Frack off – combatting the emotional response to development

Abbas Raza

Hydraulic fracturing was back on the news agenda this week as the 14th round of onshore licensing was launched.

With licenses already granted in parts of the North East, North West, North East Wales, South Wales, South East and South, the 14th round prompted headlines proclaiming that half of the UK would be ‘fracked’. Indeed, when you look at the map of licenses under offer, it is easy to get that impression.

Clearly that won’t be the case – only a few plots will come forward. What is of interest is the media reaction. During the last round of onshore licensing in 2008, a similar map was published, offering licenses covering almost the same geographic area. Nobody outside the industry batted an eyelid.

So what has changed?

Fracking is a recent term now firmly lodged in the public consciousness. Although around for decades, the process has been thrust into the limelight due to the economic success it has brought the US, the UK government’s push to emulate this, and environmental groups’ intensive and public opposition. Together these elements are generating an emotive national debate, fed by stories of earthquakes and fear of environmental damage.

Across this debate we see the same pattern of behaviour, a strong emotional rather than always rational response to change.

Be it an exploratory gas well, power station, retail complex or urban extension, people resist change, particularly in settled areas.

Maintaining the status quo for the sake of simplicity, or for fear of the unknown, is a barrier to economic growth, or, in this case, keeping the lights on. Looking back, when the first Victorian railways were planned, fears around people being suffocated or boiled alive by ‘the Devil’s contraptions’ permeated society but trains transformed the country.

The fracking industry, like other UK industries, is closely monitored and regulated to manage risk, protect the environment and promote sustainability. At Local Dialogue, we face the challenge of defusing emotionally charged debates and confronting misconceptions about planning and development on a daily basis. Here are a few simple tips.

– Put things in perspective – developments usually have some impact so avoid the temptation to deny or skirt around this, identify and compare it to an existing local impact
– Explain the policy framework you are operating in – policy and regulations shape appropriate development and can be used to reassure your stakeholders that you operate within strict rules
– Frank explanations of commercial decisions are not a bad thing – if the form of your development specifically addresses commercial constraints, an open discussion around viability can demonstrate transparency

Thanks, and have a fracking good weekend.

Abbas Raza