Protecting your social licence

Some of the themes at CMIC12 included quarry approvals and the social licence to operate. Consultant Chris Prowse advised that a key reason for so many delays to quarry approvals now is that the majority of applications are not for greenfield sites but for the extensions of existing sites.

As a result, there is a lack of political will towards such applications because governments and their bureaucrats are not inclined to tamper with public sentiment. Efforts by quarry businesses to ?up the ante? on public servants by resorting to legal appeal forums further contribute to ill will between those businesses and their communities.

Katherine Teh White, managing director of Futureye, reinforced this notion in her presentation – that industry pressure can lead to further legislative and regulatory constraints from government and the community. She argued that a quarry business can only reasonably gain a social licence to operate if it is prepared to take a positive approach to its dealings with stakeholders.

This means a preparedness to track the expectations of stakeholders, to actively listen to critics and their grievances, to acknowledge past challenges and current problems, to engage stakeholders in substantive negotiations, and to plan for the changes agreed in the negotiations to be of maximum value to stakeholders and of minimum cost to the business.

Some recent examples of quarry/community engagement in the local and international news are probably a good ?crash course? in losing your social licence. For example, we report this month on a UK quarry business that has sought to defuse controversy about its plans for expansion by offering stakeholders monetary compensation in exchange for their co-operation in the approvals process.

In some quarters of the English town, this has been interpreted as a bribe ? or at the very least reward for residents taking a vow of silence. It raises whole new questions about ethics. Even if the negotiations between the parties are transparent and conducted in good faith, won?t it invite the perception that the approvals process has been tainted? I suspect in the long term it?s more likely to reinforce the levels of mistrust and resistance that exist between the local quarry and its community.

Similarly, Toowoomba Regional Council is under fire for considering its own application for the proposed large scale expansion of its own gravel quarry in the Queensland regional town of Haden. The council wants to expand production at the quarry from 5000 tonnes to 100,000 tonnes a year but has failed to consult widely with its own constituents, especially the parents and students of the local state school.

Even allowing for the fact that the Department of Environment and Resource Management will be the final arbiter, the council appears to have miscalculated by lodging an application ? no less with itself! ? without prior warning and consultation. It smacks of self-interest and invites feelings of helplessness.

Stakeholders that feel helpless can be powerful reactionaries. As White herself said at CMIC12, instant global communications ? such as social media ? enable disaffected stakeholders to maintain message cohesion and lobby for change. Anyone can now be an activist from their laptop and we have seen from the recent level of cyber-lobbying against 2GB?s Alan Jones just how much damage can be done to the reputations of an individual and an organisation if stakeholders are motivated accordingly. Unlike Jones, whose advertisers will trickle back, there is no guarantee that a quarry will regain its community?s trust if it offends stakeholders? resolve at a project?s vital stage.

As White says, a social licence to operate is the community?s tacit consent for a business to exist. With that consent comes the expectation that the business will be transparent and accountable in its decision-making.

Without those qualities, the business will never establish a rapport within its community. Within your own organisation, never lose sight of how important your community is ? particularly to your operation?s well-being.

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