(Dis)empowering and (dis)engaging public(s)

In debates around public acceptance of energy infrastructure, formal processes for engagement have been positioned as integral to siting and planning (Haggett, 2009). In attempting to provide understanding of public engagement with low carbon technologies in local contexts, then, how such processes are conceived can be seen as being of high significance. Our participants perceived formal engagement in relation to these local developments in a number of differing ways. While many of our participants professed that they did not get involved in meetings or consultation processes, this should not be taken to mean they are disengaged. Instead a number of factors, partly relating to their views on engage­ment processes, influenced our participants’ decisions to become involved or not.

For some the practicalities of daily living (including child care, work and other such commitments) meant they felt unable to dedicate the time to such consulta­tion and engagement processes: ‘I feel quite tied up in my family responsibilities and it makes it very difficult to engage’ (Ruth).

‘Free’ time held a high value and decisions to become involved in engagement processes were situated against a wide range of other activities on which that time could be spent. In this context, some were happy to rely on others, who they knew would become involved in engagement processes, for information or to represent their views. For most of our participants, engagement was seen only as a means to get information. Although for some this was unproblematic, for many this expec­tation was linked to the feeling that they could not influence decisions even if they would like to:

‘If I thought it would make any difference then yes I suppose it would be quite nice to [engage], but to be honest I think these decisions are made for reasons and the public tend to be the last people that are consulted and certainly the last people it seems that are listened to’ (Douglas).

Such feelings were based on past experience or experience in other facets of life, and represented a frustration which led some to feel there was little point becom­ing involved in consultation and engagement processes.

The positive perspectives on nuclear power discussed in the previous section should be understood in this context of such views on engagement. Situated against these discourses, it is possible to see a more resigned acceptance of the likely development of new nuclear power in the area:

‘Well they say that the consultations and the exhibitions are not very well supported, but I think that’s because people, they accept it already, so they don’t feel that they need to go on… I think there’s also a feeling, a fairly general feeling, that what’s going to be is going to be. The Government’s probably already made up its mind what it’s going to do or at least the Civil Service would have done I expect and that probably won’t change with the Government of today either’ (Henry).

In contrast, participants expressed a clearer sense of empowerment with regard to capacities to influence things that were situated more as ‘local’ issues, e. g. the use of alternative road infrastructure to ease traffic density in or through the villages, housing of workers during the building phase, or routes for bringing in material for the build. These more locally situated aspects of development were viewed as negotiable and within the bounds of public influence.

Despite all this, even the more limited forms of consultation discussed (e. g. opportunities to ask questions or to voice their views even if they would not impact decisions) were valued by participants. Moreover, there were conflicting perspectives on public consultation, with some feeling that decisions needed to be taken strategically without the influence of local objections. This view was expressed in tandem with concern about the relative powerlessness participants felt they had in decisions but was connected to particular local events. For some, the rejection of the wind farm proposal after local opposition represented a frustration, while for others the most recent public inquiry for a Hinkley ‘C’ in the 1980s and the subsequent decision not to build at the time, despite planning approval, served as a concern, particularly in light of the recent decisions to proceed with nuclear new build.

Overall, our participants’ reflections produced a complex picture of the way that members of the public view engagement around energy technologies. Such conceptions of engagement provide insight into the way that the public view formal processes in particular local contexts, but also might be taken as indicative of a sense of disillusionment with notions of engagement more generally. We leave it an open question the extent to which such perceptions of engagement may impact on the way that people formulated their views about the acceptability of these energy technologies, and open up for further scrutiny the notion that ‘acceptability’ may be associated with a kind of resignation or disillusionment in the processes of decision-making.

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