Breaking down reservations and building trust – that’s often easier said than done. And it sometimes also requires new formats to enable us to come up with and develop new ideas. Formats such as the “planning dialogue”, in which citizens and experts work hand in hand to plan a route.

It was supposed to be a fresh start on the public relations front for what had so far been a project fraught with conflict. It was against this background that the German Institute of Urban Affairs (Deutsches Institut für Urbanistik, Difu) came to Borgholzhausen – a small town of just under 9,000 inhabitants in North Rhine-Westphalia’s Teutoburg Forest – for the first time in 2017 on behalf of Amprion. A power link, which leads from Wehrendorf in Lower Saxony to the city of Gütersloh, cuts across the parish. Amprion plans to upgrade this extra-high-voltage line from 220 to 380 kilovolts in order to create a high-capacity link between the Osnabrück region and Eastern Westphalia.

The first application for a permit made by the transmission system operator back in 2013 for this eight-kilometre section leading to the state boundary with Lower Saxony had been for an overhead line. But the people of Borgholzhausen had been far from happy about this, and around 700 objections were submitted during the course of the planning approval proceedings. However, initially the legal basis for constructing this link as an under­ground line – as desired by many – was not given. It was not until the Energy Grid Expansion Act (EnLAG) was amended at the end of 2015 that the federal government classified the route as a pilot project for partial underground cabling.

Amprion decided to re-open the planning process for this section – and also took this as an opportunity to try a new PR approach. Dialogue with citizens was to be initiated in advance of the approval procedure, well before the stage at which they must officially be invited to participate. For the first time, Amprion involved a scientific institution in such a procedure: Difu was to accompany and evaluate the participation process right from the very start.


Dr Stephanie Bock works as a research assistant and team leader for the German Institute of Urban Affairs (Difu). Her main areas of interest include urban and regional development as well as citizen participation.

Dr Stephanie Bock

German Institute of Urban Affairs (Difu)

The first phase of the “Borgholzhausen Planning Dialogue” began in 2018. The aim was to incorporate the local knowledge of the citizens into the planning activities and to build confidence in the project. Particular attention was paid to the selection of participants. In addition to representatives from as diverse a spectrum of interests as possible (citizens’ action groups, “public inter­est bodies”, the local authority and business), six citizens were allocated a seat on the committee by lottery.

In order to develop a joint concept for the underground cable route through the actual built-up area of Borgholzhausen, experts from Amprion kicked off by informing the committee members about the start­ing point of the project, the technology and various boundary conditions, thus creating the basis for the intensive discussions that were to follow. In conclusion, all of the participants formulated recommendations for the course of the route and the locations of the cable transfer stations.

An external intermediary attended the closed-door meetings in order to make the process as transparent and fair as possible. Presentations and minutes were coordinated promptly and published on the project website at www.planungsdialog-borgholzhausen.net.

At the beginning of the dialogue, scepticism was rife on all sides, with the first sessions characterised by poorly formulated goals, an issue perceived by many as diffuse, and communications dominated by previous conflicts. But over the course of the meetings, we increasingly succeeded in breaking down people’s reservations. The technical experts from Amprion had a special role to play here. Their expertise was in great demand and it was this that played a big part in gaining everyone’s trust. Those citizens who had been selected by lottery introduced a healthy degree of openness and common sense, and succeeded in diffusing old conflicts and counteracting the polarisation that had held up progress for many years. Then, in the summer of 2018, a joint proposal was actually on the table.

It’s not yet clear whether Amprion will be able to initiate the new approval procedure on this basis, because there are still residents of Burgholzhausen who oppose the laying of an underground cable. One thing’s clear: it’s impossible to dispel the concerns of some without new conflicts arising elsewhere. This makes transparent and comprehensible procedures that explain how decisions are reached all the more important.

From Difu’s viewpoint, the planning dialogue was a difficult but rewarding challenge for all participants. It was important and right to initiate it at such an early stage and to plan and coordinate it as a longer-term process, because a successful dialogue doesn’t come about just overnight. It’s hard work and demands the right attitude from all players.

Five facts about the planning dialogue

Unique

Amprion is breaking new ground with its planning dialogue. A format that is tailored to grid expansion at the local level and is accompanied from the outset by a scientific institute has never before existed in Germany in this form. The planning dialogue accompanies the project from the development of an idea through the preparation of the planning approval procedure to construction. Amprion is therefore in a position to expand its scope in the area of early public participation, it is present on-site as a point of contact and it gathers valuable knowledge on the opportunities, but also the limits, of such a process.

Well versed

The construction of a new power link opens a wide range of issues that are of interest to the local population. Consequently, several expert meetings were held as part of the planning dialogue. In a technical discussion on technology, cable construction experts explained the possibilities and limits of partial underground cabling and various other construction methods. Independent spea­ker Dr Hannah Heinrich gave a lecture on electric and magnetic fields as part of a public meeting held for the residents of Borgholzhausen.

Diverse

The range of interests expressed in the first dialogue phase was broad. While some representatives advocated the laying of an underground cable, others preferred the overhead line variant. Forestry, environmental and water conservation issues were also discussed by the committee, as well as aspects relating to tourism. Grid security, security of supply and energy prices were also considered. Amprion aims to minimise the impact its projects have on mankind and nature. On the other hand, it is the statutory duty of a grid operator to pay due consideration to economic viability and system security. Ultimately, it’s the regional government of Detmold that will decide how the power line will be built, after evaluating the various interests and weighing them against each other.

Goal-oriented

Right from the start, the participants in the planning dialogue had a clear milestone in mind: a common idea for a potential route and search areas for the two cable transfer stations that are necessary. In the next step, Amprion will carry out preliminary investigations on-site, prepare various expert opinions and conduct discussions with citizens who own land in the area of the planned power line. Amprion intends to submit the documentation for the new planning approval procedure to Detmold’s regional government in mid-2020.

Citizen-centric

Two “citizens’ info markets” in Borgholzhausen marked the beginning and end of the first planning phase. In January 2018, around 100 visitors attended the first of these markets to find out about the project and the concept of the planning dialogue. It was here that the six citizens who had applied to participate in the committee were also drawn by lots. In August 2018, at the end of the first phase, the members of the planning dialogue reported on their work and presented the concept they had jointly developed before an audience of around 170 interested parties.