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Seeing Localism as an opportunity, not a threat.

When the provisions of the Localism Act come into effect next Spring, it will be interesting to see how it is put into practice when it comes to community engagement for major planning applications. I think Greg Clark’s final statement in his foreword of DCLG’s guide to the Localism Act hits the nail on the head: ‘I look forward to seeing how local people will use the rights and freedoms the Act offers to make a difference in their communities’. Whilst the planning system may indeed become more democratic, I expect we will continue to face the fundamental obstacle of how to engage a broader range of the community in planning. Localism might make it more commonplace to get involved, but how do we engage with those who don’t typically engage in consultation? If it’s just the usual suspects who take advantage of the opportunities Localism can offer, will anything really change?

Concerns have been raised that the Localism Act is nothing more than a NIMBY’s charter – providing yet more opportunities for people to object to any type of development in their communities. Yet there is every chance that the opposite may in fact happen and more people in support of new development will come forward to have their say. It is vital, therefore, that applicants capitalise on this opportunity to get a more balanced view of local opinion. Applicants need to do their research, understand the make-up of their communities and how they can best involve a more representative sample in their plans. A variety of consultation practices should be employed so that young people, busy people and other hard-to-reach groups can and want to engage and be part of Localism in action.

We Won!

Everyone at Consense is celebrating winning our category at last week’s Renewable Energy Infrastructure Awards for Advisor – Technical! We are delighted and honoured to have been chosen by the high profile judging panel as the leader in a category comprising some seriously tough competition including Mott MacDonald, Natural Power, LDA Design and Envirolink.

The awards were presented by Charles Hendry, Minister of State for the Department of Energy and Climate Change, at the ceremony at London’s Royal Garden Hotel on Thursday November 11th. As the ceremony progressed, it became very clear that community consultation is a hot issue. The fact that Consense’s expertise in community engagement is considered worthy of an industry award in the technical advisory category gives a clear message that our services are a highly valued element of the renewable energy sector’s development.

With Royal Assent imminent for the Localism Bill, and urgent requirement for dissemination of the facts about renewables, as opposed to the spread of misinformation, at a grass roots level about renewable energy, meaningful community engagement is only going to become more widely used.

We would also like to congratulate one of our clients, Infinergy for winning Wind Energy Provider of the Year and Renewable Energy Provider of the Year. When Charles Sandham, CEO was presented with the awards, Infinergy’s work in community consultation was highlighted as one of their strengths!

We’d like to thank the judging panel for giving us the opportunity to not only celebrate our achievements, but to also provide an excellent platform to let industry know that community consultation is now an essential part of the planning process. The judges included Mervyn Bowden - Energy Manager, Marks & Spencer plc, Adam Bruce -Global Head of Corporate Affairs, Mainstream Renewable Power and Peter Kydd, BSc(Edin) CEng FICE - Director of Strategic Consulting, Parson Brinckerhoff.

The award is now sitting in pride of place above our Director’s desk for all to see!

To be online, or not to be online?

As a provider of online community consultation services, we’re often asked about how we engage with those households who don’t have internet access. Of course, we don’t recommend that online is the only tool used to consult – it is important to adopt a mix of channels, including face-to-face techniques, to be as accessible and inclusive as possible. However, with the latest stats from the Office of National Statistics showing 77% of the 19 million UK households now have internet access, it’s clear that if you don’t engage online you really are missing an opportunity to reach a broader audience (and a broader range of opinions).

Even if you think the community you are consulting with is within the remaining 33% and doesn’t appear to be particularly internet savvy, I’d put money on a good proportion of those people having a smart phone and accessing the internet on the go. In fact, the ONS stats show that 17.6 million people access the internet via their mobile phone – this is a significant increase from 8.5 million in 2009.

Then there’s social media. A massively effective platform for reaching, in particular, those aged between 16 and 34; yet one which is approached with caution (if not horror!) when it comes to the formal consultation process. With stats revealing that 91% of people between the ages of 16-24 and 76% of people between the ages of 25-34 are using social networks in the UK*, tools such as Twitter and Facebook can be a very simple yet powerful way to spread the word and drive consultees to the formal channels to comment.

Thinking of the older generation, whilst many over 65s have never been online, it is this age group who *generally* will participate in face to face consultation such as public exhibitions. Even so, national charity Age UK run their ‘itea and biscuits’ annual campaign to introduce technology to people in later life, and so internet use amongst the over 65s is set to increase.

Essentially, the message is clear - you may not think your target audience is online but chances are they are more internet savvy that you think. To disregard engaging with them online is to potentially miss a very large proportion of the community. And in light of the emerging localism bill, this is quite a risk to take.

*freshnetworks.com

Powering The Cloud

A lot of people are talking about "the cloud" these days. To us IT geeks discussing the cloud is just like talking to a neighbour about the weather. To the layperson however, the cloud is another one of those techy things that doesn’t really affect them.

A quick search online doesn’t really help either, giving us the handy description "Cloud computing is the delivery of computing as a service rather than a product", thanks for that Wikipedia...

Essentially instead of having a program like Microsoft Word running on your computer, you can use a version that sits online in a cloud. So instead of losing everything if your PC goes pop, it’s available on a thousand other machines ready to pick up where you left off.

So, the application of the cloud means that you don’t need a huge hulking beast of a machine at home any more. It means you can do all the powerful computing remotely, with nothing more than a tablet or netbook, and it means any work which previously required you to sit at a desk hammering out documents, programs or spread sheets, can now be done outside, in the sunshine!

In order to achieve this means a LOT of computing power though. In hardware terms "the cloud" is basically a mass network of computers all linked together in data centres around the world. Of course, these massive data centres require a vast amount of power, and unfortunately this power still mostly comes from non-renewable sources.

Greenpeace produced a report back in April 2011 entitled How Dirty is your Data? detailing which of the major corporations (Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft etc.) were the most transparent with their renewable energy policies and which of them had committed to a substantial sustainable energy plan. Some of them are still getting as much as half of their energy requirements from coal.

Of course, there are initiatives underway and each of the aforementioned have been making concerted efforts to devote a lot more time and money into developing renewable solutions. Indeed, some of them are making giant steps already, as you can see from movements like Facebook: Unfriend Coal. Hopefully, they’ll sort it all out before the cloud gets too big...

And if you’re still not sure of the scale of these things; if the cloud was a country, back in 2007 it would have been the fifth largest energy consumer in the world. And it’s been growing ever since.

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