It pays dividends for those running a consultation to have as clear as possible an understanding of the issues that will effect it before the consultation begins.
In communications theory, an issue is usually described as, ‘an unsettled subject ready for debate or discussion’. In a development consultation, this typically includes concerns about the site, the proposals, or the impact of development more generally.
Identifying issues enables the development team to fully understand the context of the consultation responses and, importantly, to address any misapprehensions. It is inevitable that development consultations will involve emotive and potentially divisive issues. Development on green fields, social housing and increased pressure on existing resources (roads, healthcare, and education) frequently give rise to debate. Their potential impact, whether realistic or simply perceived, should not be overlooked as it is necessary for the development team to respond to these issues when required, without delay, contradiction or confusion.
At the start of the consultation I would suggest putting in place an issues or Frequently Asked Questions document for use within the development team. This sets out each of the issues likely to arise alongside the agreed response. The document must be flexible, as issues will change during the course of the project and new themes will develop as new topics are discussed. Others may fall away as the community becomes reassured of the developer’s approach and misapprehensions are resolved.
Consider the merits of making the document publicly available. Initially it might seem idiotic to air contentious issues that no-one has brought up. Yet. But what if people are thinking about those issues, discussing them on the street and on closed Facebook pages, and drawing the wrong conclusions in doing so? An issues database or FAQ is a great way to stop misapprehensions from developing, and it also shows the developer to be truly committed to transparency in consultation – something which will reap benefits in the future.
Penny’s book Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide is published by Routledge in June 2017. Please email Penny to receive notification of its publication.