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Author: Alicia Webb
Contributor: Sebastian Klein

Most community energy projects will require development approval from the local council. This makes them a major stakeholder in your project and it is important to build a relationship with them early. This article contains some hints and tips on effectively working with your council.

Main topics covered in this article include:

Making contact

It's best to make contact with your local council sooner rather than later. In order to appear professional, you will want to at least have a clear idea about:

  • the structure of your group
  • the concept of your project
  • some pre-feasibility work including site selection

The first step in making contact is ensuring that you know who your local council are. Maps of local councils are available for every state in Australia. The Victorian one is available online on the website of the Department of Planning and Community Development.

A good strategy for a first phone call is to state in simple, brief terms that you would like a meeting with the councillors concerning a renewable energy project in their jurisdiction. Ask them about the most appropriate process for securing the meeting, and ask if there are any protocols you should know about. Following council's rules will show that you're willing to work with them.

Preparing for the first meeting

It's important to appear prepared and professional at your first meeting. Come armed with lots of facts and figures, however ensure that council know you are flexible and ready to listen to their input.

Research council's goals and interests

It's important that you tailor your information to the specific goals and interests of your local council. For many councils, their primary goal is regional development and job creation. Some councils may have specific environmental or energy-related interests.

Check out your Council’s ‘Council Plan’. This as well as other strategic documents will provide insight into the perspective of your council and give you the right language and ideas to align with that council’s aspirations. Other documents might include environmental or economic development strategies.

It is probably also worth checking your council’s policies (these should be online) to see if there are any that support your project, or that you might need to navigate for success. Emphasise that this is a project appropriately scaled and relevant to the community - councillors avoid controversy wherever possible.

Research the individual councillors

There are often profiles of each of the councillors on the council website. Spend some time familiarising yourself with them, this might allow you to anticipate some of the characters you will be dealing with.

Keep in mind that each of the councillors is an individual and will have different values and goals. Some may care most about regional economics, where others emphasise community values or biodiversity. As such it is good to have a balanced set of outcomes and facts to support your presentation that achieve wide appeal.

Show support for your project

Get statements from supportive key community members and groups that will help the councillors see the support in the community for the project. Detail your consultation processes and plans, to illustrate how you plan to bring the community with you in a collaborative way.

Prepare lots of facts

You will get hairy questions from sceptics and outright cynics, make sure you have good data to answer typical issues.

It's a good idea to bring:

  • Generic technical information on the technology you propose to use
  • Business case containing financial details
  • Energy output prediction and some reference numbers such as number of houses the project will power, total council energy use or portion of council energy that will be provided
  • Risk assessment
  • A summary of the economic benefits for the area
  • Examples of similar projects in other jurisdictions
  • Evidence of the community support you have built up to that point and forecasts for future community involvement

Councils are compelled to make planning decisions based on their planning scheme rather than on personal preference so do some research into your council’s planning regulations for the particular sites you have in mind (often farmland), also regulations regarding height and utilities may be relevant.

Continue the engagement

Site visits to a similar project

You can offer to take the councillors on a bus trip to a similar project in another community. Allowing them to see the project with their own eyes will answer a lot of questions and allow them to form their own opinions rather than getting caught up by media reports or community gossip.

Engage with individual councillors

If you have a sympathetic councillor/s approach them via email to see whether they will speak or support the project in some other way. For example, they might open a publicity or fund-raising event, or write a letter of support. This will allow them to feel some representation or even ownership of the issue.

After initial meetings and activities you will become familiar with the individual councillors and their points of view. Keep developing those aspects of your project that fit with their goals, and continue to emphasise these aspects when talking with the councillors.

It is important to remember that Councillors as individuals cannot make decisions. Councillors have no authority as individuals, however all Councillors have an equal voice in Council meetings and only decisions made by the Council (as a body) can be acted upon.

Engage with council staff

Staff play an important role in a local government council. They provide advice to Councillors to assist them in making their decisions, so rather than just talking to Councillors, it is a good idea to speak with staff in the planning, environment and strategic areas to have a clear understanding of processes and strategic plans.

Council staff can be a useful resource for your project as they understand the local community, for example they can assist with designing community engagement strategies, and assistance with understanding planning requirements.

Information updates

Give the councillors the opportunity to join your mailing list for newsletters (but don't spam the councillors who don't want to join!). This will ensure that those who are interested are invited to any events held for community group members.

Use short, targeted update emails to sympathetic councillors to ensure that the whole council is kept up to date with all developments, especially regarding growing levels of community support.

Planning application

When it comes time to submit a planning application, council planning staff and each individual councillor should have a solid understanding of the benefits of the project, as well as the community's support of the project. Ensure that your application deals in detail with any particular technical concerns that the councillors have raised during the development process.

For example, if one councillor is particularly concerned with the affect of a wind farm on bird life, ensure there is a detailed expert report on bird life and include any conclusions in your project summary documents.

If you have addressed concerns, framed the project to emphasise how it meets the council's goals, and gathered lots of community support, your application has a good chance of being approved.

More information

Victorian guide to local councils
What contributes to a council decision

Building community support
Surveying the community
Engaging project neighbours
Running a successful street stall
Running effective public meetings
Dealing with opposition to your project