Facilitating Environmental Debate
Bill Rainey, a Resolution Practitioner at FairWay with expertise in environmental law, shares his experiences of facilitating public consultation on environmental issues.
The recent news that the new Government intends to reverse changes to the Resource Management Act has been welcomed by environmental groups. Although the changes were enacted to improve the speed and effectiveness of decision-making, some of the changes made relating to public notification and appeal rights have been strongly criticised for restricting public participation.
If public participation is to be safeguarded, how can this important debate be structured to expedite processes and improve environmental outcomes? Pre-hearing conferences away from the gaze of lawyers and the formal hearing process might well be the answer.
We know that environmental issues are complex and ambiguous. There are often various human and scientific aspects to take account of when making good decisions: scientific, cultural, habitat and landscape protection/enhancement, species conservation, recreational, social and economic benefits to name but a few.
A key to arriving at outcomes which achieve a balance of social and economic development, and environmental protection, may lie in agreements being reached by experts both within and between relevant technical disciplines. For example, not only might all the parties’ ecologists be aligned on their views of the main ecological issues, but also their opinions need to be incorporated within a multi-disciplinary conversation with other experts, such as those dealing with the economy, construction impacts, noise, recreation, landscape and urban design.
With environmental concerns at the forefront of public debate, how can we do better at having the right amount of consultation, without causing excessive delays and unnecessary cost escalation?
FairWay has been busy this year successfully assisting high-profile and diverse inquiries relating to the Exclusive Economic Zone, transportation infrastructure and natural habitat conservation.
Its experienced environmental team has done this by:
- Providing logistical support for setting up, coordinating and running many caucusing conferences, and meetings of experts, applicants and submitters.
- Providing experienced facilitators for sole and multi-disciplinary conferences enabling agreement to be reached amongst expert witnesses and providing combined statements of expert evidence on key issues for decision makers.
- Providing experienced facilitators and chairs for meetings of applicants and submitters to obtain a record of important resolutions, areas of concern, clarification, agreement and disagreement.
How does expert conferencing work in practice?
First, all experts agree to comply with the Environment Court’s code of conduct which means they are obliged to provide independent expertise to assist the decision-making tribunal, and not to advocate for a particular party that is hiring them. Lawyers are not usually present at these conferences.
Second, experts agree to behave collaboratively, that is to work together in good faith and confidentially to identify important concerns arising from the application and submissions, and to record their agreement, or disagreement, together with reasons.
FairWay’s facilitators help to create the space, process and trust for constructive conversations to take place. Some of the ways this is achieved include:
- Being fully prepared with professional venues, effective technology (including video conferencing) and refreshments.
- Being flexible to fit within the strict time constraints imposed by the decision-making process, and individual participants’ requirements.
- Managing the conversation and facilitating a collaborative approach to solve problems.
- Providing certainty around processes and time constraints.
- Ensuring all viewpoints are heard and validated.
- Asking participants to understand the cultural influences on each other’s viewpoints.
- Helping to keep strong emotions from derailing the group’s intended objectives.
- Enabling experts to conduct their own factual inquiry unfettered by the constraints of more formal inquiry processes.
- Providing structured opportunities for ‘break-out’ and small group discussion to enable multi-layered resolution to occur simultaneously.
- Providing a ‘real time’ written record that when completed is approved and signed by all participants for submission to decision-makers.
The statements developed at the expert conference are often available publicly, which helps with ongoing public engagement on the matter.
Applicant and Submitter Meetings
Increased delays and costs are seen as the price to pay for public participation. Submitters who appear at hearings unrepresented and underprepared are often portrayed as the culprits.
Why would opposing parties want to go through the extra expense of meeting before a hearing takes place?
FairWay’s experience is that a well-structured pre-hearing facilitation process involving the applicant and submitters can reduce process time lag and costs by providing parties with a structured setting to communicate effectively with each other. These meetings provide a valuable opportunity for parties to understand each other’s perspectives, clarify positions, identify interests and needs, and openly discuss concerns. Often agreements and concessions are recorded that enable applications to be varied and submissions to be withdrawn.
As with expert conferencing, FairWay provides experienced facilitators who are skilled at managing the outcomes from such meetings where strongly held views and opposing opinions can be expected.
In summary, independently facilitated pre-hearing meetings allow parties to achieve sustainable environmental solutions, while reducing hearing times and costs.
Environmental Resolution Practitioner
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For more information about this service, contact us on 0800 77 44 22 or email firstname.lastname@example.org