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Friday, 19 December 2014

Power to the people

IF there is one thing the past 12 months has proved, it is never to underestimate the effectiveness of people power.

VICTORY: The Furness Opposes Biomass group celebrate their campaign’s success in blocking Centrica’s plans to build a biomass plant at Roosecote (below) HARRY ATKINSON REF: 50040461B001

Furness residents secured a number of notable against-the-odds victories over governments and companies alike this year.

A group of mums and dads stared down bus company Stagecoach until it blinked and halved the price hikes on its children’s fares.

Campaigning by Barrow’s Remploy workers forced the Department for Work and Pensions to put the factory out to tender.

But by far the biggest victory for grass roots activism came when a group of six residents swelled into an army of 14,500 and toppled Centrica’s plans to build a biomass plant at Roosecote.

Redshaw Avenue resident Kevin Booth was part of the group that became Furness Opposes Biomass and said he never imagined the support it would garner.

“We decided that we weren’t happy with what Centrica were proposing and we thought we’d set up our own group to see what we could do about it,” he said.

“I would say initially that we did have the narrow-minded ‘not in my backyard’ view, which we were accused of.

“But once we were up and running and started doing our own research, we realised what a serious impact there could be on the Furness area.”

Centrica – one of the largest and wealthiest companies in the UK – maintained the development would create hundreds of jobs during the construction phase, dozens of full-time positions once the plant was operational, and provide energy to at least 125,000 homes.

It was a big investment for the area, but one an increasing number of residents believed would come at too high a cost.

“We got all sorts of evidence and dealt with professional people – doctors, scientists – and other people campaigning, not only in the UK but all over the world, and they confirmed the concerns we had on the emissions,” Mr Booth said.

“We were very dependent on our two local councillors, Ray Guselli and Ken Williams, to give us advice on planning processes and councilprocesses, so there was a huge learning curve for all of us.”

The turning point in the campaign occurred once the Furness Opposed Biomass group started pushing their petition out into the community.

“Early on, we thought we only needed about 3,500 signatures to make an impact,” Mr Booth said.

“I think we really underestimated that and if it hadn’t through the good work of two of our members especially, taking it up to that 14,500, I don’t think we would have been as successful.

“We’ve had other campaign groups asking us what we think our success was and my personal view is to put all your efforts into the petition.”

Despite the groundswell of support the anti-biomass campaign generated, organisers were still taken by surprise when Centrica announced on October 24 it was withdrawing the plans.

While Centrica spokesman Alan McLaughlin said the decision was made after the government revealed its future energy policy would not favour dedicated biomass plants, there appears little doubt the widespread community opposition played a role.

“Consultation with the local community has been a central part of developing our proposals and we have been pleased that so many local people have engaged with us directly to discuss their views – both positive and negative,” he said.

Mr Booth said the decision came as an enormous relief because the campaign was taking a toll on the most active members of the opposition.

“That came as a shot out of the blue,” he said. “We were at a stage where all the work we were putting it was getting quite stressful and it was taking a lot of effort to persevere with the campaign.

“So when they came and said they were withdrawing the plans, I was totally amazed. I couldn’t believe it.”

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