Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Annex 3




  Blue Circle operates a cement works in the Wiltshire town of Westbury. Travellers on the London-Penzance railway line pass the site. Traditionally coal has been used to fire the kilns, but the company came forward with a proposal to use tyres as a substitute fuel for coal. Immediately a series of potential pros and cons came to the fore. On the one hand the potential for environmental gain (ie tyres burnt rather than landfilled; better emission standards than coal); while on the other hand there were community concerns over a range of issues from health effects to black smoke.

  Blue Circle had carried out two tyre burning trials in 1996. These had been approved by the Agency with little other than the legally required narrow formal consultation on the company's applications. At this stage the Agency had a very low profile. A local pressure group "The Air That We Breathe" had been established and held a major public meeting at the end of the second trial. Friends of the Earth were on the top table, the Agency in the audience. The situation was made even more difficult by the company, who had tried to "sit-on" some poor emission figures in the second trial. As a result there was a low level of public confidence in the process. It was not considered transparent.

  It was clear to everyone involved in the Agency that it was time to get to grips with the issue. The first step was to make it clear to the company and the public that the Agency was not happy with the first two trials and that we would not, at this stage, look favourably on an application for permission to burn tyres on a permanent basis. As a result the company announced its intention to apply for permission to hold a third trial. The Agency immediately resolved that any such application would be dealt with using enhanced communication and consultation techniques.

  The objectives were: to clearly communicate our regulatory action; to be open and transparent and to engage and listen to the community.

  The success criteria were: to build understanding of the Agency and its role; to enhance our decision-making and regulation and to win and build trust.


  The company applied to carry out a third trial during 1997. The Agency responded with its new approach. As in all situations the Agency needed to work on: Who are the audiences? What are the messages? How to communicate? Above all the Agency had to "know the community". It was soon recognised that there was a good mix of audiences and messages and that a good mix of communication tools would be needed and so a strategy was developed that had three key strands: (a) Face-to-face meetings with key stakeholder organisations; (b) Two public meetings (one at start of process; one near end); (c) Active use of media. The following concentrates on public meetings and the surgery.


  The first meeting underlined the dangers if you have not built up a good relationship with and understanding of the community. The Agency was criticised for the date clashing with another local event; the choice of venue; the start time; and poor publicity.

  Nevertheless there were many gains including the fact we were holding a meeting at all. The meeting was well managed and well chaired (good female chairs seem to be particularly effective). Agency speakers were good—clear and non-technical. The main gap between public expectation and Agency delivery was on the issue of health. There was clear frustration from the audience who wanted health answers. Unfortunately the various health bodies were not in attendance. However the Agency got strong credit by firmly promising to take up the issues with the health organisations including the Department of Health. So overall a big step forward but still lessons to learn.

  For the second public meeting various organisational shortcomings were discussed with local interests and addressed. As a result it was ensured that the date didn't clash, a preferred venue was booked, the meeting started at a later time and the event was publicised via a door to door flyer.

  The meeting was again well managed and another building block in gaining confidence from the community. One initiative did backfire. The meeting was to discuss our "minded to" decision and it was felt that it would aid discussion on the night if we publicised our views in advance. However, local perception was that the Agency "had made up its mind" and deliberately publicised our views in advance to put people off from coming to the meeting. Nothing could have been further from the truth but it taught that perception is reality.


  The Agency did finally give the trial the go-ahead with several stringent conditions reflecting issues of concern raised during the consultation. The trial started but after a short time the company broke the licence conditions. The Agency immediately stopped the trial. This was a further vital step in winning local confidence in our role as the "green police". The key lesson here was that enhanced communications and consultation have to be backed up by strong regulatory action.

  After a lengthy time the Agency finally allowed the trial to restart. A local authority committee asked for a further public meeting and the Agency considered this request carefully. In the end the Agency offered (and this was gratefully accepted) to hold a public surgery where individual members of the public (or groups) could book slots to raise issues with officers. A surgery was decided on at this stage because it was felt to be more appropriate. There had already been two public meetings and there was a danger of meeting fatigue. The surgery offered very individual concerns to be raised in a face-to-face personal forum. It was well used and generally approved of.


  In carrying out this process we have proactively managed the process; raised the profile of the Agency; built better relationships with the community and key stakeholders and lifted internal morale. The key lessons learnt were the need to build a long-term relationship with the community; it does take resources (but better to proactively use these than be forced to do so anyway but reactively); once the process has started you need to stay involved and there are positive gains all round.

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