Setting expectations, doing the research and communicating clearly are critical when it comes to designing and implementing schemes – the old adage of applying ‘good manners and common sense’ holds strong in almost all scenarios. It’s easy to get carried away with promoting ‘good news’ when so much is contingent on perception and position. Here’s an example.

The Nationwide Fairer Share scheme was supposed to be good news, returning millions of pounds to build society customers due to unprecedented profits.  However, in a blow to many customers only about 20% will receive it due to the strict eligibility criteria. Many customers are now voting with their feet to leave.  Yet the bank insists it has done its “market research” in the design of the scheme.

“Nationwide’s purpose is to offer banking, but fairer, more rewarding, and for the good of society. That’s why we have introduced the Nationwide Fairer Share. This will see us return even more value back to members. We are able to do this because of our financial strength and the fact we’re a building society, not a bank. Our profit is used for our members’ benefit. It’s part of our enduring commitment to rewarding our members” – Debbie Crosbie, CEO.

Without exact transparency on the research, it’s hard to know what went wrong.  However, it’s clear that just speaking to a few customers and banking insiders was not wise.  Member-owned organisations need to get a grip on better consultative practices.

Thankfully there is better news when it comes to devolving compensatory funds from large transmission infrastructure projects. The “Community benefits for electricity transmission network infrastructure” consultation is currently underway.

In short, the government aims to introduce the necessary measures for ensuing communities feel they are positively benefitting from hosting electricity transmission network infrastructure.  The consultation feeds into the design of such schemes – although ideas such as a local reduction in electricity bills or stake in the profits of infrastructure companies seem to have already been discounted (let’s not talk about the benefits of an options orientated consultation!).

Wouldn’t it be good – and wouldn’t it send the right kind of message – to see funding available in affected communities which enabled energy efficiency measures meaning ‘less’ energy was consumed rather than reducing tariffs (and potentially leading to people using more energy), especially when new transmission schemes are there to improve the resilience of the network, as well as reducing carbon intensity of energy?

The problem with community benefit payments is that they can feel like a bribe, particularly in coastal communities where there are high levels of deprivation.  More to the point, the highly complex engineering schemes are often in places of outstanding natural beauty where large proportions of residents purposefully enjoy in the peace and quiet.   Thankfully, most of the disruption is often short lived. Unlike the schemes themselves, in years gone by mitigations and community investments have often been oblique and short-termist – investing in interventions that lead to greater efficiencies are both direct in a mission sense and long termist, ‘baking in’ benefit in the form of using less energy (and paying less as a result).

Whichever, it’s important that discussion ensues rather than decisions issued.

The first challenge will surely be to develop open minds. The second will be to relay the positive and negative impacts in a way which is mindful of the science and bigger picture – namely, energy security for everyone, and lower carbon intensity of energy in the network.   However, the third challenge is harder to control – ensuring that the devolved funds are fairly distributed by local administrators. And that beneficial impacts – measured through social, environmental and economic impacts – result.

In order for the schemes to survive and benefits to be realised, community relations will need to be on a high for a long time.   We think that one way to eliminate top-down logic and ensure schemes are well targeted and derive true community benefit would be for communities to use online ideation and participatory budgeting tools.  This could facilitate bold, single investments over lots of tiny ones.  The fund could even build the necessary participatory infrastructure, such as ensuring that there are good community communications and introduce local engagement standards.

It is no coincidence that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has changed its philosophy on grant funding from calculated returns to “bets”.  That’s because we need to think more radically about supporting visionaries and visionary ideas.  For example, doing something a little bit more risky because it feels right. In the same vein, we think the last mile of the transmission network has to work on direct democracy.