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NIMBY name-calling by media poor form

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Public participation is a key element of the environmental regulatory framework for sustainable development (Image by Markus Spiske | Pexels)

Courier Mail criticism of public protests over development needs in Queensland is counterproductive, writes Dr Ted Christie.

AS AUSTRALIA moves from the response phase to the recovery phase from COVID-19, future options planned by government are weighted towards the economy and employment.

One consequence of this approach is that it has led to media articles critical of urban and regional community interest groups who have been galvanised into action to protest against a number of recent development proposals and their environmental – ecological, economic and social – consequences.

In the case of Queensland, many proposed developments are being fast-tracked as population growth arising from a substantial number of moves from other states has pushed net interstate migration to record levels. This has created a scenario for development proposals in Queensland whereby competing development and environment interests are locked into public interest environmental conflicts — rather than being meaningfully involved in a problem-solving pathway to find sustainable solutions.

In this regard, decision-makers should be mindful to ensure that one of the “guiding principles” for sustainable development – endorsed by all levels of government in a landmark national environmental policy – is effectively applied during the recovery phase for COVID-19: 

'Decisions and actions should provide for broad community involvement on issues which affect them.'

Media comment on public interest environmental conflicts

An article by The Courier Mail's Peter Gleeson was critical of public protests over development needs in Queensland post-COVID-19. The protestors were referred to as '...a new wave of suburban interest groups known as NIMBY'.

NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) has been used to characterise residents' opposition to a proposed development plan. The term also describes the phenomenon in which communities will adamantly resist a development plan near their area, regardless of whether positive or negative externalities are generated.

The problem of using NIMBY to override community protests over development proposals is that it prevents conversations that we should be having — about the reasons why the community must resort to public protests to alert government and developers to community needs and concerns over potential adverse environmental impacts. And to question whether protests arise because public participation processes as relied on by government to find solutions for a public interest environmental conflict were problematic.

These issues should be discussed and debated consistently as per the guiding principle for sustainable development mentioned above and not be shut down by NIMBY name-calling.

Specifically, 

  • whether the issues in dispute between government, the developer and the community – holding opposing, yet sincerely held, opinions on a development proposal – had been properly taken into account in the decision-making process;
  • whether the issues in dispute were resolved through a decision that enabled government, the developer and the community to emerge with some sense of gain — where responsibilities in the decision-making process were to the general public interest and not merely to a sectional group; and
  • whether the public participation process provided the community – those who must live with the outcome – with a sense of ownership in the ultimate decision made by the government (that is, by recognising the legitimacy of community needs and concerns).

In a democracy, government exists to serve the needs of people and those needs are not only economic.

Any approach to resolve a public interest environmental conflict that simply dismisses community opposition to a development proposal as NIMBY is not a problem-solving pathway. The elephant in the room is the effectiveness of the decision-making process relied on by government to meet generally accepted goals for public participation.

The link between effective public participation concepts and goals is a well-accepted body of knowledge within the social sciences.

For example: 

  1. The goal of public education requires all relevant and reliable scientific information to be made freely available to affected communities and in a form that is easily understood.
  2. The goal of improving the substantive quality of decisions made by government requires all competing development and environmental interests to be identified and meaningfully involved from the outset. This is to ensure that the ultimate decision made by government will be viable and able to be implemented.
  3. The goal of reducing conflict between competing community, development and environmental interests requires the public participation process to be based on shared involvement and responsibility. A public participation process based on shared involvement – for example, joint fact-finding and problem-solving – would be transparent and responsive to the community as it involves government sharing its power.
  4. Any failure by government to engage the public effectively may be problematic in achieving the goal of facilitating trust-building.

The goals of effective public participation

Where the public has environmental concerns about proposed development in their surroundings, government needs to identify those concerns and examine them objectively. That is, in terms of how genuine and serious consequences might be for the environment or human health — for example, by using some form of community consultation or public participation process. 

Any failure to do so by government will erode its credibility. A decline in public trust and disbelief in government would follow as a consequence.

Achieving these goals is central to understanding the concepts of “effective public participation” and “meaningful involvement” of the community in public interest environmental conflicts.

NIMBY, NIMBI and public participation

It is widely believed the term NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) was first recorded in 1980 in an article by Emilie Tavel Livezey, a writer for the Christian Science Monitor. It was popularised in the late 1980s by British Conservative politician, then Secretary of State for the Environment, Nicholas Ridley. NIMBY emerged in an era where effective public participation processes had not developed to today's extent in advanced economies. As such, NIMBY should be considered as a relic of the past pro-development era as sustainable development now prevails globally.

But how does NIMBI (Not In My Best Interests) differ from NIMBY in public interest environmental conflicts?

For NIMBI to apply, an effective public participation process is required that meaningfully involves the public from the outset in joint problem-solving to find viable solutions.

A good global example of contemporary approaches to effective public participation and a framework for NIMBI is set out in a United Nations-sponsored landmark international convention for public participation: The Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, also known as the Aarhus Convention.

Procedural rights under Aarhus resonate with the concept of NIMBI by acknowledging:

'Environmental issues are best handled with participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level.'

The Aarhus Convention came into force in 2001. Forty-seven of the 55 members of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) – which includes all of western Europe as well as the U.S., Canada and former states of the former Soviet Union – are parties to the Aarhus Convention.

The comprehensive framework for procedural rights for involving the public in decision-making processes (Article 6, Aarhus Convention) can be summarised as follows: 

  1. The public is to be informed in a timely and effective manner of the environmental decision-making procedure in terms of (i) a proposed activity, (ii) the nature of possible decisions or the draft decision and (iii) the public agency responsible for making the decision.
  2. Information is provided on the envisaged procedure in relation to (i) the opportunities for public participation, (ii) the time and venue of any public hearings and (iii) an indication as to the available environmental information that is relevant to the proposed activity.
  3. A requirement for each party to give the public access to information free of charge and all information relevant for environmental decision-making as soon as it becomes available.
  4. Provision for early public participation and reasonable timeframes provided for the public to prepare and participate effectively during the different stages of the participatory process. 
  5. Procedures for public participation to allow comment, information, analysis or opinion considered by the public to be relevant to the proposed activity. Such inputs may take the form of written submissions or at a public hearing or inquiry.

 Adoption of these procedural rights would see NIMBI replace NIMBY.

The procedural rights also provide objective criteria to evaluate outcomes in public interest environmental conflicts in terms of the extent the public has been effectively involved in strengthening the quality and credibility of the decision-making process.

Where procedural rights are “problematic” in any given community consultation or public participation process, the outcome for parties holding competing interests is to fall back and to defend and maintain their position on the proposed development. The opportunity to find viable solutions based on understanding each party’s needs and concerns for the proposal is lost in such a case; public trust and confidence in government is also adversely affected.

COVID-19 recovery and sustainable development

The goal for government should not be to 'jettison red and green tape at every level of government to stimulate jobs and re-energise growth during the post-COVID-19 fiscal fightback'. On the contrary, this goal would mark a return to the past pro-development era.

Instead, the framework for fiscal recovery post-COVID-19 requires a problem-solving pathway based on sustainable development linked to effective public participation. Recovery from the pandemic is clearly a classic sustainable development problem to resolve. Sustainable development is now enshrined in environmental planning rules.

The most widely-known and generally accepted “guiding principle” for sustainable development is: 

'Decision-making processes should effectively integrate both long and short-term economic, environmental, social and equity considerations.'

Public participation is also a key element of the environmental regulatory framework for sustainable development.

A good example of how sustainable development and public participation are interdependent and mutually supporting is the Aarhus Convention, which 'empower[s] people with the rights to access information, participate in decision-making in environmental matters and to seek justice.' But also provides a 'solid framework for governments to engage the public effectively in implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals]'.

Therefore, the goal for government should not be to "jettison red and green tape" but rather to adopt the Aarhus "model” as its problem-solving pathway during the COVID-19 recovery phase.

Adopting this pathway would offset any community concerns that planning laws for our cities and towns will involve less or limited public consultation on development proposals.

Public trust and confidence in government would be enhanced as it would demonstrate that government

[had taken] steps to enhance our democracy with measures to ensure that our publicly-owned natural resources are managed in the long-term public interest, with changes to planning laws that facilitate community involvement and confidence in planning schemes...'

Where any post-COVID-19 fiscal recovery strategy fails to facilitate public trust and confidence in government, community response may well echo the following statement by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan:

“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

Dr Ted Christie's professional expertise and interests are alternative dispute resolution(ADR), effective public participation and environmental law and science. In 2001 he was awarded the Centenary Medal for long and distinguished services to the community related to education and the law. To read more from Dr Christie, click here.

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