Rural Community Network
Rethinking NIMBYism Project
The Building Change Trust’s Civic Activism Programme aims to bring decision-making closer to the citizens of Northern Ireland, through the use of innovative and creative engagement methods.
The Trust’s Civic Activism Toolkit documents 29 such methods that have never or very rarely been used in Northern Ireland before. Eight awards were then made to VCSE organisations for the purposes of experimenting with one or more of these methods in relation to a named social or environmental issue.
This series of Learning Resources documents the successes and challenges of each of the eight projects and provides practical information for those who would like to adopt these methods in their own work.
In the face of a significant increase in large scale renewable energy infrastructure in Northern Ireland, Rural Community Network and Community Places set out to understand how three rural communities are responding to these changes.
The Northern Ireland Executive has committed to obtaining 40 percent of Northern Ireland’s electricity from renewable sources by 2020, much of that from wind. The number of large scale renewable energy technology (RET) developments in Northern Ireland has grown in the last decade, and this has become a highly contested issue in many rural communities.
This project aimed to explore and develop a deeper understanding of the range of complex attitudes and perspectives about RET development in rural communities. The views of communities who object to RET proposals are often characterised as a form of NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard), whereas the project partners believe that this local opposition needs to be understood not as obstructionist, but rather as a form of place protection. The project drew on the work of Professor Patrick Devine-Wright at the University of Exeter, who has studied extensively the impact of RET on host communities.
The project engaged with three communities:
- A group of neighbours who were campaigning against the construction of a large scale solar farm in their community
- A community with a long-established wind farm, in receipt of community-benefit funding from the RET developer, and where residents were mostly reconciled to the wind farm and were positive about the funding benefits, and
- A long-standing community association that is campaigning against the development of a wind farm in their area.
The project chose to use the Public Conversations Project (PCP) Dialogue method, developed by the Public Conversations Project based in the USA (now known as Essential Partners). They chose this because it seemed well-suited to a situation where they weren’t seeking to change minds, but rather wanting to explore the nuances of complex issues and develop an understanding of why people held the views they did.
Regardless of the context, all PCP Dialogues are focused on the primary goal of shifting relationships or communication rather than necessarily reaching agreement. Following a preparation stage and the development of ground rules, the exercise enables a structured process for speaking, listening and reflecting, with equal opportunity for all to participate, and an opportunity to explore doubts as well as certainties.
The project was run in two phases: separate workshops with each of the communities, followed by a workshop that brought all three communities together. Each of the workshops had two parts: a more formal, structured session using the PCP Dialogue method, followed by a more informal facilitated discussion. The project ended with a stakeholder meeting, to share the project’s insights more widely.
What Worked Well
The project’s facilitators found the PCP Dialogue method worked well. The formal structure, which gives uninterrupted space for people to speak in turn, allowed a range of issues to emerge and for everyone to hear them. The simplicity of the method also meant that the rules of engagement were clear to participants and readily understandable.
Feedback from community participants was positive. Nearly all participants felt that the method had allowed people to share their opinions more freely:
“Some people are not as vocal as others; this gives everyone the opportunity to speak”
“Found this very interesting and with PCP method you heard all opinions very well rather than everyone talking over each other.”
Participants liked the structured approach:
“Workshops held with our group enabled discussions to be open, frank and kept to the subject matter.”
“Without the PCP method we would still be at the workshop”
Nearly all participants said that they had learned new things as a result of using the structured dialogue:
“Views from the pro-renewables group all individual and not cut and dried as I’d assumed. Also that money is definitely a big incentive - if you don’t live too close”
The project’s facilitators had anticipated more conflict in the workshops than actually transpired, and this was one of the reasons they had chosen the PCP Dialogue method. Nevertheless, participants recognised the potential value of this method in more conflictual settings:
“in more hostile situations this would allow people to speak in an open and uninterrupted way to get their point across.”
This reflection has particular resonance in the Northern Ireland setting, where conflict and division is a significant societal issue.
What Lessons Can Be Learned
The amount of time required to undertake pre-dialogue preparation work in communities should not be underestimated, and this can be a challenge for civic activism projects which are operating on small budgets. Even though they had pre-existing relationships with key activists in two of the communities involved, the project partners had to invest time to talk to people to explain what the project was about and to build trust. Laying this groundwork and creating conditions of trust are important elements of the PCP Dialogue approach.
The facilitators also spent considerable time at each workshop discussing confidentiality and how information would be used. They agreed that participants would see transcripts of workshops and that short papers summarising the issues arising in the three communities would be agreed by participants and facilitators before being shared with the other communities participating in the project.
On a practical level, using the methodology was challenging for the organisers, as their natural instinct as facilitators was to question and to clarify points being made. Several times, especially in earlier sessions, they found themselves holding back from interrupting participants. They were overwhelmed by the open, frank and often personal and emotional comments, fears and concerns which participants shared with them, and the PCP Dialogue approach created a safe environment for this to happen.
The project would have liked to have engaged with more people who are pro-RET infrastructure, to add greater diversity to the conversations, but as often the case with community activism it is people who are motivated to oppose something who have that energy to engage.
In addition, the project would have liked to have had more engagement from local and planning authorities at the project’s stakeholder stage, so that the learning could have been more widely shared with decision makers.
The Civic Activism Toolkit can be found at http://civicactivism.buildingchangetrust.org/
All projects in the Civic Activism Programme were supported by The Democratic Society and Involve, who provided mentorship, guidance, international experience and access to a range of Learning Partners.
More detailed information about the PCP Dialogue method (now re-named Reflective Structured Dialogue) can be found on the Essential Partners website http://www.whatisessential.org/our-method
The Building Change Trust was established in 2008 by the Big Lottery Fund with a National Lottery grant of £10 million, as an investment for community capacity building and promotion of the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland. This funding will be both invested, and spent, in full by the end of 2018.
The Rural Community Network was established in 1991 to give a voice to rural communities in Northern Ireland on issues such as poverty, disadvantage and equality.
Community Places is Northern Ireland’s only regional voluntary organisation which provides planning advice to disadvantaged individuals and communities, to help them influence land use decisions, as well as supporting community planning and engagement.
For more information about the organisations and the project: