I was honoured and delighted to be invited to the Shale Gas World conference in Manchester earlier this week. The conference brought together business and industry with representatives from environmental pressure groups such as Greenpeace. There were also two or three politicians.
I was given the opportunity to ask questions. I also led a discussion about community engagement and expectations.
My presentation to the conference pointed out that communities such as Frodsham were ideally placed to be supportive of industry generally. After all in and around the Mersey Estuary we have some of the most important and strategic plant in the petro-chemical industry. We are used to living with it. But the non-negotiable starting point has to be - that any gas extraction could be done safely and without harm to the local community, people or the environment. This has to be the non-negotiable starting point.
However I went on to point out that over many years the links between local industry and local communities has lessened. Whilst perhaps this was inevitable with the decline of mass-employment industries and an increase in specialisation and commuting it has led to a disconnect between industry and local residents. Ironically now, in a very much more connected world local industry and local communities really need each other to be mutually supportive.
I made the case for industry to become much more connected with the local populace. Real corporate social responsibility in my view goes beyond providing the occasional Christmas Tree or providing modest sums to local schools. Whilst those things are welcome what I think we need is industry that wants to become part of the community - that makes real contributions to the wellbeing of an area. I want to see our local industry adopt us as a local community - cherish us in terms of our environment, our education, our work prospects, in fact all aspects of our society.
I made the case for industry getting much more involved in education for some very sensible practicable reasons. First all of us want the best education we can have for our children. Why not make use of all the talent in industry on our doorstep to really make education at our local schools very special. Turning our children on to science and technology is good for them, for our country and our communities - it also provides the highly educated workforce our businesses and industries will need for the future.
I also pointed out, not only to industry but also to regulators like the Environment Agency that there is much more to community engagement than talking to '5 councillors in a room' - they are not the community! Our regulators need, in my view to do much, much more about making the case that their regulatory work is honest, transparent and fit for purpose. Frankly there isn't much point to any regulator if they don't communicate their own work effectively to the people they are charged most to protect.
I expressly invited the EA to come to FTC and explain what they do to us - we've never seen them in the guise of explaining their role as 'regulator in chief' around here.
And finally I contrasted the behaviour of some of local industry. Whilst I have not been nor am I Peel's greatest fan I did praise and thank them for providing funds and support to establish an independent local Air Quality Forum . The forum commissioned and has received advice from an independent academic. Incidentally we expect Professor Laxon's final report in July. Other local industries, notably Ineos were invited to contribute to the costs of this independent panel. They refused. So I told the conference that too! Interestingly it would appear that most of the industry gets the idea that locals are suspicious of them and that the best way to earn trust is to have genuinely independent experts advising the community directly.