Offshore renewables - social impact: two way conversation with the people of Scotland

Findings from a piece of participatory research into the social impacts of offshore wind farms (OWFS) in Scotland. It describes innovative methods used to develop a conceptual framework, based on social values, that enables a better understanding of the social impacts of OWFs.

Executive Summary

The project A two way Conversation with the People of Scotland on the Social Impacts of Offshore Renewables (CORR/5536) has developed elements of a conceptual framework on social values that can be used to support and inform existing processes for assessing the potential social impacts of offshore renewables plans. The framework is based on clusters of social values that were identified and explored through dialogues between local people and experts in six locations across Scotland. Applying the conceptual framework in Social Impact Assessment (SIA) practice aims to better understand what is important to local communities, the potential impacts of offshore renewables (both positive and negative) and opportunities for managing impacts. This should help to make SIAs more meaningful for the communities involved and more useful as an input to offshore renewables planning and decision-making. The Project Management Team and Oversight Group consider that these results may have wider applicability beyond the offshore renewables sector.

Background and approach

Marine Scotland commissioned Collingwood Environmental Planning (CEP) Limited, with Pidgin Perfect, Nereus Environmental and the University of Strathclyde, to design and run a public dialogue on the social impacts of offshore renewables, recognising that current socio-economic impact assessments, such as those undertaken on Scotland’s sectoral marine plans for offshore renewable energy, do not reflect impacts on the things that are important to local communities. Risks and opportunities may be overlooked or only emerge when there is less scope to make changes to plans.

The dialogue project was part-funded by Sciencewise, the UK's national centre for public dialogue in policy-making involving science and technology issues. Public dialogue brings together specialists and members of the public to discuss topics in an accessible and engaging way. The central focus of this project was to develop a better understanding of the things that members of the public value in their lives and how these might be impacted, positively or negatively, by the development of offshore renewables. The project explored how potential impacts might be better identified and assessed and what opportunities exist to improve SIA practice in the offshore renewables sector.

The project ran two rounds of dialogue. The first consisted of six one-day events involving a total of 96 people; five events were held in coastal locations (Kirkwall, Islay, Helmsdale, Stranraer and St Andrews) and the sixth took place in Glasgow, bringing in the perspective of people not directly affected by offshore renewables projects. The second round event involved 10 round one participants, including at least one from each location, who reviewed how their inputs had been analysed to create clusters of social values, how these might be used to explore the social impacts of offshore renewables plans and techniques for including community perspectives.

The involvement of policy and technical specialists from Marine Scotland meant that participants could ask questions and examine issues in greater depth. There was increasing sophistication and complexity in the conversations as the dialogue progressed. In all the events there were rich discussions which led many participants to deepen their understanding and develop their views.

The project’s findings are based on a range of views from the participants. Given the relatively small number of people engaged overall, the findings should be regarded as an indicative reflection of public views; they are not statistically representative of the views of people in Scotland as a whole.


Social values

Clear clusters of social values emerged from the first round of dialogue and were subsequently confirmed by the round two participants. The value clusters represent things that are important to people’s daily lives and that could be affected by development, such as offshore renewables. Taken together, the value clusters and the range of evidence underpinning them constitute key elements of a conceptual framework on social values that could be used to help make SIA practice in the offshore renewables sector more ‘true to life’ and representative of peoples’ ‘lived experience’. The clusters are shown in Table 0.1 and represented diagrammatically in Figure 0.1.

Table 0.1 Clusters of social values identified through the dialogue project

1. Way of life: Family / family life / intergenerational issues

2. Way of Life: Jobs / career / employment

3. Way of life: Money / cost of living


4. Community: Local jobs / local industry / community sustainability

5. Community: Transport connections / technology connections

6. Community: Education

7. Community: Healthcare

8. Community: shops / housing

9. Community: socialising / recreation / parks / leisure

10. Community: Friends / being involved / supporting others

11. Culture: local identity / cultural heritage / Gaelic

12. Local environment: connection to nature / landscape

13. Local political and decision-making systems

Wider political and environmental context

14. Environment: landscape / seascape / wildlife / environmental change

15. National and EU level political and decision-making systems

Some values and value clusters were mentioned more frequently in some round one dialogue locations than others. For example, intergenerational issues were mentioned more frequently in Kirkwall, Islay and Helmsdale.

Impacts of offshore renewables on social values

The main social value clusters that might be affected by offshore renewables were identified as:

  • Local jobs, industry and community sustainability: mixed opinions – positive and negative;
  • Transport and technology connections: generally positive but some negative;
  • Environmental change: generally negative but some positive; and
  • Political and decision-making systems: mixed opinions – positive and negative.

Improving Social Impact Assessment (SIA)

The dialogues were designed to focus on Social Impact Assessments (SIA) of plans and strategies for offshore renewables, which are the responsibility of Government, rather than project-level assessments carried out by developers. The ten participants in the round two event built on findings from round one to identify the following ways in which SIA could be improved:

  • The public and affected communities should be involved in the development of plans for offshore renewable energy and associated SIA processes;
  • Early engagement in planning and SIA is fundamental – people don’t want shocks or surprises;
  • Community liaison groups could provide a useful mechanism and focus for engaging affected communities in plan-development and SIA;
  • Participants had a broad range of suggestions for when the different techniques could be used in SIA and for what purpose – e.g. it was suggested that indicators should be linked to impacts and used for scoping and monitoring; and
  • Effective dialogue requires fun and easily understood materials that can facilitate wide-ranging conversations. Creating a successful public dialogue is an iterative process.

A conceptual framework for incorporating social impacts into offshore renewables assessment processes

Social value clusters

The social value clusters emerging from the project could be used as a ‘lens’ to explore the social impacts of offshore renewables and, potentially, of other types of development.

Figure 0.1 Clusters of social values identified through the dialogue project and their relationships
Participants were asked to fill each circle with things that are important to them such as ‘family and friends’, or ‘landscape’. The innermost circle is labelled ‘way of life’, the circle around that is labelled ‘community’, and the outermost circle is labelled ‘wider political and environmental context.

Key stages in the SIA process where social values should be considered

With reference to the stages of a typical SIA process, Table 0.2 outlines when social value clusters could be used to elicit or structure information about public values, as well as the techniques that might be employed for this purpose.

The use of social value clusters would need to be taken through into the development of individual projects. The SIA of a plan would identify a set of impacts and social value clusters considered most important which would then need to be addressed in SIAs of projects relevant to this plan.

SIA stage


How social value clusters could be used

Using the social value clusters as a structure for data collection would help to understand what a community’s main capacities (strengths) and weaknesses or vulnerabilities are and therefore which social issues (values) should be the focus in the SIA.

Suggested techniques

Public dialogue, at the appropriate scale, to prioritise key value clusters.

Wider engagement.

Indicator data for baseline.

SIA stage


How social value clusters could be used

Comprehensive information on key social value clusters would ensure that the assessment of social impacts is evidence- based and that the significance of any potential impacts (positive and negative) can be evaluated effectively.

Suggested techniques

Surveys or other information gathering techniques.

SIA stage


How social value clusters could be used

Presenting information in terms of values that people recognise should enable a ‘no surprises’ consultation.

Suggested techniques

Public dialogue could be useful in contentious areas.

SIA stage



How social value clusters could be used

Using social value clusters to explain how issues raised by the public have been addressed should make the Post-Adoption Statement more meaningful.

Monitoring should be based on the social impacts that were predicted in the assessment.

Suggested techniques

Monitoring: Surveys or dialogue on impacts on social value clusters.

Recommendations for future engagement

The dialogue demonstrated that members of the public have the ability to understand and assess complex issues and processes and explore subtle trade-offs. It would therefore be valuable to adopt more participative processes in policy-making and marine planning / development. Key recommendations to Marine Scotland from this dialogue project include:

  • Develop the dialogue materials: the materials developed and used in this dialogue have the potential to be developed further and used by Marine Scotland (and others, for example in the Scottish Government) in SIAs of future sectoral marine plans and potentially plans in other sectors. The materials could usefully be developed into a standard ‘toolkit’ (e.g. a set of ‘pieces’ within a ‘board game’ design) that would be portable and reusable, supporting deliberative engagement with communities on social values and impacts.
  • Provide training for Marine Scotland personnel in undertaking / managing deliberative engagement: it is sometimes more appropriate for community engagement on proposed plans and developments to be undertaken by a third party (e.g. a contractor, a community group or a third sector organisation) for reasons of independence, credibility and impartiality. Notwithstanding this, it could be useful for Marine Scotland staff involved in planning and policy-development to be trained in deliberative engagement techniques, either to deliver engagement themselves or to manage others effectively.
  • Undertake social research to validate social values: the social value clusters developed through this dialogue were identified on the basis of qualitative data and analysis and are not representative of the views of the wider population (e.g. Scotland as a whole, coastal communities in Scotland etc). In order to validate and refine these value clusters, it could be beneficial to undertake a quantitative study (e.g. a face-to-face or online survey) with a representative sample of the population of interest.
  • Consider the implications for the private sector: the dialogue was undertaken with Marine Scotland and with SIAs of sectoral marine plans in mind. The use of social value clusters would need to be taken through from the plan level into the development of individual projects. Marine Scotland may therefore also consider the value of developing specific guidance for developers on how social values can be better incorporated within project Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA).



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