Jason Nisse, partner at Newgate Communications, which advises Third Energy, explains what it was to like to work behind the scenes in the run up to its landmark planning success as it got the go ahead for its fracking operation. Challenging planning projects mean it is essential to cover “all the bases”, he writes.
In the end it was all very quick. After two days of speeches, presentations and deliberations, Councillor Sowray, chair of North Yorkshire County Council’s Planning and Regulatory Functions committee, moved to the vote. And by seven votes to four, and in under 30 seconds, the first approval for five years for a fracking application in the UK went through.
Having advised Third Energy from the time it first signalled an intention to frack in late 2014, as well as advising the trade body, UKOOG, I have seen first-hand what a struggle it has been to secure this victory. The companies who want to frack for gas in the UK have had to deal with misinformation, intimidation, misrepresentations and delays, pronouncements from so called “experts” who have read a few articles on the internet but haven’t read the actual application, smear campaigns on social media and heartfelt pleas from people who used every emotional lever from weeping to bringing babies to demonstrations in an attempt to win over hearts and minds.
The industry has been targeted by professional campaigners, including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and 38 Degrees, who brought substantial resources to bear, which made up nearly two thirds of those sent into North Yorkshire County Council.
Yet this is nothing new for us. Newgate’s sister agency, PPS, has a long track record of working on difficult planning projects, including major energy and infrastructure schemes, across the UK and Newgate Australia is the leading consultancy for infrastructure projects down under. PPS actually won an award for helping UK energy company Cuadrilla following its earth tremor in Lancashire. We’re also working with Professor Ragnar Löfstedt, director of the King’s College Centre for Risk Management, on academic analysis of the factors needed to win acceptance for major projects.
Our experience shows that for the most difficult schemes, having all the bases covered is essential. So good community engagement can be undermined if you do not have strong, responsive media relations able to rapidly rebut any negative comments. Gaining political cover from MPs – or being aware of what issues will bring attacks from politicians – makes your life infinitely easier when dealing with the media and communities. Also, 24/7 monitoring of social media – even if you never engage with it (as we didn’t with Third Energy) – is impossible to do without.
Finally, the job of the consultant is often to be the conscience of the client – asking “have we disclosed all we can?”, “did we tell x this?” or “when are we doing what we promised at the meeting on y?”
Critically, I would advise anyone working on a project to try to avoid being drawn into national debates. Tempting though it may be to argue with The Guardian about whether gas is a bridging technology to zero carbon future, local issues carried in local media and discussed in the local pub will hold more sway. Think global, but act local.
- Jason Nisse is partner at Newgate Communications.