Maintaining good local relationships post-planning consent

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With pre-planning consultation complete and planning consent won, a significant amount of public participation has been accomplished. But as the project moves into the construction phase, community engagement too enters a new phase.

Inclusive and engaging consultation creates a foundation for the next stage of public participation. But rather than a continuation of the work to date, community engagement post-planning has new aims and objectives, new stakeholders and new challenges. The development team will change. A proactive approach towards community relations is required to ensure a constructive relationship between all parties.

The process of construction is rarely popular and where negative sentiment already exists within a local community, a developer has an uphill struggle to deliver a project while maintaining a good reputation. And once work begins, that relationship can be further strained due to frequent movements by construction vehicles, the noise of pile driving, road closures, parking cessations, occasional cuts to power supplies and numerous other, often unpredictable, consequences of construction.

A good relationship with the local community enables the development team to minimise disruption and pre-empt future problems: regular dialogue with residents can identify problems before they occur.

As with consultation, a community relations strategy should begin with local dialogue. Meetings with those most affected and stakeholder groups representing the wider area will enable the developer to understand both fears and expectations and put in place channels of communication for the future. While previous research is a useful starting point, the developer must be cognisant that interested parties may change at this stage, especially with the addition of new users and occupiers.

Good community relations is both proactive and reactive and is not limited to mitigating the impact of construction. The community relations strategy for a medium or large scheme might also include outreach activities, perhaps involving education, the environment, art and employment initiatives. This proactive approach is a positive means of reaching a local audience and involving them in the project through relevant and appealing tactics.

The appointment of a community liaison officer is an excellent starting point as this ensures a single point of contact for local residents and a co-ordinated and consistent approach. In some cases, this may be served by a Construction Impacts Group or development forum. Newsletters, emails, a community relations website and social media, telephone helplines and exhibitions in local community centres have been found to be useful in imparting information. Face-to-face and small community group meetings enable the development team to speak directly with those affected and respond to concerns. Community liaison panels are a more formal means by which the construction project can understand residents’ concerns, but are smaller and more manageable than public meetings. A simple means of sharing news about the development is to provide plastic windows in hoardings, enabling local residents to view progress on site. This can also be provided through the use of a webcam or time-lapse photography, hosted on a website or social media page. Other ideas used to encourage local residents to engage with the development team include the creation of community reporters (local people given the opportunity to interview the development team and report back to the community in the form of a newspaper or blog) and a regular drop-in café to encourage direct communication between the construction team and community. Contact with the local media can be a useful means of providing updates to the wider community and also establish a positive relationship with the local media which can be useful in the case of complaints. The development team also has the opportunity to involve the community in events, such as ‘topping out’ a significant building or opening a community facility.

When the last construction vehicle has left the site, what is the developer’s responsibility to the new development? The Impact Benefit Agreement negotiated between the developers, local and central government and possibly other local organisations will set legally binding requirements or targets for local employment and training as well as contributions to local projects. While this provides an opportunity for the developer to work constructively with the local community, that good intention can misfire if problems arise elsewhere, or if the needs of certain sections of the community area not met, hence the ongoing need for research and dialogue.

Extract from Chapter 12 Achieving Excellence in Public Participation and Consultation by Penny Norton in Regulation of Extractive Industries: community engagement in the arctic, edited by Rachael Lorna Johnstone & Anne Merrild Hansen and to be published by Routledge in April 2020.

Penny Norton’s third book Communicating Construction: insight, experience and best practice will be published in early 2021.

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