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Luke, H 2016, 'Social license for industrial developments in rural areas : a case study of unconventional gas development in the Northern Rivers, Australia ; an investigation of regional values, identity and social dynamics', PhD thesis, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW.

Copyright H Luke 2016


Rural areas globally are subject to the converging pressures of climate change, urbanisation, market forces and energy expansion. Large-scale industrial projects can add to land-use competition and resource conflicts, potentially leading to dramatic impact on rural environments and their communities. Social licence can be used as a lens for understanding how communities respond to proposed industrial developments. A disconnect between the social license concept and the aims of sustainable development manifests itself in rural areas as a tension between industry activity and community aspirations. Mismatches between land-use planning decisions and community aspirations can create conflict, and potentially, social resistance. Social resistance can reflect strong community positioning and result in social license withdrawal. The relationships between these processes remain unclear.

The aim of this thesis is to use the social license lens to explore dynamics of social license for industrial developments in rural areas, with a particular focus on social license withdrawal. The case study for this exploration is a community response to unconventional gas industry developments, presenting an opportunity for research into factors leading to the granting or withdrawal of social license to operate. Three main themes woven throughout the thesis are: 1) drivers of social positioning on industrial development; 2) social dynamics and their influence upon social positioning, and 3) the role of social license in land-use planning.

Empirical data was collected using a mixed method, case study approach. Qualitative data from key informant interviews and focus group observations was used to develop a referendum-style poll and two election surveys that were carried out in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, Australia. The evolution of community views is examined as isolated concerns merged into coordinated social mobilisation, to the point where, in one local government area, 85% of voters opposed the industry, and up to 7,000 residents were mobilising in protest events. Research focussed on the social dynamics of intergroup and intragroup processes within the social movement, view formation and motivators for community positioning. Potential positive and negative influences on rural livelihoods, environmental values and procedural justice were important drivers of perceived legitimacy of developments, with trust being key to the perceived credibility of information.

The Thomson and Boutilier (2011) social license model was expanded to include processes within and beyond withdrawal of social license. It is concluded that the three main themes of the thesis are intrinsically linked with each other. Social dynamics play an important role in view formation, as existing values and identity will themselves influence social dynamics. The interaction of these factors, entwined with community engagement and decision-making processes will influence public perceptions, social license, and social resistance.