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Engagement of local citizens is key: Interview with the project manager of the Hlinecko Local Action Group, Lukáš Černík

Local Action Groups (LAGs) represent communities of entities closely collaborating on the development of regions in the Czech Republic. Their aim is to actively contribute to improving the quality of life in rural areas and support their economic, social, and environmental growth. Additionally, they can be significant players in discussing plans for the construction of energy sources in the area.

We bring you an interview with the project manager of LAG Hlinecko Mgr. Lukáš Černík, with whom we worked last year during the participatory process on discussing the construction of wind power plants in the village Vojtěchov in the Pardubice region of the Czech Republic.

In the interview, you will learn, among other things, what LAG’s stance on the topic of renewable energy sources is and why the connection of participatory methods with LAG’s deep knowledge of local communities and the landscape is important for the positive development of municipalities.

Renewable energy sources have become a society-wide topic for many reasons. How does the National Network of Local Action Groups of the Czech Republic, including your home LAG Hlinecko, approach it?

It is true that renewable energy is now an issue at all levels, from the European to the regional and even local. It is at the regional level that LAGs operate. They have been working for the development of rural areas for a long time. The transforming energy sector is undoubtedly a great opportunity for the development of these regions. LAGs bring together all key sectors (i.e. public, business and civil society) to develop a decentralized energy sector based on massive support for renewable energy. The National Network of LAGs and we in the LAG Hlinecko are well aware of this opportunity and we are taking an educational, advisory but also coordinating role to strengthen the position of our territories on the chessboard in this very interesting energy game. And yes, both the National Network of LAGs and LAG Hlinecko are very supportive of the development of renewable energy sources.

At the end of last year, as a representative of the LAG Hlinecko, you took part in the process of participatory discussion of the plan to build wind power plants in the village Vojtěchov. What role did LAG Hlinecko play in the whole process?

In this case, the LAG Hlinecko was actively involved in the whole process as an independent and mainly information-sharing partner, especially on the topic of community energy. The aim was to use our deep knowledge of local energy conditions, environment and inhabitants. As a result, we were helpful in finding a solution that would satisfy all stakeholders, making community energy a topic that resonated strongly in the community, as confirmed by the results of the consultative referendum in Vojtěchov.

Based on your personal experience: what is the greatest value of the participatory approach in the topic of wind power construction?

The construction of wind power plants is a matter that will always affect all people in the area concerned. Therefore, it is a clear interest to ideally achieve the general consensus among the citizens of the given municipality. There is no better approach than one in which everyone has the opportunity to express themselves, ask questions, or discuss openly. The indisputable advantage of the participatory approach is that, among other things, it offers a quality information service to all those involved and creates a space for mutual communication between the investor, the municipality, and its citizens. This gives everyone a relevant set of information with which they can work and make rational decisions. I see the greatest added value of the participatory approach in the fact that all stakeholders are directly involved in the creative process of deliberation, and therefore no one gets the feeling that decisions are being made without him.

And since you also have experience with a “non-participatory” approach to the same topic: what was the “stumbling block” in the process without citizen involvement?

Thanks to the National Network of LAGs, the Community Energy Union and other national bodies, we encounter a number of cases where the local community was not worked with at all when building larger energy projects. Yet working with the community is crucial in such cases, and participation is the most appropriate tool for this. Without participation, the opportunity to gain deeper insight is severely limited and therefore the decision-making capacity of all participants is greatly reduced. At the same time, there are still myths that have long been debunked and have resurfaced in recent decades around the construction of renewable energy sources.

If we do not give citizens the opportunity to participate in the discussion of the energy plan, it is difficult for them to develop a sense of belonging to the project. Instead, there is a feeling that decisions are being made in an ‘about us without us’ way.

What recommendations would you give to investors entering an area with the intention of building wind or other renewable energy sources?

Every investor should keep in mind that a municipality is not just an office, a mayor, and a council. When the citizens went to the polls with votes for their future representatives, it is very likely that none of the candidates were ardently advocating for the construction of a large renewable energy facility in the village. This puts everyone in a situation that is completely new to them and deserves a proper debate. This is a major and long-term intervention in the village and people are very sensitive to interventions in their environment. They need to be made thoroughly aware of all the pros and cons that the construction of a large RES will bring. The principles of objectivity and openness must be strictly adhered to when providing information. I would advise any investor to cooperate with people, not to stand against them, and also not to be in too much of a hurry. The more time they spend on initial participation, the easier it will be for them, with the support of the municipality and the citizens, to negotiate the legal processes involved in permitting the construction of RES.

Our cooperation with LAG Hlinecko during the negotiations of the investment project in Vojtěchov brought success. The local citizens, who were actively involved in the discussions over the project, not only expressed their support for the construction of wind power plants, but also decided to go down the not yet fully trodden path of community energy. LAGs are undoubtedly an important actor in the participation process. Their knowledge of the local environment and the needs of local communities plays an indispensable role in the efforts to actively involve citizens in the participatory process.