The Environment Council – Independent Convenor of the BNFL National Stakeholder Dialogue
Author: Steve Robinson, The Environment Council
The Environment Council, initially founded as the Council for Environmental Conservation (CoEnCo), was seen by some as an organisation where conservation and environmental interests could gather to discuss the intransigent sustainable development issues of the day. Resolutions were proposed on some matters, like nitrates in water supplies, whereas others simply produced more disagreement.
After launching the UK’s first Business and Environment Programme under the banner ‘Environmental Sense is Commercial Sense’ The Environment Council began the search for structured ways to deal with tough, cross-cutting issues. This resulted in contacts with and ultimately the close involvement of what are now known as dialogue and engagement practitioners.
It was under the guidance of leading facilitators and mediators like Andrew Acland, Jeff Bishop, Allen Hickling and Pippa Hyam with the support others that The Environment Council began to build a wider understanding of consensus-building, then defined as ‘a process in which people work together to build mutually beneficial solutions to their problems’.
As ‘consensus-building’ described an outcome rather than the process, the term ‘Stakeholder Dialogue’ was soon proposed and adopted – a term now in common usage. With expertise to hand, The Environment Council set out to create both problem-solving dialogues and related training courses. A designed and expertly facilitated stakeholder dialogue underpinned The Environment Council hosting discussions in 1997 on the fate of the Brent Spar, Shell/Exxon’s redundant oil storage buoy after protests had led to a review of initial decision to sink it in the North Atlantic.
The Council’s then unfashionable extensive engagement with business also bought it into contact with BNFL. Used to fierce environmental criticism the company may have noted that The Environment Council did not take a position either for or against its activities, rather holding the view that any disagreements could be explored and even resolved through constructive discussions.
As the key ‘problem-holder’ BNFL agreed to sponsor such a dialogue as corporate funding was a sign of corporate commitment. Of equal if not greater importance was stakeholder experience and expertise so as a demonstration of its role as independent convenor, the Council insisted on payments in advance providing the company with details of how funds had been applied. After an extensive preparatory period, The Environment Council formally convened what became known as the BNFL National Stakeholder Dialogue. There was early agreement to tackle issues in order of increasing challenge and complexity. Besides potential solutions it was felt early deliberative learning could be applied around the more difficult issues.
Stakeholder groups came and went throughout the process which in its latter stages informed aspects of the transition centred on the new Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. The process clearly demonstrated the cost-effectiveness of stakeholder engagement, with early agreement for around £0.5m on the principles that should govern highly-active waste management, which contrasted with the £500m of the widely opposed and failed NIREX process concluded in 1997 . Arguably the BNFL national stakeholder dialogue is still a world-class example of how contentious issues should be approached.
With the advent of the NDA BNFL wound down, transferring its sites and operations to NDA in 2005, and finally disappearing as an entity in 2010. The Environment Council became a victim of its own success with a range of stakeholder and public dialogue practitioners and trainers appearing within its niche. The tough issues that only structured stakeholder dialogue can help solve still exist but in September 2013 the Trustees took the difficult decision to wind down its operations and cease trading.
Former Stakeholder Dialogue Process Co-ordinator, Grace McGlynn, introduces the Dialogue
Journal of Public Affairs
BNFL National Stakeholder Dialogue: a case study in public affairs, by Anthony Perret
Working Group and study reports
All published papers
Reports and additional content
Main and Co-ordination Group meetings summary reports and additional content
BNFL National Stakeholder Dialogue
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