Public Conversations to Rethink NIMBYism
Rethinking NIMBYism Project
The Building Change Trust’s Civic Activism Programme aimed to bring decision-making closer to the citizens of Northern Ireland, through the use of innovative and creative engagement methods.
The Civic Innovation Toolkit documents 29 such methods that had 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. This first phase of the project was then followed up with a legacy phase where the learning was applied to other contested issues.
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.
Phase one of the 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.
Phase two of the project aimed to apply the dialogue technique to other contested issues across the region including:
- The relocation of Ulster University from the Jordanstown campus to Belfast City centre
- The issues around the location of a new social housing development in a small town
- Issues around the re-imaging of paramilitary murals in a village
- Issues around the re-siting of a bonfire to make way for social housing
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.
Phase one of the project was run in two stages: 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.
Phase two of the project showcased the technique at a range of standalone workshops and used role-play to test its applicability to a range of themes.
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. Laying this groundwork and creating conditions of trust are important elements of the PCP Dialogue approach.
- Get the right people in the room - It’s important to use community and peer networks to ensure the right people are invited to take part in a dialogue session. People who are involved in a dialogue session have a direct interest in the issues and are prepared to speak about their own personal involvement, motivation and the values that inform their position
- Be open and honest about the potential for conflict within the workshop but also reassure people that conflict will be managed. People can also be reassured by explaining that they can withdraw from a dialogue session if they feel uncomfortable.
- Setting ground rules. Participants will find it easier to get involved in dialogue sessions and contribute fully if they are involved in discussions that shape the ground rules for dialogue sessions. Be clear about the purpose of dialogue as well as what the discussions are likely to cover.
- Crafting questions. PCP dialogue sessions begin with a structured process of talking and listening. To initiate this process participants respond to a series of questions that allow them to share their perspective on the issues and some of the values and experiences that inform those perspectives. Finding the right questions to ask needs to be informed by pre-session preparation that has explored the context of the issues in that community.
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.
The Building Change Trust was established in 2008 by the Big Lottery Fund (now The National Lottery Community 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 was both invested and spent in full by the end of 2018 when the Trust closed.
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 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: