Rules of engagement

7 May 2010



Working with communities and their representatives will play an increasing role for developers who want to deliver projects in a timely way. According to James Garland, from UK political planning consultancy Green Issues communications, companies who factor in consultation and effective engagement will be far more likely to achieve a positive outcome


It is widely felt by many working in the planning sector that the UK government’s delivery of major infrastructure projects has been glacially slow and resolutely bureaucratic. The government’s response to this back in 2008 was to pass The Planning Act, billed as the most significant shake-up of the planning system for decades. A number of National Policy Statements, the introduction of the Community Infrastructure Levy and changes to the Appeals System were supplemented by the setting up of the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC).

This was welcomed by many with an interest in the delivery of major and nationally significant infrastructure projects. In theory, the setting up of a more streamlined, ‘single-tier’ decision-making process should have helped address some of the causes of delay and under-investment in infrastructure. Unfortunately, it hasn’t really panned out like that.

However, as we in the UK enter into the home straight in the run-up to the general election, we have two competing ideologies from the two main political parties with regard to the planning and delivery of infrastructure projects. It is fair to say that the majority of our clients are not exactly enthused by the prospect of what may lie ahead.

The Labour Party’s approach over the last thirteen years has essentially been top-down and target driven. On the face of it, this lends itself to the delivery of major infrastructure projects. The introduction of the IPC in 2008 consolidated this and was intended to bring some certainty to the system. However, the Conservatives don’t see it this way.

Launching the new planning green paper ‘Open Source Planning’ in London, Conservative leader David Cameron said the plans show ‘how a system that was controlled by a few can be run by the many’.

Whilst this is seemingly laudable and is certainly shrewd, politically, is this really the best way forward in order to kick-start the economy and deliver much needed infrastructure projects of national significance? What it does mean, in the short term, is that there is now a good deal of uncertainty and, frankly, that is the last thing we need.

One thing the Conservatives are very clear about is that they will abolish the IPC, who like, Regional Development Agencies (RDAs), embody everything the Conservatives see as wrong with the government’s approach. However, the Conservative mantra of ‘localism’ seems reliant on turning NIMBYs into YIMBYs, (their words, not mine), something that will require a significant change in attitude in local communities – to say the least.

Effective engagement

Whether the Conservatives or Labour form the next government and, at the time of writing, this is anyone’s guess, one thing is for sure: working with communities and their representatives will play an increasing role for those developers who want to deliver their projects in a timely way.

Under the current framework, engaging effectively with local communities means fewer problems when it comes to the examination stage. If the examination is in the form of a hearing (which is more likely if there is significant opposition), each interested party is entitled to make oral representations. For these reasons applicants need to adopt a pro-active approach to consultation at the outset. Those applicants that are seen to be engaging in a meaningful way with local communities are more likely to minimise opposition from NIMBY groups and will therefore have an easier time of it as the application progresses.

Whatever the sector, from hydroelectricity to house building and everything in between, one thing that is relevant to all is a structured programme of communications and consultation is essential.

Our advice to our clients, irrespective of the nature of the project we work on is to consider the following key themes:

• Start consulting early: A parallel approach should be taken to technical work and consultation. Involve politicians, local government and community representatives early in the cycle and do not present them with a ‘fait accompli”.

• Make sure no one is left out so the project gets off on the right foot. Those people who represent communities will value being included in consultation programmes. You ignore these people at your peril as it is highly likely they will come back to haunt you at a later stage.

• Tailor your consultation to suit the area: Every developer has experience of the standard public exhibition, inviting the public to look at and comment on your proposals. This is one way of doing things, but not necessarily the best. Consider stakeholder forums, liaison groups, workshops.

• Avoid public meetings at all costs. Sitting on a stage in a village hall may be a cathartic experience for those who turn up but these meetings are seldom constructive and inevitably those people who make the most noise will dominate the meeting and give everyone the impression that your scheme is not wanted.

• Explore innovative ways of consulting with communities. Online methods are cost effective, inclusive and serve to tick a very important box with regard to national guidance on best practice. The setting up and monitoring of social networking sites, which are becoming an increasingly prevalent tool by opposition groups, is also recommended.

• Where possible, focus on the silent majority not just the ‘usual suspects’. People who actively go out of their way to participate in the consultation process always include those who are by opposed to your schemes, but are statistically far less likely to include those who are in favour.

Don’t spend needless amounts of time and money engaging with those people who are ‘dyed in the wool’ opponents. It is highly unlikely that you will persuade NIMBYs to completely change their viewpoint with regard to your schemes and you should avoid at all costs tit for tat arguments played out in the media.

Instead, give some thought to those people or groups who are likely to be natural allies or advocates of your proposals and seek to involve them in the process. Every scheme will have its supporters, no matter how controversial it is. Often these supporters are less likely to participate in the planning process than those who oppose it. A far more effective use of resources is to identify and mobilise these people as a way of demonstrating support for a scheme.

Delivering infrastructure

In summary, we are in a period of limbo in the run-up to the general election in the UK. We have two diametrically opposed ideologies from the two main political parties with regard to the delivery of major infrastructure projects. Labour’s top-down approach, exemplified by the creation of the IPC, is unpopular with many voters and the Conservatives have sought to exploit this as a way of making political capital. The jury is very much still out on whether or not their alternative, with its reliance in localism, will prove more successful in enabling projects to be delivered in a more timely way. My personal view is that it will not.

However, what remains true, irrespective of the outcome of the general election, is that consultation and effective engagement with communities and their representatives will play an increasing role in the delivery of much needed infrastructure and that those companies who factor this in and plan accordingly will be far more likely to achieve a positive outcome – and there really is no getting away with it. This viewpoint is true for most of the other countries throughout the world.

James Garland is a director at Green Issues Communications which specialises in community engagement and consultation. Email: [email protected]




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