk placing additional barriers to onshore wind turbines, which are very popular. SOOLE strongly supports community consultation about onshore wind – this is SOOLE’s own primary mission – but believes it should focus on obtaining properly representative samples, something which is missing from the relevant guidance. Without this, consultation risks reinforcing the widespread but incorrect perception that wind turbines are unpopular.
See also our first government consultation response.
Response to the UK government’s 2023 Open Consultation Developing Local Partnerships for Onshore Wind in England
Title: The proposed wind turbine planning reform (represented by the incorporation of new community consultation guidance) does not reflect public opinion on local wind turbines
Author 1: Dr Ben Kenward, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Oxford Brookes University, firstname.lastname@example.org
Author 2: Dr Alison Chisholm, Researcher, Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford, email@example.com
The authors do not represent their Universities in this consultation response.
1. Do you agree with the proposal to embed the principles of best practice engagement into planning guidance?
Although we agree that the document does describe mainly very good practice, we have some criticism that prevents us from regarding it as the best possible practice (outlined in answers below). Further, we disagree because we are concerned that embedding the document into planning guidance would create additional formal requirements with the potential to hinder development, against the democratic will. There does not appear to be a reason based on the democratic will to impose requirements that do not apply to other development types.
Wind turbines are popular, and opposed by only a relatively small minority of people, even in their local areas. This is demonstrated by the government’s own figures (cited in the consultation document, p. 3) showing 12% opposition to local turbines. As academics we have made our own study of community opinions about local wind turbines (SOOLE Preliminary Report 2.1, http://soole.brookes.ac.uk/prelimreport21), focusing on ten different communities all in or near Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in England. Even there, nine out of ten communities showed majority support, and overall support stood at 71% to 80% (depending on survey method) and opposition at 11% to 24% (SOOLE Preliminary Report Appendix, p. 3). These results align with the 68% support shown by Ambition Community Energy in their door-knocking survey highlighted in the best practice document (p. 24).
However, our study also found that within communities, perceptions were very distorted regarding overall community opinion. On average, participants incorrectly believed that opponents of wind turbines were a narrow majority, thus overestimating opposition almost five-fold. This result aligns with previous academic work (Bray, 2018, available at https://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/22768/) showing that the public discourse about wind turbines is distorted by an amplification of minority voices that are given disproportionate legitimacy, for example by local media.
The current proposal for additional planning requirements for wind turbines that do not apply to other developments is perhaps also motivated by a residual inaccurate sense that wind turbines are highly controversial in rural communities. Singling out wind turbines for special treatment does not help to better align planning policy with the public will in these communities. We are concerned that embedding the document into planning guidance, and thus adding appreciably to formal requirements, could lead to wind turbine projects being successfully challenged on procedural grounds, despite widespread support for wind-turbine development in the community.
2. What other ways are there to improve community engagement when onshore wind developers consult with the local community?
To better serve democracy, methods should be used that increase the representativeness of community samples. A further result from our study is that when responses were solicited using leaflets, resulting in a 7% response rate, opposition was measured at 18%, but when responses were solicited using door-knocking, resulting in a 69% response rate, opposition was lower at 11% (SOOLE Preliminary Report 2.1 Appendix, p. 3). This suggests that opposition is overestimated when it is measured in ways that result in lower response rates. Note that low response rates are typical for most standard consultation methods.
The best practice document does emphasise “reaching the whole community” (Good Practice Topic 4, p. 19), and further emphasises methods such as door-knocking that, in theory, have the potential to reach the vast majority of the community (p. 21). However, door-knocking cannot usually in practice be used to reach everyone in the community, when the community is defined (for example) as all households within some miles of the development site, as this will often be thousands of households. It is not realistic to expect developers to have the resources to allow door-knocking at that many households. The document neglects a key solution to this problem: door-knocking at addresses that are selected from the whole community entirely at random, and thus comprise a representative sub-sample. We strongly recommend that guidance include this practice (which was successfully included in our own study). If this practice is incorporated as part of “starting early” (Good Practice Topic 2, p. 16), and the results are further fed back to the community at an early stage, this could help to inoculate against the spiral of distortion of perceptions of community opinions identified by previous work (Bray, 2018).
3. Are there other methods of engagement between developers and local communities that should be considered best practice?
See the answer to the previous question. Representative samples are a part of best practice.
4. What are the main barriers to effective engagement between local communities and developers?
A very serious barrier is that opinions that are unrepresentative tend to be regarded as representative. As outlined in previous answers, our results demonstrate that distorted views of true community opinion breakdown are widespread. This problem can be even greater when those who have unrepresentative views have influential community positions.
As the best practice document itself acknowledges (p. 18), “no one particular parish council or community group is likely to be representative of the full range of local opinion.” However, the consultation document makes the claim that “local representatives … know their areas best” (p. 4). Unfortunately, evidence suggests this is not guaranteed to be true. Politicians are known to have distorted views of public opinion on this topic (Mavrokefalidis, 2022, https://www.energylivenews.com/2022/11/17/large-disparity-in-mps-views-and-public-support-on-onshore-wind/). Our door-step interview data also underlines this fact, not only quantitatively but through qualitative analysis of individual responses. For example, our interviewers were told confidently by a respondent identifying themselves as a local elected representative that almost no-one locally supported onshore wind, when the reverse was in fact true in that area. The solution to this problem is to obtain and place emphasis on representative samples of local opinion.
5. How can effective community engagement help to gain community support for onshore wind?
If properly representative samples of community opinion are obtained through random sampling, and publicised early, then existing data suggests that in most cases these samples will show majority support. Because opinion influences opinion, publication of these engagement results will create support.
6. Are there ways community support for onshore wind can be defined?
According to democratic principles, community support is best defined as majority support in a properly representative sample of the community.
12. Do you agree with the impacts that have been identified?
To an extent.
We agree that there will be costs to developers associated with familiarisation and implementation of the so-called best practice document.
We agree that consultation with communities is very important, but as outlined and evidenced in our answers above, it is unclear that the proposed principles for practice are the best possible practice, and it is unclear that the benefits of formalising these principles are great, given that this may allow prevention of popular developments on procedural grounds.
13. Do you think there are other impacts that have not been identified? If yes, what other impacts are there that have not been included?
As we outlined and evidenced in our answers above, there is a cost to using consultation methods that do not use properly representative samples to obtain measures of community opinion. These methods typically result in an over-estimation of opposition, and thus contribute to the distorted perception that local wind turbines are unpopular.