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Posted on Tue 22nd Oct, 2013 in: Industry Comment, Issues Management, Public Relations by Jenny Wilkinson

So the government has given the go-ahead for the UK's first new nuclear power station in a generation. France's EDF Energy will lead the consortium, which includes Chinese investors, to build the Hinkley Point C plant in Somerset. The two reactors planned, which will provide power for about 60 years, are a key part of the coalition's drive to shift the UK away from fossil fuels towards low-carbon power. Ministers and EDF have been in talks for more than a year about the minimum price the company will be paid for electricity produced at the site, which the government estimates will cost £16bn to build. The two sides have now agreed the "strike price" of £92.50 for every megawatt hour of energy Hinkley C generates. This is almost twice the current wholesale cost of electricity. This has sparked fears from consumer groups that energy bills could go up, as the owners of the nuclear plant are being guaranteed a price for electricity and, not surprisingly, critics are warning that guaranteeing a price for electricity at twice the current level will raise bills, leading to more fuel poverty. This has not been helped by three of the "big six" energy companies outlining price rises at the same time as the Government's "big"? announcement. As we have alluded to before in our blogs, admittedly when it comes to getting your message across, it's often easier to be an opponent than a supporter. You tend to get more headlines that way. But from a comms point of view the Government, the energy companies and the consortium are facing a really big problem - how do you persuade and explain to people that they should be guaranteeing costs and paying for something now that you won't get any benefit from for another 20 years. Ministers say this deal will help take the UK towards low-carbon power and lower generating costs in the future, and the energy companies say price rises are about covering and reflecting their rising external costs, not making profit. But in today's economic climate, when real incomes are flat or declining, the cost of energy has gone up and the number of people reduced to relying on food banks to survive has tripled over the last year, it is a real struggle to get support. Whilst there is no denying that there is a massive crisis facing much of our society at the minute, short termism is the real elephant in the room. There is a danger that by not future-proofing our country's infrastructure, we will be facing an even bigger crisis. But part of effectively achieving this vision is explaining this to people and helping them understand. If you look at the only other recent example of how the Government has handled the communications for a big infrastructure project, I think there was a lot more they could have done, and still need to do, to convince people of the need and benefit of HS2. The problem here was that from the outset the communications plan was based on a flawed strategy - focusing on short term messaging and using the business and regional economic benefits of HS2 to try and get people to support the project rather than talking about the big, long term picture. Admittedly it doesn't help that the rail industry isn't as good as it should be at promoting itself, but the PR job for HS2 should be smarter. Whilst the long-term economic case for HS2 is still a strong one, the Department for Transport (assuming it still wants to go ahead with the project) and HS2 Ltd, the private company formed to promote it, haven't really got that across. They have to be more bullish in their communications. Rather than the personal business benefits, they should be demonstrating what will happen if we don't do anything about our transport infrastructure. Cities will grind to a halt and our economy will stagnate. And the failure to find an effective way to get this point across is the reason why now the DfT and HS2 Ltd have an even harder job on their hands. The same is at risk with the argument for Hinkley - it's simple to say if we don't spend money the lights will go out, but there needs to be more explanation about the impact of inertia and the wider impact a lack of investment will have on our country. It requires politicians to be brave and to not go for the vote winning sound bite. Sometimes you have to deal with the truth and face facts in order to provide a real legacy. For the past 150 years Britain has been reaping the benefits of the Victorians' vision to invest infrastructure, but nothing is future proof. This is about a new industrial age - we need to invest in energy and transport infrastructure for the next generation, but it will only be effective if the coalition, consortia and companies involved can get the communications right. As well as being a bit quicker at engaging directly with people through roadshows and consultations, they should be anticipating the real objections and concerns that communities will have and answering those questions. But more importantly they should paint a clearer picture of what the future will be like without this investment. In order to help people appreciate the importance of infrastructure they need to demonstrate what our cities and towns will be like in 20 years and the lifestyle that will be available for the next generation if we don't act today.

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