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Author: Petra Stock
Contributor: Sandra Jerkovic

How you communicate with the local community and stakeholders can be crucial to your wind project's success. Here we look into how you can plan ahead and make the most of each opportunity to engage with community members and key stakeholders.

Main topics covered in this article include:

Why consult?

Despite their green benefits, factors such as visual appearance mean that wind farms are often a highly contentious issue for local communities — particularly to those community members located in close vicinity to a wind farm site.

Apart from public exhibition of the final planning application, consulting with the community and key stakeholders is generally not a legal requirement for the planning or development application processes for wind farms in Australia — unless there's an environmental impact assessment involved. However, the degree of opposition by local communities can significantly affect the outcome of approval decisions. Whilst decision makers tend to look favourably on proposed wind farm projects that engage with the community before submitting a planning application, the benefits of community consultation are greater than this.

Consultation can benefit you and the community — from the pre-feasibility stage, through development assessment and approvals, and into construction and operation.

The benefits of consultation include:

  • giving the wider community access to information on the proposed wind farm
  • building a relationship with the wider community, which will have long-term benefits if the project goes ahead
  • giving stakeholders the chance to ask questions and raise any concerns about the project, so you can address issues more informally, early on. For example, through the exchange of useful information, design changes, more in-depth studies or mitigation measures.
  • developing a 'best-practice' wind farm that takes on board community concerns, information and suggestions
  • generating local support for the wind farm — consultation can build a sense of community pride and ownership of the project.

This article focuses mainly on consultation before submitting a planning application. However, once your project is approved, consultation remains an important part of any wind farm development. The advice in this article can be adapted accordingly in your consultation strategies throughout the project's lifetime as most of the general principles apply in all stages of the wind farm development process.

When to consult

The planning process provides a framework for designing your consultation program. You may wish to engage people in the process and give them an opportunity to contribute, or you may prefer to simply keep them up to date with your progress.

Consider these stages and then how much to consult in each:

Project initiation

  • Introduce the concept of the wind farm and any background information.
  • Give people an opportunity to register their interest in the project and your consultation activities.
  • Give an outline of the planning process, timeline and opportunities for engagement.

Initial technical and environmental studies

  • What studies are you doing?
  • Will key stakeholders be consulted, eg. local environment groups, as part of a flora and fauna study?
  • What were the key findings?
  • How will the results of these studies influence the design of the wind farm?

Layout and project details finalised

  • What were the key considerations and constraints?
  • How was the design influenced by stakeholders' concerns?

State and Federal specific planning steps

  • Has an Environmental Effects Statement (EES) referral been lodged in Victoria? Is an EES required?
  • Has a referral been lodged under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC)? Is EPBC approval required?

Submission of planning/ development applications

  • A summary of the application
  • How to make a formal submission on the wind farm
  • What happens next, who makes the final decision?

Post approval

Once the wind farm is approved, there will be new events to plan your consultation around, like:

  • starting construction
  • delivery of large wind turbine components and other issues that may affect the day-to-day activities of the local community, such as traffic, dust, noise
  • delivery and erection of the first wind turbine
  • an official wind farm opening, once all turbines are operational.

Objections

No matter how extensively you consult with the community, there are likely to be some community members who will object, and may be difficult to persuade otherwise, despite the clear benefits of your proposals. In Australia, wind farm proposals can attract groups of objectors with considerable resources, including online resources and through organised community groups such as the 'landscape guardians' movement. Sadly, they have often made their minds up about your project before they know anything about it.

Rather than see the positives, particularly stubborn objectors will look for any negatives in your consultation program that support this viewpoint, particularly for examples of miscommunication, corruption or dishonesty. Your best policy is to consult in a respectful way, treating objections with courtesy, responding quickly to queries and maintaining your integrity throughout the process.

Fortunately, most governments are supportive of wind farm developments, and many proposed wind farms get majority support from the local community.

Developing a consultation strategy

It is best to design your consultation strategy as early in the project as possible, and be prepared to adapt and update it as you go.

Your consultation strategy should set out:

  • objectives
  • key messages
  • key stakeholders
  • consultation activities
  • communications tools
  • media strategy
  • record-keeping.

Determine objectives

These basically outline what you hope to achieve through consultation. Are you simply aiming to keep people up to date with the progress of your proposed wind farm? Or do you want to engage them more in the process — for example, get them involved in wind farm design and environmental studies?

Things you way wish to consider when setting your objectives are:

  • What level of input can the wider community have in the development process?
  • What level of community acceptance would you like to achieve?

The IAP2 Public Participation Spectrum sets out a range of engagement options which may help you decide on your objectives. Visit www.iap2.org.au for further information.

Once you have determined your objectives, you can begin to design your consultation strategy in a way that is tailored to achieving them.

Identify your key messages

Key messages are designed to increase the community's understanding of your wind farm proposal, These are the key project details you want people to remember, and that you need to get across consistently throughout the planning process.

These might include project specifications (the number of turbines, height, location, greenhouse gas abatement figures), information about you, and any other important aspects you want to highlight, such as how the community will benefit.

It's important that key messages remain consistent throughout the planning and development process, especially regarding things like the number and height of your proposed turbines. However, as the project develops some of these details may change, should this happen you will need to be upfront about the changes made and explain the reasons for them.

Key stakeholders

List all the people and bodies who might have an interest, or who may be in some way affected, by the wind farm then categorise them according to their level of interest in the proposal (ie. critical decision makers, opponents, neighbouring landowners, etc).

Communications activities and tools

Try to put yourself ‘in the shoes’ of each key stakeholder, and decide what you hope to achieve by engaging with them. Then plan your consultation program accordingly. For example, you might plan one-on-one meetings at critical stages for key decision makers, while mailings or information days may be more useful for reaching the broader community.

The local context will influence your consultation planning as well. For example, a newsletter or phone call may be a more effective way of reaching community members in rural areas than a website (especially if network coverage is poor).

When it comes to the broader community, it's worth trying to provide a range of ways to engage, so people can get information and respond the way they prefer to. For example, a good mix might include a newsletter, a website, an open day and regular radio interviews.

Some of the communication activities you might conduct, include:

  • community meetings, forums, conferences
  • speakers from other community wind farms
  • focus groups, workshops
  • surveys and questionnaires
  • a steering committee or stakeholder reference group
  • one-on-one meetings, phone calls, emails
  • site tours, tours to another wind farm
  • door-knocking nearby residences
  • mailings
  • regular street stalls
  • information days.

And here's some of the information, or communication tools, you might like to use:

  • Letters and emails
  • Information bulletins, brochures and fact sheets
  • Meeting agendas, meeting minutes
  • Photos, scale models
  • Feedback forms
  • Information boards
  • Children’s activities, stickers
  • Websites, blogs, facebook, twitter
  • FAQ sheets
  • Media releases, advertisements, interviews, articles.

However you approach community consultations, it's important to plan ahead — it can take considerable time to organise a community activity, such as an information day or community meeting, or to draft, review, publish and distribute your communication tools. For example, mailings through Australia Post generally need to be provided several weeks before they're sent.

It is important to note that often the most important periods for consultation with communities, are during key stages in the planning approvals process (and may involve the same people). Therefore allow plenty of time and resources to complete both tasks.

Media strategy

The media can be an effective way to promote your wind farm and increase community awareness, however, it can also be an effective platform for objectors to oppose it. A media strategy is important to ensure that the benefits of media attention can be utilised, and also to manage the disbenefits that may arise from negative press.

When preparing your media strategy, identify which local media to keep informed about the project, who will be your media spokesperson, and your general approach to dealing with the media. For example, you may choose to send out regular media releases to update local media on your project's progress.

Record-keeping

The planning process is long, and there may be several people involved in consultation. So records of who you consulted with, what was discussed, and any commitments made, will be invaluable. Find the simplest method for recording these details (one that everyone can use), and ensure everyone involved sticks to it.

This might be a standard form to fill out after consultation activities or when a member of the community contacts you.

One of the most important things to keep note of is contact details for all the projects' stakeholders — names, phone numbers and addresses for letters, mailings and invitations to consultation events.

Recording these events can be as simple as keeping a well managed document or spreadsheet, or you can purchase a purpose built electronic stakeholder database.

Consultation plan guide

Each project will have different needs in terms of consultation, and you'll need to tailor a strategy accordingly. However, here is a sample consultation program outline — a guide to get you started on planning application and approval:

Project initiation

  • Establish a record keeping approach.
  • Make a list of key stakeholders and a contact list.
  • Establish a project contact person, phone number and email address.
  • Establish a media contact person, a list of local media outlets and a media strategy.
  • Early one-on-one meetings with key decision makers, for example local Council, State Government planning department, regulatory authorities. Ask them for suggestions and comments on your consultation approach, identifying any key stakeholders and key issues. Some local Councils employ a community engagement officer who can help with your consultation strategy.
  • An initial mailing to a wide area surrounding the proposed wind farm site with details of your proposals, including a registration form for keeping people up to date (ie. mailing list) — and a feedback form. Leave copies at key community centres such as the post office or library.
  • A letter to key stakeholder groups introducing the proposal and offering one-on-one meetings.
  • A media release introducing the project, with contact details for those seeking further information.
  • Visit or phone the project's closest neighbours to identify and address any concerns early on.

Technical and environmental studies

At the start of technical and environmental studies:

  • Provide information on studies being undertaken through appropriate communication tools. Ensure those who have registered their details in the project initiation stage are included
  • Organise one-on-one meetings and phone calls with key stakeholders relevant to specific studies.
  • Provide details to identified stakeholders when preliminary layout and project details finalised.

Following the completion of technical and environmental studies:

  • An information bulletin describing findings from the environmental and technical studies, inviting the community to an information day.
  • An information day where people can drop in and find out about the project (use this open format rather than a public meeting format to deal with people’s concerns and questions one-on-one).
  • An information bulletin and media release describing the final layout and results of environmental studies. Highlight how the design was influenced by environmental studies and consultation.

Information day

  • An information day where people can drop in and find out about the project (use this open format rather than a public meeting format to deal with people’s concerns and questions one-on-one).
  • A media release describing the final layout and results of environmental studies. Highlight how the design was influenced by environmental studies and consultation.

Submission of planning or development applications

  • An information bulletin that includes a summary of the planning or development application.
  • A media release advising of submission and inviting public interest and comment.
  • Provide copies of the planning application at local community centres, and to key stakeholders (if budget allows). Consider a website where the details of the planning or development applications are easily accessible.
  • A follow-up information day during the public exhibition period.

Decision

  • An information bulletin about the response to the project and the final decision. Outline any plans for ongoing consultation
  • A media release about the decision, thanking the community for its involvement and contributions.

Who is responsible for community consultation?

You needn't be an expert in community engagement to design and implement an effective consultation strategy for a wind farm. Effective consultation just needs a good listener and a calm and clear communicator, who has an interest in the process and time to dedicate to the task.

However, it can pay to get some expert help from a consultant with specific experience in community engagement, stakeholder engagement and social impact assessment for similar projects. A good starting point would be to ask other wind farm proponents for a recommendation, or to contact the International Association for Public Participation Australasia for details of local consultants.

Community consultation can be fun

Whichever approach you take to consultation, it's generally a rewarding experience. It's a chance to get to know your local community, and if your wind farm is approved, these relationships and connections will be invaluable throughout construction and operation.

More information

Auswind's (2006) Best Practice Guidelines For Implementation of Wind Energy Projects in Australia, Appendices 1 - 13. Refer to Appendix 4 Community and Stakeholder Engagement Framework

Wind myths and facts
Dealing with opposition to your project
Overview of the planning application process
Environmental and social impact assessments
Planning application — Victoria
Planning application — New South Wales
Planning application — South Australia