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Weekend long read: Social licence is dead: let’s resurrect it

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Protest march at Pickering December 2017. Photo: Frack Free Pickering

Alan Tootill

Alan Tootill

Author, fracking opponent and Green Party member, Alan Tootill, looks at how oil and gas companies have abandoned the idea of social licence for fracking and explores how campaigners against the industry could this use to their advantage.

In February 2015, Ken Cronin, the chief executive of UK Onshore Oil and Gas, told an industry conference the number one priority for the industry was public acceptance. It was, he said, “absolutely vital”, adding that if companies didn’t get their social approval they wouldn’t get the chance even to explore. This was, of course, like most of UKOOG’s output, arrant nonsense. No company needs social licence to operate (SLO) when the sole determiner of approval is a central government blind to community wishes.

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Sign at Preston New Road in Lancashire, April 2017.  Photo: Cheryl Atkinson

Fracking has no SLO in the UK. Cuadrilla singularly failed to gain social licence. But they nevertheless got their drill in the ground. Similar evidence of social licence denial is emerging elsewhere, particularly at Kirby Misperton, and in the past IGas faced fierce opposition at Barton Moss. Third Energy is suffering not only a lack of social licence, but serious concerns about its company viability. Ineos, now becoming the major player in the North of England, despite its avowed commitment to achieving SLO (pdf – 1.6 MB), has by its actions alienated not only fracking opponents but councils, national park officials, and other landowners through its seismic testing and over-ambitious wellpad plans.

When the government outlined plans for financial inducements to communities to accept fracking it was clear that they knew full well it would never gain SLO, and by calling in fracking decisions and overriding local opposition they have confirmed it is of no concern to them.

The question is, if fracking’s social licence is dead in the water, how can we as opponents use this?

Social licence – what is it and does it exist?

The use of the word “licence” in SLO is misleading. SLO is not part of any legislation or part of any official regulatory process, in the UK or elsewhere. It is a term, at best vague in definition, concocted by the oil and gas industry some twenty years ago to describe means of overcoming local objection and acquiring acceptance of what is an essentially objectionable industry. In following years it became promoted more widely as a business strategy due to growing public anti-globalisation and anti-big business sentiment.

Despite the fact academics have taken the bait, researched and pontificated on this, SLO is merely a marketing ploy. It has little to do with care for communities. It is everything to do with industry self-interest. A tool within a corporate business strategy to be used for profile building and project marketing to decision-makers, a PR template that can be used by both socially-responsible and irresponsible companies.

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Preston New Road, Lancashire. Photo: Roseacre Awareness Group

Key to the concept is the idea of acceptance and approval by stakeholders. But this is the first of its major drawbacks. The word “stakeholder” is ill-defined. There is no agreement on which group of stakeholders has priority, or participation, in “granting” social licence, or what constitutes granting or withholding it if stakeholder groups disagree.

The second and most significant problem with the SLO model is that, often, decision-making on a local project is not made by the company which professes to have SLO incorporated in its corporate business plan, nor by the community stakeholders, who can neither grant permission nor – significantly for us – veto.

My view is that SLO has become a meaningless and overused term for something that really doesn’t exist, or if it does, it is more on paper and in hot air than in reality. The industry may now wish to forget about SLO, but the very fact they appear to have given up on achieving it should spur anti-fracking activity to capitalise on their failure. SLO – or the lack of it – is now OUR weapon in the fight against fracking, and we must make use of it.

How does a company’s social licence strategy operate?

There is no action template, but agreement that companies should work with two target levels in mind. The first is simple acceptance of a business or project, the second and higher level is having the community welcome the project. The ideal is forming a partnership with the community. Or even for the operator to be regarded as part of the community.

This ideal, as Cuadrilla have found, despite their huge spending on PR, is entirely unrealistic. Above all, social licence cannot be achieved without trust in the company, and Cuadrilla, by their actions have destroyed trust, for themselves and other operators, failing to reach even the lowest level of approval..

Social licence should be maintained throughout a project. However, with fracking, once permissions are granted, planning or environmental, there is no turnback. All evidence to-date in the UK is that authorities bend over backward to condone, or at least fail to penalise, transgressions. No wonder that less effort is spent by a company to maintain standards during a project than to achieve its commencement.

Any active promotion of a controversial process is likely to divide, rather than unite communities. This has happened in the US, Canada and Australia, and has happened in the UK, particularly at Balcombe and in the Fylde (see chapter 13 of Fracking The UK volume 2).


Preston New Road, Lancashire, March 2017. Photo: Peter Yankowski

It is still argued that the way forward for a company which wishes to frack is to engage the community at the earliest possible opportunity. In my view this is a dead duck. It is far too late, given the success of the anti-fracking lobby over the last few years in raising awareness of the real risks, and in exposing the weaknesses of the fracking companies. These have been less than honest in their industry hype, underestimating the intelligence of communities and opposition. Pumping money into local “charitable” organisations, or “rewarding” communities for hosting fracking as a way of gaining SLO was a calculated risk for the frackers and in the UK this has backfired, and can be seen as both divisive and counterproductive.

UK social licence benchmark – Cuadrilla

So far we have seen not a single example where a company can reasonably claim it has achieved SLO for fracking from any significant section of the community. Indeed, in my view it is difficult to see how this can ever be achieved by any company.

Cuadrilla stands as a perfect example of how not to go about it. Their massive propaganda drive failed, and as for their credibility and trust, their early record was deplorable . Worse was to come at Preston New Road, with many breaches of planning agreements, conditions and traffic plans.

It is noteworthy that many or most of these breaches came to light and were reported by the anti-fracking activists monitoring operations at the site. This is a very powerful fact supporting the argument that it is VITAL such protection actions (visible evidence of no SLO) continue at every single potential fracking site, regardless of whether they are seen as an effective deterrent to the fracking companies. Local authorities are realising they have no resources to police fracking applications. Even one site in Lancashire stretches them to the limit.

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Police at Preston New Road, Lancashire. Photo: DrillOrDrop

The good news at Preston New Road is that other local authorities are assuredly watching and noting. They see that once planning permission is granted all the work that has gone into devising protective conditions means very little. They see direct action and its consequences in terms of police deployment and costs. Whether or not councillors have any particular view on fracking, they cannot avoid their judgement being affected. In the last month (Jan/Feb 2018), four significant decisions against onshore gas have been taken by county councils. It is inconceivable this was not influenced by what has happened at Preston New Road..

In the Fylde, the local democratically-elected representatives at all levels, parish, borough and county voiced their opposition to Cuadrilla’s plans, adding to the many thousands of public objections. If that isn’t proof positive of lack of social licence in Lancashire, I don’t know what is.

Social impact

Social licence is inseparable from consideration of social impact. By ignoring social impact on communities and by censoring the Defra report on potential impact in rural areas I think the government has made a grave error of judgement.

Anna Szolucha’s 2016 report (pdf download 68 MB) remains the only real evidence we have on fracking’s social effects on UK communities. It demonstrates, sadly, that not only has there been destruction of trust in Cuadrilla, but growing distrust of regulatory authorities, politicians and police. The report is an essential read, being both factual and perceptive, for all “stakeholders”.

Beyond SLO

Some academics, including researchers at Warwick and Northampton, have recognised the limitations of SLO’s concentration on local communities, ignoring the wider context of decision making. Others have broadened a business or social analysis model to include wider stakeholders, by which is meant anyone affected by fracking, or involved in decision-making, including of course central government. (One can argue the climate change imperative makes us all stakeholders in any fracking project, validating our opposition to it wherever it is proposed).

One Canadian academic picks out from other work a potential strategy for dealing with local communities becoming disenfranchised. This sees denial of social licence as only the first of several stages of action. The four stages are –

  1. Refusal of social licence
  2. Political action to create a powerful coalition to press the government to withdraw regulatory licences and permits.
  3. Government being forced to reassess fracking and include the public in effective consultation, i.e. one whose results will be acted upon.
  4. Legal implementation – withdrawal of permits and ban implementation.

In the UK we have clearly passed stage one. Can we proceed to stage two is the next challenge. This, in itself, would be an achievement and a significant deterrent to the industry. I do not underestimate the work involved in this, at a time when many are working on the front line, but it surely must be considered as a way forward beyond merely raising local awareness and signalling dissent.

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Rotherham Council Planning Board vote unanimously to oppose Ineos shale gas exploration at Harthill, 25 January 2018. Photo: DrillOrDrop

I think there is a strong argument for saying that local authorities may be the most important stakeholders, whose views may well bring about the downfall of fracking. Apart from the spate of refusals of projects in the last month (Jan/Feb 2018), the Local Government Association (LGA) is already arguing for dismantling the permitted development system. If the government is foolhardy enough to take all fracking decisions out of local hands, especially in the worst case making it permitted development (not unlikely, as there is no way that central government has the resources to call in all fracking applications in a development scenario), they can expect a strong backlash.

The LGA’s refusal to accept national government imposition of an unwelcome industry would be the final nail in UK fracking’s coffin. If that is a correct prediction, then our efforts to lobby, to inform, or become active local councillors at all levels should be stepped up as a key part of our own strategy, in addition to direct action.

Becoming an elected councillor takes time and effort, but if we perceive fracking as a political issue we cannot stand outside the system. We could be more influential working within it. Just one strong independent voice on a council can make a difference, as many Greens have found.

Significantly, we must learn to work efficiently with each other, as well as with local councils, if we are to become that powerful force to move on to stage two and beyond. Too often we have appeared divided or disparate, but claimed that as our strength. I think it is time to review that situation.


Fracking has not achieved any social licence to operate in the UK and is unlikely ever to do so. If the industry wishes to drop the concept of social licence we must not allow it to be forgotten but continue to use it, and to our advantage, as part of a new strategy.


As a final word, I should say that in my opinion there has been a great achievement over the last year. Direct action at Preston New Road has been inventive, cheerful under duress, constant in its resolve, and served as an example to other potential protests. Most importantly, from my viewpoint, locally it has achieved social licence. Perhaps not yet at the applauded level, but at least at the acceptance level! That is a far greater achievement in one year than Cuadrilla has achieved in the last seven, or will ever achieve.


Protestor, Preston New Road, Lancahsire. Photo: Ros Wills

  • Alan Tootill has written two volumes about the history and prospects for UK fracking, entitled Fracking The UK. He is a life member of the Green Party, and served as councillor on East Devon District Council during the 1990s. He now lives in the Fylde.

If you’d like to contribute a long read for the weekend, please get in touch here

12/2/18 Link to research paper updated


9 replies »

  1. The UK fracking industry had opportunities to engage with the public well before Cuadrilla and IGas submitted their planning applications for Balcombe and Barton Moss, but they didn’t take them. Was it arrogance? Or poor PR advice?
    To make matters worse IGas held ‘closed’ CLG meetings for their Barton Moss site, and inexplicably prohibited any publication of minutes. What did they expect to achieve with that? As a fundamental reason for seeking a social licence is to enhance a company’s trustworthiness, IGas managed to produce the very opposite.
    In 2014 Andrew Austin of IGas told me that problems in America were down to bad practice. Well, if IGas knew that, then shouldn’t they have addressed those problems before they submitted any planning applications? It seems the industry had not appreciated how quickly the public had developed an informed understanding of the technologies of shale gas production and the associated hazards and impacts. Simply dismissing American problems with, “They won’t happen here’, insulted our intelligence.
    That same year in Lound village, Nottinghamshire, Dart Energy held an exhibition to present their plans for Daneshill, in which they insisted on talking to people only in ones or twos. They flatly refused to allow questions from the floor that everyone could hear. It was very much ‘divide and conquer’. Dart had needed constructive dialogue with local people but generated only suspicion, frustration and anger. I know of one local resident who is still waiting for replies to her questions.
    And Government has not helped either. Their ‘Meet the Regulator’ drop-ins have been badly timed and poorly promoted, giving the (probably incorrect?) impression that they didn’t really want people to attend.
    Since Preese Hall in 2011 government and industry has been on the back foot and they have only themselves to blame.
    Is it too late for a social licence now? Yes. The industry needs to halt, back off, count its toes and start again in a few years’ time. The last thing fracking companies should do is to bully their way in, but it seems that is exactly what they are doing with injunctions and bypassing local democracy. This industry has learnt nothing.
    Promoting fracking in the UK has been one of the poorest PR campaigns I have ever seen. One could be forgiven for thinking the objective was to NEVER gain a social licence at all.

  2. Fundamentally the fracking companies have been unbelievably inept, their PR has been shockingly incompetent and their shills and astroturf groups have been a deep deep embarrassment.

    They’ve taken what in essence was a perfectly successful American oil & gas playbook and given it a true slant of British incompetence.

    5 years ago they could have given me a free Vauxhall Vectra and a season ticket at West Ham and I’d have had the whole joint fracked by now.

  3. “Social licence” without obvious, and substantiated, payback to either locals, or nationally is like looking for the yeti. A few get excited about it but many will not until there is validation.
    The exploration companies have numerous means to obtain a social licence if and when real and economic results are achieved. Now is not the time for them to commit too much to PR, as PR is not that great until it had some cost benefit “actuals” to work with. They will work on this at the appropriate time and will be pretty pleased with how successful the antis have been establishing their “antisocial licence” in the meanwhile.

  4. Thanks Alan. An excellent revue on where we are at present and some thought provoking guidance on the way forward. Much appreciated.

  5. Social License is not about ‘payback.’ That is a corporate point of view. It should be seeking a general level of local approval whether it be active or passive. Nor is not about ‘them and us’. Unfortunately the O&G industry in England cannot afford to be either transparent or honest because it would undermine their whole business strategy. Respect has to be earned through actions and deeds not PR generalisations. We have noted their actions and deeds over several years and they have proved to be untrustworthy. The past has a habit of catching up and there is no exception for this particular industry.

  6. Social License is not about “payback”!!! Oh yes it is Waffle. I seem to remember there was not going to be any takers of the Cuadrilla “bribe”. Well, that turned out to be a nonsense. People will provide a social license based upon what the pros and cons are-the pros are very much about payback.

    Actions and deeds bit is correct. If the exploration companies find substantial gas, can extract it economically and without hiccup then PR will really get into gear. To suggest these companies have all been about PR is farcical-they have done very little.

    • Martin to suggest that companies like Cuadrilla who once used 7 PR agencies in a single quarter have “done very little PR” is ludicrous. It may be fair to say that they have done very little effective PR I suppose.

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