Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Calling the shots

An eagle-eyed follower of this blog (thank you Victoria) spotted the following article in the Milngavie and Bearsden Herald. Banks Renewables, who were behind the now withdrawn Knoweside Hill development close to Culzean, have added a whole new twist to the efforts of wind farm developers to establish a convincing level of support for their development proposals - through the use of a telephone poll.

A telephone poll! The mind boggles. Hang on a minute I hear you say, what's wrong with that? Quite a few things actually. I have not seen the questions that were asked, nor have I seen anything relating to how the poll was conducted or the model used to conduct the survey and interpret the results. In fact, all the information I have about the poll is contained in the article I have linked to. However, this lack of survey parameters does not concern me. There are some immediately identifiable issues with such an approach which do not need sight of the details of the survey to be identified.

First of all, there is the issue of information visibility. How can the magnitude of a development sufficiently large enough to accommodate 20 wind turbines be described over the telephone, prior to asking the pertinent survey questions? Environmental Statements usually running into many hundreds of pages accompany most wind farm planning applications, and even after reading all of that material it is not always possible to really get a handle on a specific proposal. As a result, I simply do not believe it is practical to impart the necessary background information, such that the survey respondents will be able to answer the questions in any sort of meaningful way. Oh, and let's not lose sight of the fact that the proposal in question is still in the pre-planning stage - so the appropriate 'briefing' data doesn't in reality even exist.

The other immediately obvious issue surrounds the effective representation of certain portions of the population and more specifically, those who could be affected by the development. For a poll to be of use (in the sense that a meaningful subset of the overall population can be used as a general guide to attitudes of any wider population), a lot of complex background work to identify affected, unaffected and neutral groups needs to be done. For wind farms, opposers could for example generally be identified with the following broad groupings (there would be other groups for those who are neutral, and a third set of groups for those that are in support):

  • Directly impacted neighbours
  • Indirectly impacted neighbours
  • Opposition on principle

Membership of the groups is not exclusive - I think it is fair to say that individuals could belong to either one or two of the opposition groupings (but never three). For a survey to be effective, it has to people who COULD fall into of these three groups and all the possible combinations of pairings as well as people who may have positive and neutral opinions (otherwise, what is the point of the survey?). The issue here is that I believe it is seldom possible to identify people who are likely to fall into the 'directly' and 'indirectly' impacted categories prior to the development. This is because wind farm developers have on a great many occasions in the past, displayed a complete inability to predict with a high degree of certainty who will be exposed to shadower flicker and noise nuisance for example. I'm not saying it can't be done, it just isn't done effectively very often (if at all). As a result, unless this particular development really was a first in terms of its ability to identify of two of the most important groups of people in the opposition camp as survey respondents, the results cannot be relied upon. Of course, if the industry was better at modelling the adverse impacts of wind farms, it may be possible to identify people from these important groups to the extent that the survey data had some value.

If it were possible to accurately identify individuals in these groupings (and pairings), what weightings could realistically be applied to their opinions? Are the people who oppose wind farms through general principle less important than those who are directly affected and if so, by how much and what influences such opinions? How do you quantify the relevance and or importance of national policy on individual lives versus individual opinion and possible personal impact - particularly when the minutia of the proposal are as yet unknown?

In essence then, there are issues with at least information visibility and identification of appropriate groupings of individuals. How can Banks Renewables, whose project hasn't even reached the planning stage seriously expect their telephone survey to be taken with anything but a pinch of salt? Perhaps they don't have to.

Unfortunately, the damage may already be done. By carrying out the survey and releasing the (probably flawed) results, public opinion has already been influenced. People will tend to remember the outcome of the survey and are in all probability unlikely to question the method and rigour behind it. As a result, individuals who are 'on the cusp of objection', or who hold a neutral opinion perhaps based upon lack of information, may well be influenced into accepting the development. This survey to me, is nothing more than a deliberate attempt to dilute the effectiveness of any possible opposition to the project and is perhaps indicative of the levels developers will now go to establish the high ground in terms of public opinion.