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It Makes Economic Sense for Marine Developers to Earn the Trust of Stakeholders (Podcast)

1st April 2021
chartered surveyor Michael Ocock
Michael Ocock

Communities who believe they are at risk from wind turbines and other proposed new infrastructure deserve more than just a tightly managed consultation exercise, however, well the consultation is conducted.

That’s the view of chartered surveyor Michael Ocock, who has been following the various public consultations initiated here on future energy needs, including offshore renewable power, Eirgrid’s proposal to lay a 2 billion euro cable around the coast, and designation of marine protected areas.

Speaking to Wavelengths this week, he explained why it makes economic sense for developers to engage with and earn the trust of stakeholders.

Ocock, who is a joint author with Barry Trebes of the recently published guidebook, Making Sense of Challenging Projects: Things to Know, Questions to Ask, has spent most of his career managing, overseeing and advising on projects.

During the past 20 years, he has also been working with psychologists to develop ways of making it easier for infrastructure project teams to better understand and engage with local communities.

“Why, when major infrastructure developments are announced, are we always surprised at the degree of public opposition? For any community facing the prospect of new infrastructure on its doorstep, it’s surely the shock of the “new” that triggers their protests - coupled with a stubborn belief that most of the pain stays local, whilst most of the gain goes elsewhere,” he says.

“To get their voices heard - communities have little option but to object and object furiously. But immediately they do that - they’re accused of being negative and deserving of a label such as NIMBY (not in my back yard) or banana (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone).

“What they’re being forced to oppose has become, for them, a LULU (locally unwanted land use), or with offshore wind turbines, for example, perhaps a LUSU (locally unwanted sea use),” he says.

Michael Ocock, is a joint author with Barry Trebes of the recently published guidebook, Making Sense of Challenging Projects: Things to Know, Questions to AskMichael Ocock, is a joint author with Barry Trebes of the recently published guidebook, Making Sense of Challenging Projects: Things to Know, Questions to Ask

“Local communities, local businesses and even local politicians understandably feel powerless and resentful at being kept at a distance from the secretive decision-making processes that determine the fate of most major infrastructure schemes. When you calculate the forces ranged against them, it’s not surprising they can’t secure a seat at the decision-makers table,” Ocock says.

“What do we mean when we talk about public ‘consultation’? Is the process of consultation simply a selling exercise – “this is what we intend to do and we’re unlikely to make big changes to our plans” – or are we talking about genuine attempts to listen and learn?” he says.

Engagement, rather than consultation, should kick in before options or considered or ideas put to paper, he suggests.

“Too often we’re told ‘This is the scheme we’ve spent months (sometimes it’s years) perfecting – what do you think of it? Please leave your comments on a piece of paper at the back of the room or tick a box on the computer feedback form...’,” he notes.

“We forget that even those who act for local people and organisations with something worthwhile to offer – not just objections and pointless criticisms – still find their representations can count for little,” he says.

“ They’re unlikely to be present when engineers and other technical experts consider their comments, and they most certainly will not be there when any objections they might have (probably buried deep in a report produced by public relations experts) are considered and big decisions about a project are made by its promoters; unless of course, local campaigns have reached the courts,” Ocock continues.

“Communities deserve to be invited to take part in a genuine dialogue with the promoters of projects that affect them – better still, they deserve to take part in negotiations to find ways of creating working relationships between them as local communities and the teams tasked with designing and delivering the projects,” he says.

“A big obstacle to making the consultation process democratic is that some promoters of infrastructure schemes are arrogant enough to think they know what’s best for everyone. They’re convinced they have sufficient power and more than enough influence to override objections to their plans - and they act accordingly,” he says.

“ This is the notorious ‘decide-announce-defend’ or ‘bulldozer’ approach to infrastructure projects. Maybe it’s an approach just about acceptable in an emergency - but otherwise, it can be unwise and any consultation process employed is almost certainly going to be a sham,” he says.

Ocock cites Shell’s Corrib gas project in north Mayo as one such example.

“Shell’s managing director for Ireland at the time admitted the company had underestimated the level of community concern and unrest. Inadequate engagement with the community led to decisions, which he agreed, were too legalistic and Shell had no real understanding of what the community’s concerns were. Careful planning to bring about better community relations might have saved Shell large sums of money,” he says.

“In recent years, promoters of infrastructure projects have had some encouragement from government legislation and public pressure to adopt a softer and outwardly more conciliatory approach; but for the affected communities - has anything really changed?” he asks.

“Misperceptions can easily lead to what promoters of schemes too readily interpret as unwarranted fears, unrealistic aspirations, and irrational actions,” he says.

“There’s no good reason why promoters of infrastructure developments shouldn’t invite their project’s many stakeholders to participate in the selection of the ‘right’ option (what to build and where to build it) and join in the planning for its construction (when to build and how to build it). On the contrary, this would create trust in the community and help ensure the chosen scheme was delivered with fewer risks,” Ocock suggests.

“We need a giant leap forward so that in future promoters are motivated to encourage a majority of their project’s stakeholders - of which there will be many - to not only participate in selecting the ‘right’ option but also to help determine exactly what the problem is the project is meant to fix,” he says.

“This new ‘normal’ would not only see the ‘wisdom of crowds’ used to produce better strategic decisions for projects but also encourage consensus-building around their future construction,” he says.

“Such ideas are not new - research has been done for many years on this sensitive topic - but politicians, bureaucrats and Shell’s managers appear not to read research papers; and in my experience neither are they known for welcoming ideas that could improve their archaic methods of working. Individuals learn lessons from what they do; organisations rarely do,” he says.

“For many years several east coast US states have worked together to adopt a protocol for gaining community agreement on controversial infrastructure facilities such as hazardous waste incinerators, which they call their ‘facility siting credo’,” Ocock says.

“The Poolbeg incinerator is an outstanding example of a facility that might have been approved much sooner if a similar protocol had been in place in Dublin,” he says.

“This facility siting credo advises the promoters of a facility that many in a community will see as a serious threat - to first get the community to agree that something has to change, something has to be built, and the status quo is not an option,” he says.

“ The next step for the promoters is to gain the trust of the community by being honest about the negative aspects of what’s proposed - finally making sure the host community will be left better off,” he says.

European research teams have similarly shown how controversy can be extremely wasteful and how the solution lies in engaging in constructive discourse with all of a project’s primary stakeholders, including the NIMBYs as well as the project’s key decision-makers,” Ocock says.

If project teams do not meet with local communities early in a project, he warns, there will be “people out there who know something vital to the project; something the project’s engineers should know about but don’t”.

“Let’s be realistic though. Taking steps to replace consultation with engagement and improve on the way we do things now - won’t be easy. Adversarial planning inquiries are big business for many professions and professions have influence,” Ocock says.

“Planning and assessing alternative schemes using today’s procedures can generate good business, regardless of whether anything is actually constructed,” he says.

Ironically, he notes, “few, if any, of the parties typically associated with planning and public approvals have any incentive to find quicker ways to get a scheme approved”.

“For management consultants, public relations experts, lawyers, engineers and designers of all kinds - drawing up plans and assessing scheme, after scheme, after scheme, can be much more profitable and far less risky than becoming involved in putting concrete and steel in the ground or turbine towers in the sea,” he says.

“We might have to reluctantly accept that reform will come slowly - if it comes at all,” he says.

Ocock’s advice for planners and developers is to “bring your planning and approval-seeking processes closer together; manage them as a single people-centred project with its own clearly defined aims and methods of working”.

“It may cover only the preliminary phases of the major development, it is hoped, will follow, but it should still be managed as a project in its own right and with its own measures of success - one of which must be gaining the trust of the affected communities,”he says

“Only recently the UK oil and gas industry published a revealing study report into the performance of the industry’s projects,” he says. The study noted there were important lessons to be drawn, one of which was that “more cooperation must take place between the engineering contractors employed and local communities – they too have a stake in the project”.

“Infrastructure projects are more likely to stay on track and be successful when they are directed by wise leaders, benefit from independent oversight, and, when their management engages with the communities affected by the plans to encourage questioning and constructive challenges –from every quarter,” Ocock concludes.

“Conflicting opinions are never in short supply in Ireland. Those who want to bring us new technology and improve our protection of the seas could make better use of them,” he says.

Lorna Siggins

About The Author

Lorna Siggins

Email The Author

Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004) on Irish helicopter search and rescue; and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010).

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