The controversy, anger and active resistance over plans to drill a test well for shale gas in Balcombe was wearily predictable. Balcombe residents had their concerns initially stoked by a public meeting which seems to have been characterised by poor corporate and government communication. The Guardian reports that for many residents the public meeting was the first they had heard of plans to drill in their area. This has now been followed by the inevitable scenes of protest once the drilling teams turned up on site. Yes, on one hand the protests demonstrate active citizenship, but they also indicate public alienation and a failure of good governance by the planning authorities.

What is it with our planning system? And why are decision makers so reliant on PR instead of open and transparent communication? Damian Carrington writes persuasively about the latter in this Guardian piece. There has to be a better way of engaging the publics (the ‘s’ is important because the public is not some homogenous mass) in issues as important to all of us as our nation’s future energy needs and local quality of life.

Behaving defensively (closely managing the ‘messages’, keeping consultation formal, etc.) when engaging members of the public on difficult and contentious issues is perhaps natural. But it’s not helpful. At the end of the day, public acceptability will make or break the decisions, so it’s in everyone’s interests to try and improve the process.

Members of the public are perfectly capable of engaging sensibly in working through the difficult issues and trade-offs that come with decisions about energy and land use. A brilliant recent research report by Karen Parkhill and others on public values and attitudes towards energy system change concluded (amongst a number of important conclusions) that “Actors involved in energy system transitions need to treat public viewpoints with integrity, valuing the contribution they make to envisioning transitions” and that “Actors involved in energy system change need to ensure that their actions are transparent and mirror rhetoric“.

Members of the public have values. They are also pragmatic and can bring ideas and solutions to problems, not just opposition. Planning authorities and industry need to see and value this. Otherwise Balcombe will not be the last name to be added to the long list of predictable conflicts in the field of land use and energy.

Image: Will Ockenden