‘Build, Build, Build’ for a sustainable and inclusive recovery

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In the Consultation Institute’s Environment Working Group’s first webinar we outlined our belief that the recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic has huge potential as a ‘green’ recovery.

In the last three months the nation has been shocked by the pace at which disaster can occur and consequently concerns about climate change have been brought to the fore. But we’ve also been encouraged by positive impacts including cleaner rivers, reduced air pollution, the ability to enjoy birdsong and more recently the introduction of a ‘café culture’ in Britain’s town centres – much of which is detailed in IPSOS MORI’s excellent report Now What?  Climate change and coronavirus.

This progress can only continue if the Government’s ‘Infrastructure Revolution’ comprehensively addresses the need for greater sustainability.

Its early days, but already polling shows that people expect to adapt to a more sustainable lifestyle.  Research carried out by Centre for London in June revealed that 69% of Londoners support the widening of pavements and 64% support the provision of new cycle lanes. The experience of the lockdown has also increased understanding of the need for additional parks and outdoor spaces (especially in areas of high density), fewer high-rise balcony-less apartment blocks and increased circulation space on our high streets. Additional opportunities for a sustainable recovery include the creation of an infrastructure for electric cars, provision of higher environmental standards in new housing, and investment in renewable energy and a commitment to biodiversity.

Without question, the substantial funding for infrastructure which was announced earlier this week is fundamental to our financial recovery – but to ‘build, build, build’ without taking the time to fully address critical environmental issues, future-proof construction would negate the substantial progress that has been made towards a ‘greener’ future. There is a danger that a rush to convert shopping centre into homes, for example, creates car-dependent unsustainable communities which deny their inhabitants the most basic rights of natural light and fresh air. It is imperative that progress focusses on the creation of new infrastructure which incorporates effective sustainable initiatives.

This requires careful consideration – and engagement. Reforms to the planning system must not fast-track construction at the expense of dialogue as is all too often the case when Permitted Development Rights are extended. Engagement is never more important than at times of change. And in policy-altering, nation-wide initiatives which impact on the nation’s economic, physical, emotional and mental health, everyone is a stakeholder.

So how should the Government and the innumerable parties involved in instigating change go about doing so?

There is clearly a need for a ‘big conversation’ on a national level, to understand people’s shifting priorities and expectations. And because change affects communities directly, dialogue at a local level is equally, if not more, important.  

Ironically, the potential to engage on the opportunities created by the pandemic are also limited by it.

Many means of engagement have changed irrecoverably: it will be some time before consultation involves a packed town hall, touch-screens in busy shopping centres or children using Lego to depict their aspirations.

However, in the absence of traditional means of consultation, we’ve seen a rapid proliferation of alternatives, including community meetings hosted on Zoom, virtual exhibitions and workshops, interactive maps and online focus groups. Not all emerging methodologies are restricted to the internet: there has been an increase in community call-ins on local radio shows, consultation by telephone and the use of community groups’ own channels of communication.

In better utilising existing community groups, the organisation co-ordinating the engagement process may need to invest greater time in the stakeholder mapping process, but this will pay dividends long term.

Online consultation has multiple benefits including the ability to communicate immediately and target precisely; increased accessibility – including for those with hearing and sight impairments; the ability to structure real-time dialogue and an exchange of ideas on a one-to-one, one-to-many and many-to-many basis; multiple means of promotion, and an efficient means of data collection and analysis.

The effect of lockdown has vastly increased the consultation toolbox and therefore the quality of engagement, though only if we select the tools carefully.

So it is important that in engaging on an issue of this size, scope and importance, a strategic approach used. This benefits information-gathering, scoping, monitoring and analysis in addition to – as mentioned above – stakeholder mapping and campaign planning.

The Prime Minister’s 30 June speech concluded, ‘We will not just bounce back, we will bounce forward – stronger and better and more united than ever before.’ There is clear evidence of the inclination to bounce forward, stronger.  But as for ‘better’ and ‘more united’ – this depends on the quality of the engagement and whether it focuses on what really matters.This article was written for The Consultation Institute Environment Working Group and published on 2 July 2020.

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