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We didn’t stop the fire – the challenges of rural consultation

As generations of bards and romantics have commented on, Scotland is a rugged land that often feels closer to nature than other parts of the United Kingdom. Its cities are often separated by open spaces, with few of the blurred lines that merge the edges of conurbations in the rest of the country. The further north you go, the more challenging the terrain becomes- mountains, great lochs, isolated valleys and sea-straits between the isles. Whilst it may be fodder for great literature, for governing authorities, it can present significant logistical challenges.

The latest of these comes in the form of a measure to tackle climate change- a ban on new homes being equipped with wood burning stoves. The changes have caused some controversy firstly because many people seem to have assumed that the ban would apply universally across all housing, as opposed to just new builds, and secondly because of allegations of inadequate consultation.

The Scottish Government did in fact consult on the changes, in the New Build Heat Standard consultation, which had a section dedicated to the “prohibition of direct emissions heating systems in new domestic buildings”, and whilst nobody protests that the consultation existed, the extent of it has been challenged. Chiefly, this has come from solid fuel industry bodies alleging that they were not consulted- in this case it’s a bit difficult to make definitive comment on the veracity of this complaint due to a lack of information about consultees. What seems clear however is that there were not specific efforts to reach out to them, and as we have previously discussed, where specific consultees (or categories thereof) are not set down in law, it can be difficult to identify how far the consultor has to go to actively reach out to potential interested parties.

What is less vague however is the confusion over the nature of the changes, and the potential for differential impacts on different geographical spaces. The issue was first raised by Kate Forbes, MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, with a similar post from an account purporting to represent people on the Eigg, raising the challenges of equipping houses with alternatives in places where finances might be tight, and (and I say this with the greatest affection) the sun doesn’t always shine to use solar power.

Island communities (who have appeared in commentaries past, often in relation to ferry services) however are not the only ones who might be affected by such changes. Isolation doesn’t only come from the cruel sea, but harshly beautiful landscapes too, and in more remote areas of the Highlands, similar issues can arise. In this case, although the Scottish Government undertook an island communities impact assessment, it’s not entirely clear the extent to which the consultation specifically reached out to the sorts of rural communities likely to be most affected. The differential impact was noted by Scottish Land and Estates, who have called for better “rural proofing” of Scottish policy.

In light of these challenges, it’s worth reflecting on what consultees can learn. There are several lessons. The first relates to the misunderstandings over the policy. Although ultimately most of these misunderstandings were ill-founded, it does illustrate the value of consultation as a tool for laying the ground and explaining new policy. Here, the original consultation made no mention of wood-burners, instead using the name “direct emissions heating systems”. It is not surprising then that the policy came as a surprise to laypeople. A lesson perhaps in calling a spade a spade, and not exclusively a regolith-disturbing, elevation and mobility device.

Relatedly, it’s also a reminder of the need to be aware of the consultation needs of different and diverse communities. If a policy is likely to disproportionately impact these communities, then there may be a need to reach out more specifically to them to let them know what’s coming down the line, and get their views on it. If not, you could be left with a lot of very angry voices drifting over the distant hills and straits.

Whilst the challenges of consulting in these landscapes can be considerable, they are not insurmountable, even in financially challenging times such as this. Use the networks that are already in place. As has been the case for centuries, these communities have their lifelines- be it local healthcare or a post office, or their local representatives. Use these as the access point where you can, they’re likely to be more effective than just putting a consultation online, putting out a press statement and hoping that the local internet holds up long enough for someone to stumble upon it, read it, digest it and respond to it.

Whilst in this case, with a little bit of a reverse-ferret to allow for the possibility of new wood-burners in justifiable cases, the Scottish Government seems to have avoided a bigger row, this is one of those cases where a little more long-term creative thought could have great value in heading off these arguments before they arose- and saving a few critical headlines.

Speak to a member of our team to find out how we can support your consultation and engagement projects.

Article by Stephen Hill

Stephen was formally the Institute’s Legal and Parliamentary Officer, though now spends most of his time playing with rockets and satellites. He retains a keen interest in issues of democracy and public engagement however and provides independent commentary on consultation current affairs and legal challenges.

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