Tag Archive: consultation

  1. The rise in single issue and direct action groups

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    Traditional forms of civic involvement have declined during the twenty-first century:  trades union membership has almost halved since the late 1970s and now comprises less than a quarter of the workforce.  Yet membership of special interest groups has increased substantially.  Nearly 4.5 million people, or one in 10 UK adults, is now a member or supporter of one of Britain’s environment and conservation groups.

    Single issue groups are those which exist to lobby on a specific subject.  As such, they tend to be motivated by a notion of injustice or threat, or a need to bring about change.  Successful single issue groups such as Make Poverty History, the Extinction Rebellion or Fathers for Justice were formed with a single imperative that unites members and as such they promote their messages very effectively, whether through protests, stunts or the media.  There are many single issue groups which impact on planning, from international organisations such as Greenpeace, to local conservation groups.  Because such groups have been founded on the basis of a specific cause, they can provide substantial opposition to a new scheme.  The campaigning power of the internet means that despite a small budget, even a small membership, such groups can have a considerable impact.  And because national groups quickly reorganise on a local level in relation to a specific proposal, they can have local relevance while drawing on their national strength.

    Single issue groups do play an important role in the planning process.  Where they have shown an interest in a proposal, every opportunity should be made to engage with them, to understand their point of view, to correct any misapprehensions which may exist and to take on board all feedback which is relevant to the planning application.   The consequences of failing to engage with powerful interest groups will be significantly out-weighed by time taken to consult with them.  And single issue groups are not necessarily a negative force in planning:  developers frequently find that where a neighbourhood has several groups in place in response to an unpopular former planning application, those very groups may lend their support to a new proposal.

    Special interest groups can also be extremely constructive in the case of a specialist facility.  A developer of a specialist sports centre, for example, would benefit from consulting with those who already enjoy the specific sport.  Not only will those with an interest provide valuable feedback to a consultation, but they may be extremely helpful in promoting and supporting it at a later stage in its development.

    Increasingly, largely in response to the campaigning power of the internet, there has been an increase in the number of direct action groups which exist simply to campaign, rather than having formed around a specific issue. 

    Largely internet-based, groups such as these have a strong campaigning capability and considerable power to draw attention to an issue, locally, nationally and internationally.  But most petitions simply state their support / opposition and as this is typically the extent of their involvement, it can be difficult to form any meaningful dialogue.  Therefore the challenge is to identify, where possible, those behind the campaign and having done so, seek some meaningful engagement.  Equally important is the need to mitigate any negative publicity, both online and offline, correcting misapprehensions and providing reassurance where necessary while also putting in place additional measures to promote more positive messages.

    Extract from Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide.

    Penny Norton’s third book Communicating Construction: insight, experience and best practice contains some of the most recent thinking on consultation and will be published in early 2021.

    Find out more about our community relations and consultation services.

  2. The campaigning power of the internet

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    Protesting against the status quo, lobbying politicians, campaigning against organisations, cause-related fundraising and political campaigning have flourished in line with the accessibility of internet communications.  Whether to inform, to mobilize or to bring about direct action, the abundance of communication tactics now available enables anyone to run a powerful online campaign.  From local campaigns, such as a group of residents campaigning to save a beloved field from development, to international organisation raising awareness of a specific issue such as fracking, the internet can have a major impact on planning proposals.

    As an innovative, informative, interactive, and a creative tool, online communications (specifically as a result of Web 2.0) have enabled increasingly sophisticated campaigning tactics which are almost certain to mature as technology advances.  At little or no cost, a single individual is able to send a powerful message to likeminded audiences, the traditional media, and ultimately the public at large, with significant consequences.

    It would vastly understate the power of the internet to describe ‘online campaigning’ as a single tactic.  Most offline tactics can be replicated online and thus the presence of the internet immediately doubles the tools available to campaigners. 

    So what defines online campaigning as opposed to the offline campaigns of the last century?

    • Research and analysis:  automatic alerts services, website analytics, social media monitoring are just some of the tools available to online campaigning which would take considerable time, effort and expense offline.  Furthermore, the power of the web to quickly locate planning applications, local authority planning documents, government or pressure group documents and identify potential supporters considerably benefits campaigners.
    • Ease:  the internet is becoming increasingly mobile, intuitive and accessible and thus significantly more user-friendly than offline alternatives. Taking part in a campaign in opposition to planning proposals online can be as simple as receiving a link via email and clicking on a hyperlink.  Consequently those who may not have previously supported a campaign can do so with minimal effort.
    • Versatility:  despite its worldwide presence, the web has an extraordinary ability to be tailored to individuals’ needs.  While offline campaigns tend to focus on a selection of tactics, often based on practical considerations, the internet enables individuals to be targeted according to the communication tactic that most suits them personally, be it a text, image, report in PDF format, link to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. Again, this increases the likelihood of an individual supporting a campaign.
    • Dissemination:  the capacity of messages to ‘go viral’ is phenomenal.  A single email, Facebook post or YouTube video has the potential to be seen by millions within just minutes of having been posted. Messages posted within specific networks have the benefit not only of reaching millions, but of reaching the specific target audience very efficiently.
    • Information:  unlike their print equivalent, documents can be posted on websites at little or no cost and in considerable numbers.  Effectively there is no limit to the amount of information a campaign may include. Planning applications and local authority planning documents can be accessed at the touch of a button.
    • Speed:  one of the greatest advantages of online communication, the speed by which a message can be communicated online is considerable.  This results in campaigns gaining support extremely quickly. 
    • Cost:  at little or no cost, there is no limit to the number of online campaigns, resulting in campaigns existing where they may not have done previously.
    • New balance of power:  largely as a result of low cost, the internet breaks down the perceived asymmetry between public bodies and the general public.  Often individuals or small scale campaign groups are more agile and less risk averse than larger organisations and as such are more effective in executing an online campaign.
    • Mobilisation and co-ordination:  the internet facilitates contact between individuals who share common interests and enables them to co-ordinate joint actions.   It also has the potential to facilitate the formation of new political and social forces which may previously have been hindered by practicalities and resources.  Powerful communities of interest can be formed regardless of geographical and social constraints.
    • Different dialogues:  with internet communication offering dialogue in the form of one to one and one to many, the appropriate form of dialogue can be selected and used effectively.  Furthermore petitions could be considered a form of ‘many to one’ and as such are a particularly powerful voice.  Common to each of these forms of communication is two-way dialogue, which enables campaigns to grow quickly, also offering opportunities for more proactive developers to enter into dialogue with potential objectors.
    • Debate and discussion: it follows, therefore that debate and discussion can occur more easily on the internet than elsewhere.  Online communication is an ecosystem founded on interconnected conversations and in many cases a campaign can benefit from positioning itself on an existing platform, such as that of a popular local website or blog.
    • Individuality:  despite the potential to collate support, many internet-campaigns are initiated by an individual, because of the efficiencies afforded to them.  A single point of view, if well timed and irrespective of the weight of popular opinion, has the potential to form a powerful campaign.  Similarly, the internet enables campaigns to take place on a ‘hyperlocal’ level, as the next section demonstrates.
    • Low key:  today’s activism need not be led by powerful personalities or instigated with great panache; in fact many online campaigns are anonymous.  This brings about a lack of accountability which can distort a campaign and present difficulties for the organisations to whom the campaign is aimed.

    It goes without saying that online, campaigns are potentially more sophisticated, informed, effective, efficient, adaptable, egalitarian and flexible than those that went before them.  However, the use of the internet brings about new issues and concerns, one of which is the potential for misinformation.  While the internet increases the opportunity for access to information, transparency and accountability, most websites lack the editorial filter that is an important part of professional news generation.  It becomes the responsibility of users themselves to assess the veracity of information found online, but where this fails to happen, inaccurate information can be spread too easily.

    Furthermore, campaigning has not shifted from offline to online:  offline campaigns remain, and they remain successful (often because they are supported by online campaigns).  This presents additional challenges to developers and therefore a need to understand how online campaigning works, understand the appropriate time to engage with a campaign, and do so effectively.

    Extract from Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide.

    Penny Norton’s third book Communicating Construction: insight, experience and best practice contains some of the most recent thinking on consultation and will be published in early 2021.

    Find out more about our community relations and consultation services.

  3. What is community?

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    What is meant by ‘community’ and whether ‘community’ does it have any real meaning in the twenty-first century? 

    The Oxford English Dictionary[i] describes ‘community’ as: ‘a body of people living in one place, district or country’, and, ‘a body of people having religion, ethnic origin, profession etc in common’.

    In planning, we tend to regard community in geographical terms, which is perhaps inevitable as a new development has a physical impact on a specific location.  Furthermore, a local authority’s consultation will generally be aimed at the residents of that specific geographic jurisdiction.   The OED’s second definition, however, should not be overlooked, as we will discuss later.

    Doak and Parker (in their excellent, book Key Concepts in Planning – SAGE, 2012) offer a thought-provoking consideration of the term:

    ‘Community is a well-worn term that has been used and misused in public discourse and broadly across the political and social sciences. In planning terms much of the activity of planners is justified as being in the public interest but more and more the notion of community is attached to variety of planning processes, policies and actions. This common association of planning activity to and for community as both an end and a stakeholder group justifies an exploration of the term and its relevance for planners and in planning practice.

    ‘Community was seen as a political ideal in the ancient world, where citizens could participate in public affairs as part of the community. The concept has developed such that ‘community as belonging’ has come to be viewed both as a past state and as a desirable aspiration. Hobsbawm (writing in The Age of Extremes – Pantheon Books 1994) pointedly observes that, ‘Never was the term community used more indiscriminately and emptily than in the decade when communities in the sociological sense became hard to find in real life.’   Even more pessimistically, Bauman (in Community – Polity 2001) indicates that predilections towards recovering or developing community ignore the likelihood that it never existed in the first place.’

    Doak and Parker’s sentiment eloquently voices the widely-held view that the term ‘community’ can all too often be used nostalgically, euphemistically and even patronisingly and that in some cases it is an artificial concept.   To an extent, this is true in community involvement: there is also a tendency for those running consultations to use ‘community’ as a convenient catch-all for the streets neighbouring the proposed new development, or a mile, five or ten mile radius from the site.  There are clear practical reasons for doing so, but it would be quite wrong to assume that a line drawn on a map by someone with little knowledge of the neighbourhood constitutes a community. Furthermore, it is equally inaccurate to assume that the supposed ‘community’ is a single body and likely to respond with a single view: as we know from our own neighbourhoods, rarely does everyone on one street, let alone wider neighbourhood, have an identical view on any one matter.

    Changing geographic communities

    Diversification is, in fact, one of the most significant changes in the concept of community.

    The recent hey-day of the community was perhaps at a time between the end of the Second World War and the fragmentation which took place during the 1980s. Picture a scene from the 1950s or 60s: a street of terraced houses in a city previously damaged by war but still united by the blitz spirit, where the majority of occupants came from a similar social background, spoke regularly over the garden wall, read the local newspaper and attended the same local schools, social clubs and churches.  They literally sang from the same hymn sheet:  experiences were shared and there was an element of mutual trust, understanding and support. 

    Half a century later, it is extremely unlikely that the same residents, or indeed their families, still reside on that street.  Increased multiculturalism will have led to greater diversity.  Increased property prices and greater fluidity in the property market will have resulted in some houses having been extended, with others converted into flats, leading to a wider demographic.  Attendance at the churches has probably declined, while initiatives to allow greater parental choice will mean that not all of the children attend the local school.  Few residents will work within walking distance of their homes, with many commuting to the city centre or to a different town or city entirely.  Furthermore, the community support officers who were employed to establish community relations post-war and the community arts projects which were popular during the 1960s and 70s are no more, as the case with many local newspapers.

    The twentieth century community was by no means a utopia, but from a community involvement point of view, a geographically defined community was certainly a convenient starting point.  There is significantly less homogeneity in local communities today. Global communication increasingly takes the place of local communication – whether in politics, business or leisure time. Increased car ownership, the availability of cheap flights and the ease with which travel plans can be made online has vastly increased the size of the communities within which people operate.   Today it is easier to send an email to someone on a different continent than to visit a next door neighbour.

    Changing communities of interest

    It follows that the dissipation, and perhaps decline, of geographic communities results in the rise in communities of interest.  This is perhaps best illustrated in the context of our leisure time.  Previously, individuals’ experience of music would have been though participation, or attending live music in concert halls, pubs and social clubs.  Today, much of the music that we listen to is online, or through electronic means.  Live music is still popular today of course, but it is frequently consumed from across the Atlantic via the internet.  Social media has enabled people to take part in live discussions in relation to a band or performance, and increasingly the internet provides opportunities for collaboration online.  In sports too, participation and support of local clubs has declined partly due to the wide availability of sports coverage from across the world, while fan clubs, Facebook groups and to-the-minute discussions on Twitter are increasing levels of interaction irrespective of geographical boundaries.

    It follows that in development, the community of interest is potentially global.  Bicester Village, a designer outlet centre in Oxfordshire, attracts 14,000 Chinese visitors each year.  Even for a single, specialist shop, the community of interest may be world-wide.  The same is true of opposition to a development proposal:  the community of interest, where a development involves building on open countryside, the demolition of a building of historical interest or the destruction of an important natural habitat, will be considerable and may come from across the country, or perhaps the world.

    So communities certainly exist in the twenty-first century, but on a very different basis to those that went before them:  communities are more likely to be linked by interest than by geography, than they were previously, and membership may be more passive, virtual and transient. 

    Of course, planning is usually with reference to a geographical feature and the immediate neighbours will remain a priority.  But developers should also invest time in understanding the communities of interest that may put forward their point of view, whether in supporting a planning application or opposing it.

    Extract from Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide.

    Penny Norton’s third book Communicating Construction: insight, experience and best practice contains some of the most recent thinking on consultation and will be published in early 2021.

    Find out more about our community relations and consultation services.


  4. Online consultation and accessibility

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    Online consultation is increasingly popular for many reasons, one of which is accessibility:  parents of young children, the very old and the disabled, not to mention the time poor and commuters have all used online consultation as a means to engage on a development proposal.

    But if online consultation is to be truly accessible – providing a service to those with visual and hearing impairments as well as others – it needs to be designed to incorporate some specific features.

    • Design well-defined, clear task flows with minimal, and intuitive navigation steps
    • Ensure that websites are accessible with directional controllers such as D-pads, trackballs or keyboard arrows
    • Allow functionality via the keyboard, rather than relying on the mouse, enabling those who use assistive technologies to access the website
    • Avoid controls that change function. If these are necessary, ensure that the content descriptions are changed appropriately
    • Make it easier for users to see and hear content by separating foreground from background
    • Ensure that web pages appear and operate in predictable ways
    • Ensure that buttons and selectable areas are of sufficient size for users to touch them easily
    • Provide time for content to be read and understood
    • Avoid having user interface controls that fade out or disappear after a certain amount of time
    • Bear in mind that HTML is quicker, easier and more widely accessible than PDF
    • Consider common forms of colour-blindness when determining colour palettes
    • Ensue that text size can be increased without detriment to layout or meaning
    • Ensure that the website is usable by commonly used  screen readers such as JAWS, NVDA, VoiceOver for OS X, Window Eyes and Supernova and basic operating system screen magnifiers such as ZoomText and MAGic
    • Ensure that the website is compatible with speech recognition software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking
    • Provide content descriptions for user interface components that do not have visible text, particularly ImageButton, ImageView and CheckBox components
    • Use alt text for important images such as diagrams and timelines, enabling those who use a screen reader to understand the images
    • Where possible include standard interface controls in designs rather than custom built controls
    • Provide a text transcript of audio or visual files for people who are deaf or hard of hearing

    Finally, evaluate success by asking for feedback and use this to make you next consultation even more accessible.

    Extract from Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide.

    Penny Norton’s third book Communicating Construction: insight, experience and best practice contains some of the most recent thinking on consultation and will be published in early 2021.

    Find out more about our community relations and consultation services.

  5. The internet and local communities: the hyperlocal website

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    The rise of the ‘hyperlocal’ website is of critical importance to the planner, developer and local authority.  Not only do hyperlocal websites play an extremely constructive role in promoting and debating local issues, they have considerable campaigning potential and such warrant an understanding by the profession.

    The term ‘hyperlocal’, which originates from the US, describes online local services, which are usually run by local communities and residents’ groups. 

    Typical content is as follows:

    News

    • Community news
    • Sports news
    • Events (meetings of local clubs or societies, community celebrations, key council meetings)
    • News of planning decisions or disputes, Local Plan and Neighbourhood Planning developments
    • News from local courts, police and schools
    • News submitted by local residents
    • Articles by local residents

    Political

    • Election coverage
    • Borough and parish council news
    • Details of MPs, councillors and candidates

    Engagement

    • Discussion forums
    • Information about local authority consultations

    Networking

    • Information about local groups including residents’ associations
    • Information about local businesses

    Campaigns

    • A range of local campaigns, often concerning local authority services, planning or construction work

    Comment

    • Blogs

    Images

    • Photo gallery

    Information 

    • Bus timetables
    • Local guides
    • Waste collection information

    Hyperlocal websites tend to fill the gap left by local newspapers, and thus are both functional, informing people of local news and information, and also emotional, in giving people a sense of local belonging.  They provide a new means whereby people can form an attachment not just to their city, town or village, but also to their neighbourhood and street. 

    Hyperlocals may be run by individual bloggers, small businesses or, in the case of Streetview and About My Area, national organisations.  They each have in common the aim of improving the provision of local news, providing information and increasing opportunities for members of their communities to connect.

    Williams, Barnett, Harte, and Townend have produced some very thorough research into the emergence of hyperlocal websites.  In a comprehensive survey which explored, among other subjects, the reasons for forming a hyperlocal website, they identify that approximately 70% are instigated on the basis of active community participation; over half see their service as local journalism, and over half as an expression of active citizenship.  In terms of online activity, nearly three quarters had covered local campaigns instigated by others, while over a third had instigated campaigns themselves.  This frequently involved holding local authorities to account or forcing democracy in innovative ways.  Campaigning tended to focus on failures by service-providers, the need for environmental improvements, cuts to local public services, improvements to local amenities, and local council accountability and planning disputes. 

    Campaigns around planning tend to focus on large scale developments, protecting green spaces, or protecting local businesses challenged by national chain stores. Campaigning for improvements to local infrastructure was also common, particularly in relation to local roads, train lines, cycle paths.

    Aspects of Localism including Neighbourhood Planning, Community Right to Build and Community Asset Transfer frequently feature on hyperlocal websites, though Williams, Barnett, Harte, and Townend determine that, ‘The numerous campaigns mentioned against these…suggest concern in some communities about how democratic they actually are in practice.’

    With so many online services (some of them blogs and Facebook pages rather than websites) coming under the rarely used category of hyperlocal, it is difficult to ascertain how many exist. A UK based website, Local Web List summarised, in September 2016, that there existed 546 in England,

    2 in the Isle of Man, 3 in Northern Ireland, 5 in the Republic of Ireland, 63 in Scotland, 47 in Wales.

    The research by Williams, Barnett, Harte, and Townend reveals that there is a broad distribution of audience sizes amongst UK hyperlocal sites, with the great majority of sites having relatively small audiences. Just two of the websites surveyed claimed a monthly average of over 100,000 unique users, while 33 claimed between 10,000 and 100,000 and the remaining 55 below 10,000.

    The future of hyperlocal sites is unclear.  Some of the most proactive sites have already burned themselves out, overwhelmed by information and opportunities to campaign but struggling to do so with only volunteers to run the service.  Those running and using the sites have high expectations for future development.  This includes the use of GEO RSS feeds to provide local information via an app, increased use of video and audio, and pressure to carry out investigative reporting and use of Freedom of Information requests.  The BBC, the Guardian newspaper and the Government’s Technology Strategy Board have made tentative steps to preserve local sites, but in many cases this has been met with objections on the basis that the raison être is that of community ownership. 

    On the other hand, as efficiencies increase, simple template websites become more readily available and as the retired generation becomes increasingly IT literate, their potential impact on development is likely to increase further.  There is no doubt that producing around 2,500 news stories a week across the UK, hyperlocal websites have a role to play in planning and ongoing dialogue between a developer and a community. 

    Extract from Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide.

    Penny Norton’s third book Communicating Construction: insight, experience and best practice contains some of the most recent thinking on consultation and will be published in early 2021.

    Find out more about our community relations and consultation services.

  6. A strategic approach to consultation

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    In consulting on a specific proposal, the logical sequence of a strategy, however wide-ranging the involvement activities, establishes clear aims and objectives, enabling the development team to share values, expectations and understanding with local residents and organisations. A strategy is also the best means of identifying relevant issues, which provide context and insight as the programme progresses. The resulting communications programme is therefore a continuous cycle of research, engagement and evaluation, which can complement wider community development initiatives such as education, employment and healthcare.

    A common mistake, often despite better intentions, is for a consultation strategy to become a retrospective document: the team launches into a series of tactics (perhaps based on past practice, experience or recommendation), results are collated, and then in a need to create a meaningful report, a ‘strategy’ is drafted to justify the approach. Worse still, and all too common, is to ‘predict and provide’, ‘plan, announce and defend’, or ‘plan, monitor, manage’. (These approaches are explained and critiqued elsewhere.) Each of these examples is a distinctly asymmetrical approach which makes scant use of local insight. Due to presumptions about a lack of a strategic approach companies should constantly aspire to disprove potential or actual allegations of ‘tokenism’, ‘box-ticking’ and ‘done deals’ through maintaining and communicating a highly transparent, symmetrical approach to consultation.

    A strategic approach to consultation (detailed in the book and also in my earlier book Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide) requires a symmetrical flow of information between a potential developer and the local community and must prioritise continual engagement, allowing development proposals to evolve in line with feedback, and for the process to adapt where necessary. The strategic framework is not a ‘to do’ list, but a cycle: situational analysis, issues analysis and stakeholder database benefit from ongoing development; regular monitoring influences the ongoing selection of dialogue methods, and regular evaluation reinvigorates the strategic direction.

    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.

  7. The disappointed consultee – remedies and mitigation

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    Consultation results are likely to disappoint local residents if the consultation has not been publicised adequately, opportunities for involvement are limited, consultation tactics are half-hearted and comments are not listened to.

    Disappointment can fuel negativity – sometimes online, sometimes in the local media – and may well coincide with the point at which the planning application is being consulted upon by the local authority or considered by the planning committee.  At this stage it is generally too late for developers to adapt proposals in the light of constructive comment, and faced with possible criticism at a planning committee, the options are to withdraw and amend the application or risk it being refused.

    Appropriate research and planning provides a good basis for consultation and when this is done well local residents should not have grounds to object to the form of consultation.  Importantly, (as described in my earlier blog) reference to the consultation mandate will enable the development team to negate criticisms of the process.

    When effectively monitored, concerns about specific development proposals will be identified at an early stage, enabling responses to be addressed while the consultation is still live.

    It is important to manage expectations.  The potential for a substantial new facility impacting on their lives and a commitment on behalf of its sponsor to consult widely can raise expectations among local residents.  If not met, high expectations can lead to criticism of the process and negativity towards the proposal.

    Pre-consultation can enable a developer to discuss the remit and nature of the consultation with the local authority, special interest groups and in some cases, residents, at an early stage. Where a gulf exists between expectations and reality, this should become immediately apparent and can be addressed.  Often the solution need not be to offer more by way of consultation, but to consult in a way which is more suitable to the specific community.

    The process of consultation should be clarified in the consultation mandate and this document made widely available to ensure that those participating understand the remit of the consultation.

    A keen interest – and particularly a positive one – can be welcome news but the development team should be conscious of over-promising and ultimately disappointing. Tactics should balance the need to motivate residents to secure their involvement, with tactics which will produce an appropriate level of feedback and a deliverable scheme.  Sometimes the involvement of a ‘middle-man’, whether in the form of a local authority officer, consultation manager or community arts worker, can help manage expectations.

    Evaluation of the consultation will be helpful in justifying the applicant’s actions and can make all the difference to the outcome:  where a specific consultation framework has been put in place using pre-consultation dialogue and research, accepted by planners and run according to the consultation mandate, local authorities will understand that the consultation has met its objectives, despite local voices to the contrary.

    Extract from Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide.

    Penny Norton’s third book Communicating Construction: insight, experience and best practice contains some of the most recent thinking on consultation and will be published in early 2021.

    Find out more about our community relations and consultation services.

  8. Addressing common challenges in consultation

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    Opposing factors and risks are common to public participation: the very notion that developers bring change to established local communities; the wide-ranging views which exist within a community; the sentiment of those wary of engagement and exponents of it. Significant time and financial resources are expended with no guarantee that the investment will be realised, and the focus on inviting comment on a potentially contentious issue can appear counter-productive to its eventual delivery.

    However, an understanding of the potential challenges from the outset (and using issues analysis to further enlighten the process of understanding) can assist in mitigating risk.

    In reality, potential problems fall into just a handful of categories, to which there are solutions. Two problems are common to the development team itself: resistance to public participation and a lack of dedicated resources. The first can be addressed by using workshops and training to gain buy-in from internal audiences, and the second by taking into account limitations at the outset, and planning accordingly. In the Arctic, travel poses particular challenges in terms of costs and staff time, and the use of technology is limited where a reliable internet connection is required.

    Within the community, a common problem is a lack of understanding. This can be mitigated through provision of adequate information at the start of the process, in an appropriate voice and level of detail for the target audience; simplifying complex information and utilising professional communications skills as necessary. It goes without saying that those running a local consultation must be fluent in the native language. When inviting responses, it is beneficial to present information alongside questions to encourage understanding immediately prior to the questions being asked. Political interference is common whether in relation to national or local politics or in a powerful individual seeking influence others. Research and pre-consultation dialogue can develop an understanding of the community pressures and hierarchies and steps taken to mitigate undue influence. Initial research can be used to determine the most appropriate dialogue methods for each sub group. Lack of engagement is a common problem, especially when a community is suffering from ‘consultation fatigue’. To encourage engagement, a broad audience should be targeted, with the messages tailored to specific demographics and cultural sub-groups, particularly ‘hard to reach’ groups. New, creative and enticing methods can be used to increase engagement and time invested in both promoting the varied engagement tactics and the purpose (and potential impact) of public participation. Monitoring can be used to identify those successfully and as necessary, the strategy and tactics adapted to focus on the ‘missing’ demographic.

    Developers are inevitably concerned when a consultation returns a negative set of results, though this generally inevitable given that a community faced with change is likely to respond only if it resists change – it is notoriously difficult to gain feedback from those who tacitly accept change.  This will be taken into account and balanced with other factors when a decision is taken. Research can be used to identify potential negativity and address issues at the first opportunity. Development teams should bear in mind that criticism is frequently constructive, and so negative responses should be interrogated to gain useful information and identify the true cause of concern.  Further dialogue and the use of facts can counter misinformation.  Negative responses which are a result of pressure groups or activists can be identified as such and, where appropriate, such feedback viewed as separate to the results of the target community. To counter the impact of such groups, it may be possible to use local ‘ambassadors’ to provide a bridge between the developer and the community. Developers are also advised to work closely with the media from the early stages of the project with the aim of securing balanced coverage.

    It is immediately apparent when considering challenges to public participation a majority of all problems likely to arise are in the domain of the development team: issues relating to access, clarity, communication, creativity, failure to respond, inadequate promotion of information, resistance to engagement, a lack of resources and time are common issues with communications plans generally and can each be addressed prior to the consultation commencing.

    Advice on how to address the external issues is provided in greater depth in my earlier book, Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide. In considering the challenges, it was immediately clear that most problems can be resolved by following the strategic process: situational and issues analysis and pre-consultation dialogue enables the development team to identify many of the potential problems that may occur, understand and manage expectations, and determine the most appropriate tactics to use; stakeholder analysis will identify the range of local audiences to be involved, from political and community leaders to those regarded as ‘hard to reach’, an develop and understanding of how best to involve them; the aims and objectives, as communicated through the consultation mandate, help address any criticisms of the consultation in terms of its breath, reach and use of the results; consistent messaging in the form of a Frequently Asked Questions document will ensure that the whole development team is able to address difficult questions, and agreement with the local authority over the strategic overview will provide the basis for a good relationship between the development team and local planning authority. Resource allocation will prevent issues such as capacity to respond, and monitoring will help identify and respond to any problems as they occur. Finally, monitoring, analysis and evaluation all play an important role in explaining the reasons for consultation results.

    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.

  9. The future of consultation in planning

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    My book Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guidelooks in detail at the way in which consultation has changed so far this century.  From an increased use of co-production resulting in a more qualitative approach, to significant advancements in online consultation, change has been substantial.

    Looking ahead, is consultation likely to see such significant change in the next twenty years as it has done in since the Millennium? I address this in my third book, Communicating Construction: insight, experience and best practice which is due to be published in March 2021.

    With the speed of change we are seeing at the moment, specifically the publication of the Government’s Planning White Paper Planning for the Future, there is a danger that this will soon be out of date!

    Political will is likely to dictate future change. At the time of writing, a Conservative government is responding to both the lack of housing and change on the high street by increasingly introducing permitted development rights. The absence of planning consent in such cases removes the need for local consultation and consultation requirements are reduced. Simultaneously, the former Labour planning minister Nick Raynsford, was appointed by the TCPA to review the planning system and the recommendations within his report, Planning 2020, are for significantly more consultation and community involvement in planning. The future requirement to consult appears to depend on what is currently a very precarious political balance.

    Politics aside, and regardless of a legal requirement to consult, consultations are increasingly scrutinised though the courts, necessitating a good awareness of consultation law among all communications teams.

    As a result of these trends, and thanks to some excellent training and guidance provided by the Consultation Institute, consultation is becoming increasingly professional. Quality assurance, consultation industry standards of practice, professional accreditations and CPD have contributed to this. In future I would hope to see the creation of a ‘good’ consultation kitemark for the industry, increased training for planning consultants on consultation, and a formalised means of best practice across industry, specifically on subjects such as online consultation, evaluation and analysis, and the use of co-production. This, together with adherence to the strategic process, will help address the challenges that we currently face.

    Extract from Chapter 2 Planning: effective communication through consultation by Penny Norton in Communicating Construction: insight, experience and best practice, to be published by Routledge in early 2021.

  10. Consultation challenges

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    Understanding of the potential challenges from the outset is necessary in order for them to be addressed – so what are the reasons for common problems?

    Access

    • Failure to engage with a wider audience, specifically the ‘hard to reach,’ and to gain responses from the ‘silent majority’.
    • Apathy and consultation fatigue.

    Clarity

    • A lack of clarity about the aims of participation leading to disaffection.

    Communication

    • Failure to explain the situation and its limitations effectively.

    Creativity

    • A lack of creativity resulting in a lack of motivation.

    Disappointing results

    • Negatives responses, perhaps as a result of a campaigning by pressure groups, and negative media involvement.

    Failure to respond

    • A failure to respond to or act on the outcomes of participation.

    Inadequate promotion

    • Lack of awareness of opportunities to participate.

    Information

    • Provision of too much or too little information, or failure to simplify complex information.

    Managing expectations

    • Disappointment in the consultation by those being consulted.

    Political interference

    • Unwelcome involvement of those with a political agenda beyond the scope of the consultation.

    Resistance within the development team

    • An internal culture which is inclined to limit consultation, lacks trust in the process, provides too little information, too late, and fails to listen to feedback.

    Resources

    • Lack of dedicated resources (people, funding, technology).

    Time

    • Unreasonable timing, causing a consultation to be rushed, ill thought-through or otherwise compromised.

    What is immediately apparent from this list is that at least half of the problems likely to arise are in the domain of the communications team: issues relating to access, clarity, communication, creativity, failure to respond, inadequate promotion, information, resistance, resources and time are common issues with communications generally and can each be addressed prior to the consultation commencing.

    Advice on how to combat the external issues is provided in greater depth in my book Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide. In writing about addressing the challenges, it became immediately clear to me that almost all problems can be resolved by following the strategic process: situational and issues analysis and pre-consultation dialogue enables the communications team to identify many of the potential problems that may occur, understand and manage expectations, and determine the most appropriate tactics to use; stakeholder analysis will identify the range of local audiences to be involved, from political and community leaders to those regarded as ‘hard to reach’, and develop and understanding of how best to involve them; the aims and objectives, as communicated through the consultation mandate, will help address any criticisms of the consultation in terms of its breath, audiences and use of the results; consistent messaging in the form of a Frequently Asked Questions document will ensure that the whole development team is able to address difficult questions in a public setting and agreement with the local authority over the strategic overview will provide the basis for a good relationship between the development team and local planning authority. Resource allocation will prevent issues such as capacity to respond and monitoring will help identify any problems as they occur sot that they can be acted upon quickly. Finally, monitoring, analysis and evaluation all play an important role in explaining the reasons for consultation results.

    Extract from Chapter 2 Planning: effective communication through consultation by Penny Norton in Communicating Construction: insight, experience and best practice, to be published by Routledge in June 2020.

  11. 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.

  12. The importance of research in consultation

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    Ideally the early stage of strategy formation in a consultation programme should assess the context of the consultation as broadly as possible to ensure that all factors are taken into account. Useful methods for situational analysis are the PEST (political, economic, social, and technological) and SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) methods.

    Stakeholder analysis is central to any consultation and the spectrum of stakeholders for a single extractive project – let alone ongoing engagement with a wider community – is considerable. Stakeholders include not only those likely to be impacted by the proposed change, but those instrumental in communicating with the communities affected. Without understanding the quantity, diversity and informal spheres of power and influence that exist in the community, engagement runs the risk of failing to reach sections of the community and is thus asymmetrical. Stakeholder mapping enables the development team to understand a specific individuals’ likely views (be they positive or negative) and to assess the relative interest and potential impact of key individuals and groups. A thorough understanding of the community also informs later stages of strategy development, for example, ensuring that tactics are well suited to specific groups.

    Having identified a broad range of factors impacting upon the consultation and those most affected, development teams should consider the specific issues likely to dominate the conversation. In communications theory, an issue is regarded as an unsettled subject ready for debate or discussion. Knowledge of issues enables the potential developer to better understand the broad context of local sentiment, in addition to existing and potential concerns. At the start of the engagement process, it benefits all parties for the developer to create a Frequently Asked Questions document which sets out each of the issues likely to arise alongside an agreed response. An embodiment of the transparency that any potential developer should aspire to, the document must above all be honest and open. It should also be flexible, as issues will change during the course of the project and themes will emerge or develop as new topics are introduced.

    It goes without saying that electronic communication has enabled a more scientific approach to research. I recently set up an online consultation platform in which all data collected, from comments in meetings to online polls, was collated, enabling me to present the client with an up to date consultation report as often as required, at the touch of a button. It is hard to recall how twenty years previously the developer would have had little knowledge of resident sentiment until the end of the consultation: today, issues management is a key strategic element of any consultation and we have created the tools to easily identify emerging themes, possible misapprehensions and potential ‘ambassadors’.

    With the transition to participatory planning, consultation data has moved from being predominately quantitative to predominately qualitative. Qualitative data – observations and comments, usually expressed in words rather than in numbers both provides a context for quantitative data, and enables the consulting body to get to the heart of an issue. And again, recent technological developments – specifically in coding and mention analysis – have brought about a more effective means of measurement.

    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.

  13. An increasingly litigious scene for consultation

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    So far this century, we have experienced a huge increase in the number of consultations ending up in the courts. The Consultation Institute, specifically its two-day The Law of Consultation training course, provides a very comprehensive overview. Several of the examples featured involve planning and development.

    Due to the absence of a requirement to consultation in some planning scenarios, consultation in planning is not governed by strict rules and regulations as the consultations carried out by public bodies.  However, the legal aspect is important because simply using the term ‘consultation’ creates expectations which can be challenged in the courts.

    There are several ‘layers’ of law which affect public consultation.

    Most case law on regulatory consultation is viewed in the light of the Gunning Principles which set out the legal expectations of what is appropriate consultation, and, importantly, provide an extremely helpful means of ensuring that a consultation is sound.

    The Gunning Principles

    Gunning 1: when proposals are still at a formative stage

    Consultations have been found to be at fault on this basis if a decision has already been made; if the critical question is avoided; if consultees are not consulted on all options; if a single ‘over-engineered’ option is the only option; if the options are portrayed inaccurately.

    Gunning 2: sufficient information to give ‘intelligent consideration’

    Case law includes promises for an extensive consultation being broken; a lack of transparency in options development; failure of the consulting body to give adequate reasons for decisions made; unclear information; failure to ask the right questions; failure to provide adequate information; proposals not adequately communicated.

    Gunning 3: adequate time for consideration and response

    Failure at this hurdle has been the result of the consultation process not being visible or effectively publicised, inadequate time being allowed for responses, and inappropriate phasing.

    Gunning 4: must be conscientiously taken into account

    Consultations have been taken to court because of inappropriate weighting of consultation responses, the withdrawal of options before they have been consciously considered, failure to summarise responses adequately, unfair reporting of consultation outcome, failure to consult ‘out of area’ consultees and failure to re-consult if situations / options change.

    The ‘three pillars’ (Articles 4-9) of the Aarhus Convention

    The Aaarhus Convention stipulates three public rights which have become an important benchmark in consultation, specifically in relation to dialogue between the public and public authorities:

    1. Access to information
    2. Public participation in decision-making
    3. Access to justice

    The Doctrine of Legitimate Expectation

    The Doctrine of Legitimate Expectation originated in United Kingdom and has since become incorporated in the other common law jurisdictions in relation to the practice of public bodies.

    A procedural legitimate expectation exists when an organisation commits to following a certain procedure – such as consulting – prior to making a decision. If the expectation to consult is created but not delivered upon, the organisation may lose a Judicial Review on the basis of failing to comply with the Doctrine of Legitimate Expectation.

    Extract from Chapter 2 Planning: effective communication through consultation by Penny Norton in Communicating Construction: insight, experience and best practice, to be published by Routledge in early 2021.

  14. The impact of Covid-19 on climate change engagement

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    In recent blogs, I’ve focussed on my work with the Environmental Working Group of The Consultation Institute and the need for a clear strategy.

    In the time that we’ve been planning our work, Covid-19 has changed everything, and it’s certainly had a significant impact on discussions about climate change.  The points below show just a few ways in which climate change engagement strategies have been impacted.

    • A better understanding of adaptation and mitigation: in very little time we learnt to adapt (work from home) and mitigate (wear a face mask), and we did so generally successfully
    • An ability to accommodate new priorities: where society acknowledges the acute need to act, drastic measures can be implemented in a short period of time.
    • Changed attitudes: because of the severity of the situation and because people have had time to reflect, there is a renewed appreciation of aspects of life such as community and open spaces.
    • Fresh views of decision-makers: Covid-19 has changed our view of governments and their role in society, mostly in a constructive way.  Research carried out in March showed massively improved approval ratings for Boris Johnson, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Justin Trudeau, Scott Morrison and even Donald Trump.  With heightened popularity, these leaders have a real opportunity to inspire and motivate on climate change mitigation.  And it’s not just world leaders – the same is true at a local level, with more trust for local authorities.
    • New opinion-formers: doctors and medical professionals are the new heros. Globally, they are calling on world leaders to ensure a green recovery from the coronavirus crisis and they will be listened to.
    • The benefit of clear messaging: Covid-19 shows that with clear, tangible communications and direction, people will respond. And this is not unseen in an environmental context – recycling, and a reduction in use of plastic bags, coffee cups and straws is an example of this.
    • Changing flows of information: media coverage issues such as climate change will always fluctuate in relation to the news agenda – as this data shows very clearly;  but that does not mean that it is of any less concern in individuals’ minds.
    • New ways of working together: from the Oak National Academy providing educational resources across the country, to communities showing their appreciation for carers on a Thursday night, we have worked together in many different ways.
    • Changed forms of communication: while community meetings are not possible at the moment, as we’re all demonstrating now, people quickly find ways to adapt.
    • ‘Collective efficacy’ can be effective:  the public response to Covid-19 has shown that people can act together in response to an external threat. This could be used to demonstrate that individual change is a crucial part of wider systemic change.
    • A warning about the vulnerability of society: according to an article in The Lancet, The Covid-19 pandemic should be a wake-up call that our global economy is far less robust to shocks than we have become accustomed to believing.
    • The ultimate outcome:  we now know that we can have cleaner water, less air pollution and that people can be encouraged to use more sustainable forms of transport.

    Finally, a new IPSOS poll conducted in 14 countries found that 71% of adults globally agree that, in the long term, climate change is as serious a crisis as Covid-19 is. What better mandate could we have for pressing ahead with climate change engagement strategies? 

    For anyone planning to engage on climate change – especially those who put in place a strategy prior to the coronavirus crisis – it’s also very important to understand how these factors have changed the environment for discussions, not only now but in the years to come.

    If you’d like to find out more about the Environmental Working Group, view the web pages here or contact me directly.

  15. Communicating on Climate Change – getting the messaging right

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    Following on from my earlier blog about the need for a comprehensive engagement strategy on climate change issues, I plan to look at some of specific elements of the strategic framework in a bit more detail, starting with messaging.

    Climate change is such a broad subject, it’s not surprising that it has many conflicting messages attached to it.  This invariably creates complexities for those of us running climate change engagement programmes.

    Consider the following:

    Sentiment versus fact: In communications on environmental issues, there is no absence of either, but whereas some people are motivated by sentiment, other are more motivated by fact.  A good communications strategy needs a combination of the two.

    Personal experiences and the bigger picture: The message must have personal relevance – but not at the expense of the main issue.  People should be encouraged to input on the design of new cycle routes – but they should also be aware of the depleted polar ice caps.

    Experiences vary:  recent research by IPOS MORIdemonstrated that in Colombia, South Africa, Chile, Peru, India and Malaysia, over 80% of the population said that if their government does not act now on climate change, it will be failing them. Meanwhile in Germany, the US, Sweden and the Netherlands, the figure was less than 60%:  presumably a reflection of relative experiences of global warming.

    Changing behaviour through both ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’: There’s certainly both ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’ in climate change communications: encouraging walking, cycling and public transport, while discouraging unnecessary journeys and unclean fuels for example.  A positive campaign should encourage good behaviour but avoid shaming hypocrisy.

    The need for both individual and collective responsibility: We need to focus on both individual experiences and the bigger picture. Our unusually sunny summer was part of the same warming trend that ignited California and Australia’s wildfires, but to many the connection wasn’t clear.

    Mitigation and adaptation as solutions: Mitigation and adaptation may require some explaining.  It’s also important to communicate the fact that they aren’t mutually exclusive – neither one will solve the problem.  Both are required to tackle the issue successfully.

    So what can communications professionals do to make sense of these conflicting messages?

    Importantly, we must acknowledge that they exist. Some dichotomy is inevitable in such a complex scenario.  

    Where possible, we should opt for a suitable balance – for example, of adaptation and mitigation solutions – as audiences will respond differently. Adaptation requires pragmatism, rationale and a broad understanding; mitigation is invariably more emotionally-driven.  But both are relevant.

    Delivery of the messages must be finely tuned.  Messages must be real; they must balanceemotional understanding and scientific fact, avoid technical jargon, and where appropriate, use data to back up facts. It is important to avoid being too sensationalist. To claim that each successive summer is getting hotter, for example, is inaccurate and threatens to destroy the credibility of the overall message.

    Consider using trusted voices.  Since the Covid-19 crisis, doctors (today’s new super heros) and scientists (officially the most trusted profession) are increasingly seen as opinion formers. In fact they’ve recently called on world leaders to ensure a green recovery from the Covid-19 crisis. And they will be listened to.

    And finally, while top-line messages must remain consistent, language, tone and means of communicating them will change depending upon the audience.

    In my experience, the answer to most communications questions comes back to strategy:  if you get your research, issues analysis and stakeholder mapping right and adapt the strategy as the situation changes, you have a secure basis upon which to form an engagement programme.

    If you’d like to find out more about the Environmental Working Group, view the web pages here or contact me directly.

  16. ‘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.

  17. Engaging on climate change

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    There is no denying the fact that the impact of climate change is substantial, universal, and requires both adaptation and mitigation.

    Even amid the current Covid-19 crisis, climate change remains a pressing issue – if anything the issue is highlighted by the evidence that clean air, clean waterways and more sustainable living and working practices are achievable. Unsurprisingly there is much discussion about the need for a ‘green recovery’ to the Covid-19 crisis.

    With other Associates of The Consultation Institute (tCI), I have formed an Environmental Working Group which will be instrumental in helping put in place ‘big’ conversations on climate change adaptation and mitigation, with a strong emphasis on economic and social recovery.

    The need for engagement

    Efforts to address climate risks will not succeed without a ‘social mandate’ – the buy-in of those whose everyday lives will change as a result.  And that’s all of us.

    That’s why we consider engagement with individuals and communities as imperative.

    Concerns about the climate are rising up the agenda. Research carried out among the British public earlier this year by Climate Outreach found that climate change was second only to Brexit as an issue of national importance.  It also found that levels of worry about climate change have doubled in the last four years and that scepticism about climate change is very low, with more than 85% of agreeing that climate change is driven by human activity.

    The challenge is to move people on from concern to commitment.

    Engagement, not consultation

    We see wide-scale engagement, carried out both at a local and central government level, as being key to this.

    Why engagement and not consultation?

    • Conversations on climate change aren’t a single, one-off with a specific question to be answered: although they may comprise several individual consultations, they are primarily ongoing
    • The dialogue takes place over many years – decades even, with no prescribed end date
    • The context is broad and will change during the course of that time – Covid-19 has massively impacted the debate, as will many future factors
    • And because of this, our background intelligence, stakeholder mapping and the ways in which we engage will continue to change – requiring a flexible engagement strategy rather than a fixed consultation

    tCI’s Environmental Working Group

    So engagement on climate change is not straightforward:  far from it.  While being highly susceptible to external influences, it requires a strategic approach:  one based on research and clear objectives, one which is flexible in the face of change but consistent in its purpose, and delivers sound feedback data.

    It is because of this that we established the Environmental Working Group.  Our purpose is to advise local authorities and other organisations on their engagement activity through an understanding of the regulations (such as the Aarhus Convention and the Paris Agreement), to review governance issues (typically responsibility for climate change engagement will be spread widely across an organisation), to hold workshops (on topics such as scoping, stakeholder mapping and behavioural change) and to assist with running communications campaigns as required.  We are also able to advice on governance, and provide e-learning and training through workshops.

    If you’d like to find out more about the Environmental Working Group, view the web pages here or contact me directly.

     

  18. Excellence in public participation and consultation

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    I was delighted to contribute to Regulation of Extractive Industries: Community Engagement in the Arctic – a compilation of expert opinion on consultation and communication, edited by Rachael Lorna Johnstone & Anne Merrild Hansen and published this week.

    The book demonstrates how effective public participation is fundamental to the process of change brought about by extractive industries.

    Not only should residents be involved whether as a legal requirement or simply through courtesy, but feedback from the community – from anecdotes and folklore to information about current uses of a proposed site – significantly benefits a proposal. In this context, ‘public participation’ is viewed as the long term process of engagement, not necessary linked to a specific extraction project but concerning community relations between an extractives company (or companies) and a community over many years; in contrast to ‘consultation’, which typically refers to the process of gaining feedback on a specific proposal and as such forms part of a broader public participation programme. Both involve extensive research, multiple stakeholders, an appropriate (and therefore diverse) selection of dialogue methods and comprehensive evaluation. A strategic approach provides the framework to do this in a cohesive manner.

    While each unique project requires a unique approach to public participation, a standardised approach to strategy can ensure that all relevant factors are taken into account and produce an appropriate public participation programme.

    My chapter will exemplifies best practice strategy and tactics for consultation, and new methods of engagement as used in the UK, Australia and Canada.

    Communications theorist Grunig identified four models to demonstrate ‘excellence’ in communication: press agentry, public information, two-way asymmetrical and two-way symmetrical. His epitome of excellent communication is the two-way symmetric model – an entirely symmetrical relationship:

    that is based on research and that uses communication to manage conflict and improve understanding with strategic publics.

    Individual countries’ legal requirements to consult on a planning proposal vary considerably. For example, the granting of an exploration licence for onshore mining activities in Greenland does not require a social impact assessment; which contrasts sharply with the UK, where community engagement in relation to similar schemes must follow a stringent process – the NSIP process, which is detailed in the 2008 Planning Act.

    Regardless of whether there exists a legal obligation to consult, there is not a legal obligation to uphold the majority views revealed in the consultation. Consultation is not a referendum. According to the UK’s Consultation Institute, consultation is:

    The dynamic process of dialogue between individuals or groups, based upon a genuine exchange of views, with the objective of influencing decisions policies or programmes of action.

    Recommendations for change following consultation take into account both technical and financial factors alongside stakeholder views – which, technically, may or may not be upheld by the decision-makers.

    So, neither consultation nor public participation results in a definitive decision, but the notion that public participation can benefit planning decisions is unequivocal. Effective public participation can create lasting positive relationships between a developer and a community, can produce local insight which significantly benefits any resulting development (specifically in tailoring it to the local community), and through dialogue, identifies appropriate community benefits.

    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.

  19. Coronavirus and Consultation

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    In the epicentre of a crisis, looking to the future can seem both pointless and worrying.  But longer term, challenges can create positives – consider the career opportunities for women following WW1 and the establishment of the NHS following WW2.

    The potential impact of coronavirus on the development sector is significant, not just today but long, long term.  But the housing shortage won’t go away, new infrastructure is desperately needed and despite a temporary ban on face-to-face contact, there are huge benefits in involving people in future plans.

    An immediate impact of the coronavirus crisis is that many community consultations on planning decisions will be cancelled – and quite rightly so.

    But simultaneously the crisis is changing the way in which we are using the internet to communicate – whether for family gatherings hosted by Skype, music lessons on Zoom or training webinars. Changes in the ways in which we communicate will not be limited to the current lock-down:  those that are shown to work will be here to stay.

    In planning, the absence of community meetings can be met by online consultation, which is inexpensive and easy to put in place.  And with so many social activities cancelled and people in lock-down, the audience is ready and waiting.

    There are many reasons why developers increasingly choose to use online consultation:

    • Research: The internet is by far the most powerful research resource. A substantial proportion of information that is required in researching stakeholder groups and necessary background information is freely and readily available.
    • Issues management: A constructive consultation is based on the community having access to reliable information, which can be easily sourced online. Monitoring of online consultation provide an immediate and effective means of understanding local sentiment and identifying any misapprehensions.
    • Immediacy: Online consultation has the advantage of being immediate: information can be posted and responded to in minutes. But consultation timelines should not be shortened as a result. On the contrary, immediate communication can only take place if the audience has been targeted and is in receipt of the message. Online communication can potentially spread quickly but only if the message is strong and compelling.
    • Ease of access: Online communication is a medium in which many people choose to communicate and by targeting residents via their preferred means, the likelihood of involvement is increased. Users can take part in an online consultation when and where they want – at home, on the move. Many chose to do so late at night. Because of its increased accessibility, online consultation has the power to reach new audiences – particularly the young and the time-poor. Local authorities welcome developers’ inclination to consult more widely; simultaneously this enables developers to unearth the support of the ‘silent majority’.
    • Dialogue: Online consultation allows for real-time dialogue and an exchange of ideas on a one-to-one, one-to-many and many-to-many basis.
    • Removing hierarchies: Online consultation has no regard for the limiting social stratas that we impose on ourselves. In a busy public meeting, for example, attendees may defer to a dominating character or group leader. Ultimately those members are not adequately represented, despite their presence. Online, and particularly behind the veil of a username, individuals are more likely to voice opinions without fear of repercussions, while personal details remain confidential but are accessible to the local authority as a confidential appendix to the consultation report.
    • Reaching ‘hard to reach’ groups: Many people – particularly commuters, families with young children, the elderly and disabled – are not easily able to attend consultation events. Online consultation provides an alternative, accessible means of engagement. Online consultation can be accessible in both its language and in the varied ways in which information is presented.
    • Promotion: Social media, blogs and the local media online can assist in communicating messages quickly.
    • Moderation: Both websites and social media can be monitored effectively. The way in which a consultation is to be moderated should be determined at the start and ideally communicated via a user guide to ensure consistency. For example, it should be decided in advance whether user generated content is to be vetted before appearing and if so, on what basis comment might be withdrawn.
    • Analysis: Online communication can be very effectively analysed: comprising day-by-day website usage; average session times and bounce rates; analysis of the most popular pages; demographic information in relation to location, gender, age and interest; analysis of how people are reaching the website; results per poll / forum / survey / blog comment; maps to depict the location of respondents. Likewise qualitative analysis which combines a technical and human approach can be more sophisticated than offline analysis.
    • Feedback: A consultation website, email and social media provide ideal means for communicating feedback.

    Using online consultation can help us to keep the industry moving, continue to address the housing crisis and avoid job losses.

    Another long-term prediction I have for the post-coronavirus renaissance is a strengthening of communities.  Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I predict that when the crisis is over we will be only too pleased to replace an evening in front of a DVD with a round in the local pub.  Likewise those who have offered or received community support will have renewed faith in their communities.  From a planning perspective, I anticipate higher levels of involvement in decisions that impact on our neighbourhood, especially where community facilities are proposed.  I will welcome the resumption of community meetings and public exhibitions, but I also see a continuing role for online consultation in complementing face-to-face communication.

    Penny Norton is the director of PNPR and founder of ConsultOnline.  Her book Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide was published by Routledge in 2017 and Promoting Property:  insight, experience and best practice is due to be published by Routledge in April 2020.

  20. Stakeholder analysis

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    Researching likely consultees at the start of the consultation process ensures that the consultation strategy takes into account the appropriate number of residents to be targeted, the diversity within the community and an understanding of where power lies.   Without it, the consultation runs the risk of being asymmetrical and failing to reach certain sections of the community, which often includes the ‘silent majority’ – those quietly accepting of the proposals.

    A thorough understanding of the community also informs later stages of the strategy development, for example, ensuring that tactics are well suited to specific groups.  It enables the consultor to better understand the issues that motivate groups and individuals – something which may not be immediately apparent or may contradict initial perceptions.  In a recent case, a political party supported a policy to bring about housing on a specific site, but despite being a member of that party, the local ward member personally opposed the proposal because of his fears for the repercussions on the local golf club, of which he was a member.   Party allegiances prevented him from speaking out in opposition to the scheme, but nevertheless he deliberately avoided constructive dialogue with the development team.  A better understanding of the councillor’s view at the early stages of the consultation would have enabled the team to communicate more effectively with the individual.

    Stakeholder and political research tends to be interlinked, as local politicians are inevitably significant players in the local community.  Similarly, communities of interest and communities of place co-exist (exacerbated by the increase in online communities) and most individuals fall into a number of categories.

    Special interest groups are easy to identify, but thorough, ongoing, stakeholder research is necessary to identify less formalised groups and patterns of interest.  Comprehensive stakeholder and political research enables a much better understanding of those likely to take part in the consultation, and importantly, unearth useful and relevant insights.  Typically the exercise will identify the following:

    • The demographic profile of the area
    • Local organisations – from community organisations to businesses and the issues affecting them
    • Community / political / religious and special interest groups, their leadership, membership, policies and influences
    • The political make-up of the council
    • Planning committee members and ward members
    • Political movers and shakers, including those with informal influence both within the council and in the wider community
    • The likely impact of any upcoming elections on both the political make-up and individual roles
    • Historic planning applications, particularly those for the site in question, or similar proposals which have been considered previously
    • Likely attitudes towards the development proposals among these stakeholders
    • The history of local opinion towards proposed developments for the site, if any

    Frequently stakeholders are prioritised using a matrix approach.  Such an approach will plot power in one axis and interest in another (either may be substituted with location or any other relevant factor for measuring likely involvement), thus using the matrix to determine the prime focus for the consultation.

    The various methods of stakeholder mapping and research available have the potential to depict the community as an eco-system, assessing the potential power and influence of individuals on a matrix and their known reaction to certain issues.  This enables the development team to assess a specific individual’s potential view (be it positive or negative) and asses the influence of that view within the consultation.

    At the end of the research process, the team will have an excellent understanding of the community generally, the personalities and groups which shape it and the issues which motivate or antagonise it.  It should become clear which sections of society are likely to respond to the planning application.  Information relating to key stakeholders, their contact details and relevant influences and opinions can be collated either in the form of an Excel database or held on Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software.   Stakeholder engagement software is often used for larger projects as it has similar functions to CRM systems but can be customised to a specific project.  It enables individuals to be pin-pointed geographically and provides data distribution and analysis.  The database should be continually developed, expanded and maintained throughout the consultation process.

    Extract from Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide.

    Penny’s second book Promoting Property:  insight, experience and best practice will be published in April 2020 and is available to reserve through Routledge and Amazon.

  21. Arnstein’s Ladder of Participation – an out of date concept or a useful tool?

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    In 1969 the US communications academic Sherry Arnstein identified the terminology of consultation in her Ladder of Participation.  In some respects, Arnstein’s theory is a useful resource by which community involvement can be considered today.

    Arnstein’s Ladder was intended to reflect the relationship between community and government, identifying poorly-led participation as ‘manipulation’ on the bottom rung of the ladder and rising to ‘citizen control’ at the very top.

    My first reflection on this, along with many other consultation professionals, is that ‘consultation’ is rarely ‘tokenism’.

    Consultation, according to the UK’s Consultation Institute, consultation is:

    The dynamic process of dialogue between individuals or groups, based upon a genuine exchange of views, with the objective of influencing decisions policies or programmes of action.

    It is dialogue, it is two way, and it seeks to gain feedback in order to inform decisions.

    Furthermore, I think that most developers quite justifiably choose to ignore the top two rungs of the ladder – the best consultations are a partnership between a developer and the community, not a relinquishing of control to the community.

    I also suggest alternating the positions of consultation and placation, thereby positioning consultation at the centre of the ladder, representing a process which involves local people and government / organisations equally.  Ideally the fifth rung would be divided further to reflect the fact that consultation itself has many forms as shown below:

    This, I hope provides a more up-to-date framework by which consultations can be considered.

    Extract from Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide.

    Penny Norton’s second book Promoting Property:  insight, experience and best practice will be published in April 2020 is now available to reserve online.

  22. The Revised NPPF: a missed opportunity

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    In May, the Government (Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government) held a consultation on revisions to the National Planning Policy Framework – the headline planning policy document from which all other planning policy stems.

    I contributed to the consultation through The Consultation Institute’s response, which commented specifically on the very opaque legislation / guidance surrounding the requirements for consultation in planning and development.

    Despite growing concern about public disaffection in the planning system, the guidance contained within the original NPPF was very vague: while developers were encouraged to engage and the benefits are described, there was nothing in law to require developers to consult local people before submitting a planning application.

    The revised NPPF has now been published and it is disappointing to see that very little has changed in the requirement to consult.

    Engagement is still only ‘encouraged’; one of the few changes being that it has been extended from solely statutory, to both statutory and non-statutory consultees.

    However, the list of information requirements that local authorities must make of developers has been reduced from ‘proportionate to the nature and scale of development proposals’ to ‘kept to the minimum needed to make decisions’.  To view the exact changes between the two documents, click here.

    While the legal requirement for developers to consult remains opaque, the notion that community involvement can benefit planning decisions is unequivocal.

    Planning is ultimately about people:  whether a local authority-run strategic plan or a private sector-led development proposal, change to the built environment impacts on communities.  While it is generally believed that those proposing changes should involve local residents as a courtesy, additionally planners and developers have much to benefit from involving local people.

    Consultation provides the opportunity to glean information and ideas from a local community.  This might include knowledge of local history and which has the potential to enrich a scheme, otherwise unknown social issues which might have delayed the process, and the needs and aspirations of the community which may be met through the new development.  With local input, proposals can be enriched and finely tuned to a specific neighbourhood, creating a unique scheme well suited to its location.

    The local community, too, can benefit: community involvement can promote social cohesion, strengthen individual groups within it and create a shared legacy.

    Following local dialogue at an early stage and having had proposals either challenged or welcomed, a developer has a greater chance of building local support for a proposed scheme. And a well-run consultation can build a trusting and mutually cooperative relationship between the developer and the community, which can minimise the potential for conflict and thereby remove risk in the process.

    While the Government has omitted to encourage greater public participation in planning through the revised NPPF, the potential that policy might ultimately change currently likes with the Raynsford Review, a review of the planning system which has been commissioned by the Town and Country Planning Association which makes community participation a high priority.  To find out more about my views on and involvement in this initiative, view my commentary on the Consultation Institute website.

     

     

  23. Monitoring, analysis and evaluation – three very separate components of a consultation

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    Monitoring, analysis and evaluation are all very important components of consultation and should not be confused.  The important difference is that monitoring occurs throughout the consultation.  Analysis, although it can be on-going, takes place (or is complete) at the end of the process.  Likewise although tactics can be evaluated while they are in progress, the consultation can only be fully evaluated when complete.

     

    Monitoring

    Unlike analysis and evaluation, monitoring need not be a formal, systematic process.  Neither does monitoring need to be recorded.  It is simply the process by which consultation tactics are observed.  The benefits are two-fold:  to ensure that tactics are working effectively, and to enable the development team to take part in the dialogue as necessary.  While the former is a necessary feature of all good consultations, the extent to which the latter is carried out varies hugely.

     

    Analysis

    Analysis is the collection of data generated by the consultation – percentages from polls, comments from emails, reports from workshops – and the process of making sense of it. This is both simpler and more effective if the analysis of each tactic is planned in advance.  A so-called consultation tactic which does not produce data in a form that can be analysed is counter-productive to the consultation:  not only is it a waste of resources but if information is requested which does not then form a meaningful part of the analysis, trust may be destroyed.

     

    Data usually falls into one of two categories:  qualitative or quantitative.  Quantitative data can be measured by number.   Consequently, analysis tends to be relatively simple.  Typically quantitative data may comprise percentages (‘67% of those attending the exhibition supported the introduction of a new footbridge’), quantities (‘546 individuals supported the proposals’) or comparisons (‘Five out of seven members of the committee voted in favour of Design Option 2’).  The way to create a more meaningful picture is to cross-tabulate (‘Of the 546 individuals who supported the new footbridge, 87% were daily commuters’).  Likewise, quantitative data can be useful for comparison purposes (‘87% local residents supported the new footbridge following the announcement of Design Option 2; prior to this only 61% residents were favourable’) or showing changes in attitudes over time (‘Support for a new footbridge has increased in excess of 10% year on year for the past five years’).

     

    Evaluation

    Evaluation is the process by which a consultation is reviewed.  Its dual purpose is to demonstrate that an effective consultation has been carried out, and to benefit future consultations.  The former gives credibility to the results and can also make sense of any inconsistencies.  For example, initial analysis might reveal that 85% local residents support the inclusion of an educational facility at a wind farm development but at a small meeting with local residents, only 10% indicated support for the facility.  Evaluation of the process would demonstrate that this particular meeting was instigated by the local ramblers group which adamantly opposed any development on the fields in question and thus although accurate, these results were the view of a minority group and, importantly, opposition to the wind farm in principle, rather than to the educational facility.

     

    Ideally evaluation is formative rather than summative:  making sense of the consultation throughout and making changes as necessary, rather than simply assessing it at the end of the process.  There is also an argument for evaluation to be carried out externally to allow for objectivity; although the counter-argument is that the process of evaluation is a useful learning experience for the team at the heart of the project.

     

    When planning a consultation, ensure that all three elements are present, but that they are clearly identified at specific steps in the process and as such can’t be confused.

     

     

    Penny Norton

    Penny’s book Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide is published by Routledge.  It is available online through Routledge, Amazon and other bookshops.

  24. Changing levels of involvement in planning

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    The first decade of the twenty-first century was a new era in which individuals were given the opportunity to become more active, with significantly more control whether as a purchaser, a customer or a commentator. This was largely due to increasingly interactive internet-based communications but also brought about through growing customer choice (for example in health and education). The advent of corporate social responsibility (CSR), which first became enshrined in law from the late 1990s, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1995 formally accepted the increased importance of dialogue with consumers and responsibility to both local communities and society at large. The result was a shift in the balance of power between consumers and companies or organisations.

    But the multiple means by which to speak out and increased likelihood of being listened to does not necessarily translate into an increase in those contributing to discussions on matters such as planning. On the contrary, our busy lives now present so many opportunities to submit a review following a purchase, comment on a Facebook group or complete a council survey that we can be inundated with requests and suffer what has become known as ‘consultation fatigue’. Consultation fatigue can also be caused by a local authority running, or allowing, multiple consultations in a specific location, or seeking too much involvement on complex, nebulous planning questions such as in the formation of a Local Plan. When over-whelmed by multiple requests for feedback, most individuals choose to respond to an organisation with which they have a particular affinity, or an issue that they feel particularly strongly about. It follows therefore, that those people who have little affiliation to a company proposing a new development in their area and no particularly strong views as to whether it goes ahead or not, are less likely to engage with the developer than they might once have been. This group is sometimes, perhaps optimistically, referred to as the ‘silent majority’.

    Individuals are also reluctant to become involved in planning discussions if they feel that their contribution is unlikely to change anything, perhaps because they have previously taken part in consultations on planning issues and feel that this has had little impact. Overcoming such perceptions requires the developer to select the topics to be discussed very carefully, to commit to genuine two-way consultation, to communicate in a manner that is clear and easy to comprehend (not only in terms of the vocabulary used but also the structure of the consultation), to select consultation tactics which motivate people, and to undertake to report on all consultation responses.

    The ConsultOnline White Paper Tackling Apathy in Consultation addresses this issue from a practical point of view.

    Penny Norton

    Penny’s book Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide is published by Routledge.  It is available online through Routledge, Amazon and other bookshops.

  25. Changing forms of communication in planning

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    The internet provides not only a new platform on which to communicate:  it changes the manner in which we communicate.  The world of online communication is, by and large, very democratic and non-hierarchical.  Every user has the potential to broadcast a message to millions worldwide at the touch of a button and consequently the concept of ‘citizen journalism’ is growing by the day.  That message will then appear unaltered and without confusion of an external influence. In principle if not in practice, a level playing field has been created and large organisations which were once able to use their position to influence are now exposed to previously unencountered levels of challenge and opposition online. Consumers now have greater expectations from organisations and the power to ask for information publicly.  Through the internet we have a greater opportunity to be informed and also a greater capacity to seek knowledge.  But where the lack of an organisational filter removes the need for checks to be made, misinformation can occur.

    With the advent of Web 2.0 in 2004, the extent to which people could collaborate, comment and share information increased, resulting in the internet ceasing to be only a vehicle through which information could be sought to an opportunity to both broadcast information and enter into dialogue on a number of levels.  The speed by which information now travels would be inconceivable to someone living in the first half of the twentieth century – through websites, blogs, social media, apps and email, information can be both sought and imparted within seconds. Not only does the initial message occur immediately, but a post, email or Tweet can be shared with similar speed, ‘snowballing’ and thus reaching millions.  Many websites will now enable this to occur automatically – composing a Tweet or a link to Facebook the moment a purchase has been made or a poll completed – crucially, with little or no effort on the part of the author / publisher.  In fact, the curating and sharing of a piece of information can occur devoid of human interaction:  the algorithms that power Facebook and Google are responsible for much of the content that we consume.

    The American University Center for Social Media[i] identified internet usage as falling into five categories: choice, conversation, curation, creation, collaboration. In a planning context, these behaviours might be described as follows:

    • Choice: finding information on Local Plan formation, policies and planning applications though search engines, recommendations (on or off line), news feeds and niche sites.
    • Conversation: entering into debates on discussion forums, blogs and microblogs, taking discussions into new forums by sharing links and mobilising action.
    • Curation: selecting and drawing together information on blogs to form powerful arguments, carefully targeted to specific groups; posting and reposting views and suggestions and sharing links.
    • Creation: posting brand new multimedia content, including text, images, audio and video rather than simply responding to information posted by a local authority, developer or government body.
    • Collaboration: creating groups of support or opposition for the purposes of campaigning both online and offline

    As the capabilities of the internet, along with internet usage, grow, the opportunities for involvement within each of these categories will undoubtedly increase and individuals’ behaviour online is likely to become less passive and more powerful.  Developers who opt not to have an online presence, or install a consultation website with no mechanism for dialogue, run the risk of their scheme being debated on closed blogs and Facebook groups and as such will be unaware of any mounting objection until it becomes too late to prevent it.  The industry must accept the changing communications landscape and monitor sentiment and proactively encourage constructive consultation online.

     

    Taken from Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide by Penny Norton, to be published by Routledge on 10 July 2017.  Please email Penny to receive notification of its publication.

    [i] Clark, J and Aufderheide, P 2009 Public Media 2.0: Dynamic Engaged Publics Washington, DC : Center for Social Media.

  26. Assessing potential use of social media in consultation

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    Facebook or Twitter, or a combination of both? The various forms of social media available offer varying benefit and drawbacks.

    The following is a comparison of the roles and functionality of Facebook and Twitter from the point of view of public consultation – intended to help you determine the best form of social media for your project.

    BENEFITS
    Both
    • Speed – a Twitter profile, Facebook Group or Page can be set up in minutes and all information posted will be communicated immediately.
    • Expense – time is the only cost, (though may be excessive if the messages do not naturally accumulate interest)
    • Popular with young people, providing the opportunity to encourage them to spread the message within their specific communities
    • Information posted appears immediately in users’ Facebook / Twitter feeds – information will be received without the user specifically accessing the relevant website.
    • The emerging use of location tags enables a level of local dialogue not previously possible.
    • A single message can quickly gather interest if ‘liked’, ‘shared’ or ‘retweeted’.
    • The use of Facebook and Twitter widgets on existing websites or blogs is a quick and effective means of drawing potential users to the page.
    • Ability to communicate both in a public group or one to one.

    Facebook
    • Facebook advertising enables a message to be targeted to a specific demographic and geographic area.
    • Ability to form a ‘group’ of those interested in a scheme and keep them updated through their chosen means of communication.
    • It is possible to ascertain levels of support by encouraging ‘likes’ for either specific ideas or the project as a whole
    • Posting in specific interest group enables the message to spread through communities of interest.
    • Messages can be spread effectively by targeting those likely to share an interest in the scheme by messaging them or posting on their walls.

    Twitter
    • Hashtags (#) enable the consultor to join an existing conversation simply by using the hashtag before the key words.
    • Live tweeting, such as at a consultation event or Council meeting, can draw a wide audience (both those attending the event and those unable to do so) and introduce a new level of dialogue.

    FUNCTIONALITY
    Both
    • Post news
    • Post polls
    • Post images
    • Post videos
    • Initiate online forums

    Facebook
    • Arrange events

    Twitter
    • Connect into existing discussions by using the hashtag (#)

    LIMITATIONS
    Both:
    • Requires user to have, or to create, a Facebook or Twitter profile.
    • The platform remains the property of Facebook / Twitter and as such could change without prior notice.
    • Analysis is limited to Facebook / Twitter’s standard analytics which does provide the desired information – for example in relation to the location of those commenting. Although good diagnostic tools area available they fail to provide the information necessary for a consultation report and there are no easy means of combining research from Twitter and Facebook, let alone collating this information alongside the more sophisticated level of demographic / geographic data available through a dedicated consultation website.

    Facebook
    • Facebook pages do not rank highly in Google searches and therefore it is difficult for potential consultees to find a relevant Facebook Page of Group through a generic search.

    Twitter
    • The content of tweets is restricted by the 140 character limit.

    BEST USED FOR
    Both
    • Consultations by organisations which already have a strong Facebook / Twitter presence and therefore the opportunity to build on existing support

    Facebook
    • Building interest within existing Facebook communities.

    Twitter
    • Short calls to action.

    Read more in Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide – published by Routledge on 10 July 2017. Please email Penny to receive notification of its publication.

  27. The ‘hard to reach’ and how to reach them – part 1

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    The difficulties of involving ‘hard to reach’ groups is perhaps the most enduring issue in consultation. That said, the definition of those classified as hard to reach is changing.

    Previously the elderly, disabled, black and minority ethnic (BME) and women were singled out as requiring additional outreach support. Today, older age groups and women may be among those most likely to respond to a consultation but issues still remain: whereas the 65-75 age groups is very likely to contribute to a consultation, the very elderly remain unrepresented; and whereas women are now much more likely to engage in consultations independently of their husbands than 50 years ago, parents of young children are considered hard to reach due to time pressures and the practical difficulties of attending evening events. Recent entrants to the list of hard to reach are those who work, particularly commuters.

    And while accessibility for commuters has been very successfully addressed through online consultation, requiring people to use IT to respond to a consultation – perhaps to be more proactive in finding the information, to be expected to do so via online networks, to comprehend information on screen and type responses – has accessibility issues.

    Local authorities consulting on strategic planning will have equalities agendas that they must comply with. Policies will recognise that different sections of the community, particularly minorities, have specific needs which should, as a democratic right, be recognised. Failure to take account of people’s differences could result (particularly in the case of public bodies) in claims of indirect discrimination.

    For developers, particularly those in the private sector, there are considerable benefits in reaching out to specific groups. Discussions with the local authority at pre-consultation stages should include the ways in which the consultation may be made representative of the wider community.

    It goes without saying that it requires a greater investment of time and other resources to work with those groups identified as hard to reach. Early dialogue should be used to gain a real understanding of a local community and ensure that issues can be identified prior to the consultation strategy being put in place .

    It is important never to treat hard to reach groups as an undifferentiated mass: each of those groups identified above (and subsections within them) have very clear interests and needs. A consultation should have a clear understanding of those groups it needs to reach and invest time in understanding them. This might include knowing where specific groups congregate, their media consumption and which issues concern them. It is always very helpful to identify the leaders – both formal and informal – with a view to establishing initial contact through a representative. Local authorities are well placed to advise on specific groups, and in many cases can provide or make recommendations regarding translations, interpreters, and advise on physical accessibility. For long term consultations it is often prudent to employ or train a member of staff with responsibility for specific groups.

    A consultor should consider whether processes are too restrictive. For example, some consultations will only accept responses made in writing or those made at a specific event. Again at the early stages, the various ways in which responses can be elicited should be considered – always ensuring consistency with the consultation’s objectives and the ability to analyse and evaluate responses, and to maintain consistency throughout the process. The consultation mandate should stipulate that the principles guiding the consultation will include those of openness and accessibility, and the consultation should reflect this commitment throughout.

    The next blogs on the subject of hard to reach groups will address each of the specific groups in turn, providing some practical advice on the best way to reach them.

    Penny Norton
    Penny’s book Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide is published by Routledge in August 2017. Please email Penny to receive notification of its publication.

  28. Monitoring a consultation – to what extent should the development team get involved?

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    In some cases, the consultors’ voice is rarely heard in the discussions; in others clarifying the messages and stimulating the dialogue will be necessary to ensure an effective consultation.

    Determining to what extent monitoring should become involvement depends upon the following:

    • Whether the consultation is successfully meeting the consultation objectives or whether intervention would ensure greater success – for example, is the community well represented, or does work need to be done to bring others into the consultation?
    • Whether dialogue is focused on the purpose of the consultation – is intervention required to bring the discussion back on track?
    • The accuracy of the discussions – if misapprehensions have arisen it is usually necessary to provide clarification.
    • Promises made to the consultees – if a consultation mandate is being used, did it stipulate that dialogue would be between residents, or between residents and the organisation running the consultation?
    • The consultation’s messages – are the messages receiving the necessary airtime, or does a particular message need to be brought to the fore?
    • Bias – would intervention by the consultor be seen as ‘leading’ the results of the consultation?
    • Symmetry and responsiveness – conversely, in not taking part in discussions, is the consultor failing to put across important information and to respond to points made?
    • Information gathering – could more be learnt by asking questions?

    Every consultation is different and some will require more involvement on the development team’s part than others.  The level of involvement therefore should be a decision unique to that consultation – but hopefully the ideas above should help in making that decision.

    Penny Norton

    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.

  29. Issues analysis in consultation

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    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 Norton

    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.

  30. Engaging with local residents during construction

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    Construction can be a difficult time for developers and the neighbourhoods in which they are working.  As my previous blog has shown, there is a lot that can be done to mitigate the impacts of construction.  But a more proactive approach can make the difference between good and bad relations with a local community.

     

    Education and employment

    Development teams frequently use education as a means of reaching stakeholders both during the planning stages and beyond.  Working with schools reaches not just children, but their families too, often within a very specific geographic area.  Similarly, developers and construction companies have skills which can be of use to the wider community and this too can help develop positive relationships with the site’s neighbours.

     

    Through these initiatives, the development team is able to better understand its local community and in doing so, address local issues, grow local businesses and provide skills training to help regenerate; develop community cohesion; continue to consult, where appropriate, on the details of the scheme; and create interest in the development – attracting workers, shoppers and residents.

     

    Environmental initiatives

    In recognition that a new development may have, albeit only in the eyes of a few, a negative impact on the fabric of a neighbourhood, developers frequently make environmental improvements to a neighbourhood.  Typically this involves developing a nature reserve, creating the means by which endangered species can be protected (bat boxes are common) or making a contribution to a local park or woodland

     

    The arts

    Using the arts as a form of community engagement enables the community to work collaboratively on a process which is creative, fun and can be directly relevant to the development itself; and in can provide a positive experience in the process and result in a product which endures and provides a long term reminder of the collaboration.  The involvement of a community arts worker or professional artist can provide a helpful bridge between the developer and the community, and the process can create a sense of ownership in the new development.

     

    Arts work can take various forms, encompassing visual and performance arts; permanent or temporary; a product by or for the community.  The resulting piece is often inspired by the architecture of the new development, or may link to the site’s previous use.

     

    Sponsorship, support and sponsorship-in-kind

    The variety of skills that make up the construction and development team have a great deal to offer the local community.  Sometimes a seemingly simple activity such as providing the use of the landscaping team to overhaul a pocket park, or members of the construction team to rebuild a brick wall at a local school will present an excellent opportunity to forge links with the local community.  Sometimes this might involve skills sharing – teaching jobless young people the skills of gardening or brick-laying, or offering talks about careers in construction at a further education college.

     

    Sponsorship too is popular.  A developer or construction company will often provide a new kit for a local sports team which provides both an opportunity to meet local residents in a non-adversarial context and to gain brand recognition at football matches and in the local media.

     

    Initiatives such as these can have multiple benefits – not only in mitigating the impact of construction but to reputation, corporate social responsibility and the long term success of the new development.

     

    Penny Norton

    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.

     

  31. Considering anonymity in consultation

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    During the early stages of a consultation, when a strategy is put in place to determine the direction of the project, it will be necessary to consider whether you will allow people to respond anonymously.

    While anonymity has been shown to enable people to put forward their viewpoint without fear of repercussion, it could be argued that anonymous results cannot be verified at the evaluation stage and therefore carry little weight.

    Consider the following factors when making the decision:

    Arguments in favour

    • Respondents are more likely to express their views without fear of repercussions
    • Breaks down power relations
    • Frees up individual expression
    • Removes bias
    • The argument can be focused on the content of the discussion without prejudice
    • Undermines collaboration

    Arguments against

    • A consultation report carries more value if comments can be attributed
    • An individual should be prepared to ‘own’ his / her comments
    • People are more likely to be dishonest when unidentifiable, or to use a forum to praise themselves
    • Individuals may be able to put forward their views on numerous occasions by using different log-ins
    • Anonymous contributions lack demographic data, which can be very valuable in a consultation
    • De-personalises comment

     

    Penny Norton

    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.

  32. Community relations during construction

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    It goes without saying that local residents will be more positively engaged with a development team and less critical of it if their locality is kept clean and safe, and that they are provided with timely and adequate information should their daily lives be disrupted.

    The following tactics are all regarded as good practice in overseeing community relations:

    • The appointment of a community liaison officer is an excellent starting point as this ensures a single point of contact for local residents, a co-ordinated and consistent approach. In some cases, this role may be taken on 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 found to be useful in imparting information.
    • Face-to-face and small community group meetings enable the development / construction team to speak directly with those individuals affected and respond to their concerns.
    • Community liaison panels are a more formal means by which the development team 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 series of photographs, hosted on a website or social media page.
    • Other engaging 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.
    • The local media can be a useful means of providing updates to the wider community and also establishing a positive relationship with a local journalist 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, opening a play area or aspect of infrastructure.

    Community relations is a vital component of development and one which should flow naturally from a well-run planning consultation.

    Successful community relations requires a strategic and principled approach, early engagement and a realistic and appropriate set of tactics.  Whether you’re communicating directly with residents to mitigate future problems or putting in place positive programmes of engagement, there is a wide variety of tactics available.

    Penny Norton

    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.

     

     

  33. Asking the right questions

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    What are the ‘right’ questions to ask in a consultation on a development proposal? Unsurprisingly, there is no ‘right’ answer!  Consultation can range from an issues-based exercise which encourages a wide range of ideas from its audience, to a referendum which invites residents to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a single idea.  Ideally a consultation will include both open and closed questions.

    Depending on the nature of the consultation, fully open questions such as ‘What do you think the development should comprise?’ can give rise to unrealistic answers or angry rants. It is often more helpful, both for the individual and the exercise, to provide guidance which focuses the mind and in doing so generates more meaningful responses.  Issues-based consultations sometimes use the ‘dilemma’ approach:  one that puts the consultee in the position of the consultor and in doing so helps them to make a more informed choice. For example, rather than asking the question ‘What do you want to see on this land?’ the dilemma approach would state, ‘We are required to provide between 800-1,000 homes and three commercial units on this site.  Where do you feel the commercial units could be situated?  What sized homes are most needed in the neighbourhood?  Do you agree that the 30% housing association homes should be distributed evenly throughout the development?’ the alternative approach – seeing the proposal from local residents’ point of view – can also help address underlying negativity.  For example, a telecoms company invariably faced with the comment, ‘I don’t want that mobile phone mast obscuring my view’, may ask questions relating to need at an early stage, starting with the question ‘Is your mobile phone coverage satisfactory?’

    A decision must be taken as to whether to request demographic data. Most consultations will benefit from a detailed understanding of their respondents.  In a site-specific development it is extremely useful to understand where people live and take this into account in relation to their response.  Information relating to age, gender and employment status can also benefit analysis, but can be off putting.  Rarely is it worth asking for demographic information if it deters a significant number of potential respondents.  A tried and tested technique is to seek this information at the end of the process, rather than early on.  It is also advised to make the provision of personal information voluntary, while both explaining its benefits reassuring respondents that the information will remain confidential and not used for any other purpose.  The Information Commissioner’s Office provides useful information about handling personal data and anyone running a consultation should consider registering under the 1998 Data Protection Act.

    While data which lacks user information lacks validity, an anonymous contribution is usually more valid than none. Online consultation demonstrates that anonymity can benefit a consultation in removing hierarchies.  In an online consultation conducted by ConsultOnline 54% of those taking part in the consultation chose a username which bore no resemblance to their actual name, yet names, addresses and postcodes were supplied for the registration process.  The lack of these comments would have been detrimental to the consultation, and while respondents were reassured that their personal details would not be made public, the development team had access to the demographic data necessary to create an excellent consultation report.

    Ideally, a consultation should include a mixture of qualitative and quantitative tactics which, in turn, produce both qualitative and quantitative data. Questions should be closely aimed to the objectives of the consultation and most importantly, questions should only be asked if their responses can impact on the proposals.

     

    Penny Norton

    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.

     

  34. The consultation mandate

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    Have you ever responded to a development consultation where there is a clear consultation mandate in place? As a local resident, have you been presented with a document which sets out who the consultation is for, what it’s about, what it intends to achieve, how the results will be used and how you’ll be informed of the result?

    Many of us probably haven’t been on the receiving end of a consultation which is so clear, so open and honest and so committed to the local residents involved. This is a shame, as there’s no reason why a developer shouldn’t put this in place, as it hugely benefits ongoing community relations as I’ve found.

    A consultation mandate is simply a distillation of the consultation strategy for use by local residents. As the document will be read by a wide variety of people in a wide variety of circumstances, it is imperative that it is clear and concise, using plain language and a simple, accessible form.

    Typically, a consultation mandate will include the following information:

    • The organisation running the consultation
    • The target audience
    • The aims and objectives of the consultation
    • The subject for discussion
    • Potential impact of consultation
    • The organisation initiating the change post-consultation
    • Timings

    Try it out! Providing you state that the document is flexible and publish any updates on the consultation website, there’s nothing to lose.

    Penny Norton

    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.

  35. Effective online consultation – part 3: responsiveness

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    Online consultation has the huge benefit of being widely accessible and eliciting responses where they may not have otherwise been available. But the good consultation is two-way consultation:  encouraging a response and ignoring it does not constitute good consultation.

    The following suggestions will help to create a responsive consultation, without making it too arduous:

    Be as responsive as is feasible

    • Provide a means for respondents to contact a person if necessary – ideally both by email and phone.
    • Determine in advance whether you’ll interact on public forums – and if so, ensure that the role is one of facilitation, not refereeing.
    • Ensure that all those posting / responding on behalf of the consultation do so with the same understanding.
    • Respond promptly.
    • Keep registered users updated – via email, RSS, SMS or social media.

    Remember that communication online is immediate and 24/7

    • Commit to regular posting. Social media posts can be scheduled via a range of dashboard applications such as TweetDeck and Hootsuite.
    • Keep the site fresh and up to date.
    • Check links regularly.
    • Update the site regularly.

    Monitor constantly

    • Set up monitoring from Day One. This may be both automatic (for bad language / spam) but should not be exclusively so.
    • If you have to remove a post, let the individual know and give them an opportunity to replace it.
    • Avoid vetting comments as this leads to mistrust of the consultation.
    • Provide links to offline consultation, allowing respondents to take part both online and offline.

    Always remember that in two-way communication, every comment deserves a response.

    Penny Norton

    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.

  36. Selecting tactics

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    There are literally 100s of consultation tactics and with the advent of online consultation that list is growing by the day.

    So here are some ideas to help you select the most appropriate tactics for your consultation.

    Accessibility – do the tactics selected give all sections of the community an opportunity to comment?

    • Analysis – consider the outputs required for a convincing consultation report, including achieving a balance of qualitative and quantitative responses
    • Anonymity – consider the benefits and drawbacks in relation to the consultation’s objectives
    • Appeal – make it fun
    • Balance innovation and more established methods
    • Cost – do the chosen tactics fall within the consultation budget?
    • Ease – avoid requesting unnecessary information or making it difficult for individuals to respond
    • Mix old and new means of communication to appeal to the various demographic groups within the community
    • Past successes – consider what has worked well in the past, or discuss successful local consultations with the local authority and local groups
    • Time – assume no prior knowledge; give people time to digest information
    • Variety – don’t rely on just one method: different tactics appeal to different people

    Bear in mind that too many consultation tactics can be as harmful as too few – not only because it can confuse the audience, but because evaluation becomes a nightmare! Following these suggestions will, I hope, enable you to pick the right tactics for your consultation.

     

    Penny Norton

    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.

  37. Media relations in consultation

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    There is an assumption that the media, specifically local newspapers, are naturally anti-development, that a newspaper will always champion the voice of the local resident over that of a corporate entity, and that bad news is more likely to make the headlines than good news. There is some truth in this, but this does not justify developers failing to engage with journalists.

    As with local residents, positive relationships with the media are based on provision of information and a positive, open and transparent approach.

    A shocking proportion of developers opt not to communicate with the local media in the early stages of consultation, entering into dialogue only (and often reluctantly) when a negative issue has been brought to the attention of the media. Frequently a negative, unbalanced and perhaps inaccurate story will have run by this stage, causing substantial damage both to the consultation and the reputation of its partners more generally.

    The recommended approach is to contact the local newspaper at the early stages of the consultation: use the consultation mandate to explain the process and remit of the consultation, ensure that the local media is fully furnished with the facts and the positive messages and has contact details for an appropriate individual in the case of future questions.  The result of this approach is typically a positive story in the first instance, and a more balanced story should local residents approach the newspaper with concerns about the consultation or development proposals.  The local newspaper can also be used to publicise consultation events both in print and online and perhaps even host the consultation survey.

    Albeit a one-way tactic, local media relations represents an excellent opportunity to communicate with a wide audience. And thanks to the proliferation of local newspaper websites (now more numerous than those newspapers producing a print version) this is changing:  opportunities exist to drive readers to the consultation website, or to encourage discussion via a local newspaper blog or social media page and in doing so a once static, asymmetrical means of communication becomes an interactive tool.

     

    Penny Norton

    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.

  38. Effective online consultation – part 2: content

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    Online consultation is only effective when its content is effective. This blog provides some suggestions for creating great content.

    Create compelling and useful content

    • Create an enticing home page. Consider the use of video as an icebreaker.
    • Bear mind that people have shorter attention spans online. Write content specifically for the website: do not be tempted to simply install the content of a document or leaflet online (although there is no harm in including these documents in a document library).
    • Ensure that text is crisp and clear at all times.
    • Break substantial information into manageable chunks.
    • Ensure that information presented in a variety of different ways.
    • Provide enough information to enable people to make an informed response.
    • Create content that is suitably compelling for people to engage with and share.
    • Use images, illustrations, maps, videos and slideshows to bring the content to life.
    • Link surveys and forums to background information to ensure that those responding are adequately informed.
    • Provide ample visual material. Mapping can enable residents to zoom in on an areas in detail and add text, video and comment.
    • Consider the use of slider bars. This is a visual and effective means of determining relative levels. It works well in budget setting but could also be an engaging and useful tool for community input in landscape design or other decisions.

     

    Blog: a powerful way to provide regular updates and invite responses

    • Post regularly and on behalf of various members of the development team but determine how comment on blogs will be fed into the analysis prior to permitting comment.
    • Consider allowing members of the community such as representatives of a stakeholder engagement group to blog.
    • Ensure that those who blog on behalf of the development team understand the key messages and the scope of the consultation.

     

    Use information to demonstrate transparency

    • Document libraries can be used to hold complex planning documents such as relevant local planning policies, or at the end of the process, the documents which make up the planning application.
    • Use hyperlinks to enable consultees to access extensive information if they choose to do so (ensuring that the hyperlink opens a new window rather than taking the residents’ attention away from the consultation website).

    Engage via online forums

    • Use online forums to invite comment and discussion on a range of issues.
    • Determine initially to what extent the development team will interact and if so, whether to do so in a corporate character or individual’s name.
    • If taking part in online forums aim to facilitate, but avoid arguing at all costs.

    Use issues ranking to gain statistical results

    • Put in place a mechanism whereby residents can select a preferred option from a list of choices, and second and subsequent lists are selected by routing software in relation to the initial choice.

    Ensure consistency throughout the consultation

    • Ensure that the online content is in keeping with offline content – this is particularly appropriate if the two parts of the project are being run by different teams.
    • Ensure that messages are consistent throughout the website and the wider consultation.

    Focus on results

    • Avoid the temptation to ask open questions which may deliver results which are difficult to monitor and analyse.
    • Ensure that the consultation website provides a means of quickly extracting information from the website for reporting and evaluation.

    Finally, remember that the internet is much more than the means of publishing a document online. The web provides the opportunity for genuine two-way dialogue, the stuff that good consultations are made of.  Make the most of that opportunity!

     

    Penny Norton

    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.

  39. Effective online consultation – part 1: planning

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    Planning is key to all good consultations. But I’ve learnt from the many online consultations that I’ve run that this is all the more so in online consultation due to the speed with which information can spread across the internet and the quantity of responses that can be received.

    So it’s worth bearing in mind the following advice in advance of launching a consultation:

    Plan

    • Have a content plan in place – but be flexible.
    • Watch and listen – determine what works best for the particular consultation, when to post and lengths of posts. Google Analytics is a very helpful tool for understanding user patterns.

    Research

    • Use stakeholder research and analysis to gain an understanding of the likely take-up.

    Use a consultation mandate to establish aims and objectives and guidance on usage

    • Ensure that the consultation mandate is displayed prominently – or that its content is expressed clearly.
    • Put rules for engagement in place via a user guide.
    • Communicate the purpose and passage of the consultation. Make the timeline clear and adhere to it where at all possible; where this is not possible, ensure that the audience is fully informed.
    • Be realistic about how quickly you can respond to questions raised online and communicate your commitment to respond at the start of the consultation.

     

    Prioritise access

    • Avoid making the online consultation too complicated: always consider the less digitally aware when drafting web content and functionality.
    • Consider the benefits of making all (or specific) polls and forums available only to local residents by requiring that they register using a postal address. The importance of registration is three-fold:
      • The proposed development will have a greater impact on those in a specific local area, and so it is important that local residents are given a priority in shaping the proposals.
      • The more detailed the information from the local community, the more value it has. If a developer understands not only what the community feels, but where certain views originate geographically, results are more valid.
      • The consultation report will have added validity if responses can be identified by individual and location.
    • Bear in mind that registration can deter involvement. If using a registration process, ensure that this is quick and simple, and doesn’t demand so much information as to be off-putting.
    • Let people register and get started quickly. Only those with a strong objection to a proposal will persist with an onerous registration process.

    Select tactics with careful consideration

    • Use a variety of online tactics providing the tactics are in line with the consultation objectives and deliver meaningful results.
    • Aim to use a combination of qualitative and quantitative tactics online.
    • Ensure that all tactics, where possible, include an opportunity to respond – if only linking to a Contact Us page.

    Remember that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. And so it follows that if you succeed in planning, you stand a much greater chance of succeeding!

     

    Penny Norton

    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.

     

  40. Does a consultation need a strategy?

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    The simple answer, from my point of view is yes – all good consultations will have a consultation strategy.

     

    A strategy puts in place clear aims and objectives which ensure that the consultation team shares values, expectations and understanding. It also ensures that a wide range of relevant factors are identified at the start of the process and that those are taken into consideration as the consultation progresses. The logical sequence of a strategy, however wide-ranging the engagement activities, provides consistency and ensures that all members of the team approach the consultation with shared objectives.

     

    Formulating a strategy need not require substantial understanding of communications theory or days spent grafting and crafting. And the benefits are numerous.   In many planning applications – such as NSIPs or those carried out by a public body – a clearly defined strategy is required by law.  This alone speaks volumes as to its importance.   Although a strategy may not be a legal requirement in other planning applications, most require a consultation report which details the approach taken, an evaluation of the results and the future direction of the project based on consultation responses and its success is dependent on there being a coherent strategy.

     

    Transparency – always an important characteristic of consultation – is another benefit of a strategic approach. Without it, the launch of a consultation may be met with confusion.  It is recommended that, at the implementation of a consultation, the strategy is communicated in a consultation mandate which sets out the vision, objectives and structure of a consultation and shows how results will be received, analysed and acted upon.  This can avoid confusion among third parties, whether special interest groups, local residents, statutory consultees or public bodies.

     

    A strategic approach also allows for resources – whether financial, human or time – to be allocated and planned, thus ensuring that the consultation is run efficiently.

     

    A common mistake in planning, often despite better intentions, is for a strategy to become a retrospective document: the team launches into a series of consultation tactics (perhaps based on past practice, experience or recommendation) results are collated, and then in a need to create a meaningful consultation report, a ‘strategy’ is drafted to justify the approach.

     

    Worse still, and all too common to the industry, is to ‘predict and provide’ (to make assumptions about what a development should comprise and put the proposals in place with little or no consultation); ‘plan, announce and defend’ (to put in place a development proposal, inform local residents and attempt to counter any negative sentiment) or to ‘plan, monitor, manage’ (to put in place a development proposal, gather opinion and then attempt to promote only the positive -opinion).  Each of these examples is a distinctly top-down approach and makes scant use of consultation.  Of course developments require varying levels of public consultation but those which are seen to be avoiding any meaningful dialogue are setting themselves up for failure.

     

    If it be said that strategy is a waste of time, it is only in the case of a retrospective or tokenistic ‘strategy’ that this is true.

     

    Penny Norton

    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.

  41. Ethics in consultation

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    All too often, consultation is mentioned in relation to a ‘sham’ or a ‘tick box’ exercise and references made to ‘spin’ and ‘persuasion’.

    I have spent some time thinking about standards of excellence in consultation and have come to the conclusion that best practice consultation is all of the following:

     Symmetrical

    A good consultation aims to achieve a symmetrical flow of information between the consultor and the consultee, as opposed to bombarding the community with information and paying little attention to responses.

    Responsive

    The day of informing the public on a proposal and collating results at the end of the process is over. Today’s consultations are focussed on ongoing engagement, allowing development proposals to evolve in line with feedback and the process to adapt where necessary.

    Positive consultation responses are generated by positive sentiment. An ability to understand what motivates the stakeholder group and to communicate with them in the way in which they feel most comfortable is crucial.

    Genuine

    Honesty is at the root of all good consultations. Transparency and openness should be present throughout – from setting of realistic objectives, communicating the purpose of the consultation, drawing up agendas for discussion, reporting events and the final feedback.  The consultation should focus on excellence in communication and avoid any association with spin.

    Information should be shared openly, especially documents which are material to the determination and the results.

    Similarly, a consultation outcome should never be pre-determined. Sometimes the outcome will differ from that which was expected, let alone intended.  Sometimes factors will come to light which disagree with the outcome.  The final consultation report should identify such issues and explain why the final decision did not take them into account.

    Engaging

    A positive approach is imperative: a quality process will result in a quality outcome.  An engaging consultation might mean fun to some stakeholders, inspiration to others, regular and consistent communication others.  The consultation strategy must be mindful of the various groups that make up the community and seek to provide relevant and appealing forms of engagement.

    A successful consultation is one which results in constructive relationships with the local community. Formal partnerships, such as with potential occupiers of community buildings or with local enterprise groups, are often of substantial benefit, both during the consultation and during the construction phase.

    Consultation should be clear on every level, from the language used to the communication of the aims and objectives. A consultation report provides an ideal opportunity to clarify those consulted, the information gained and the impact upon the final scheme.

    Timely

    Early engagement is good engagement. A consultation should allow ample time to develop the early stages of the strategy, to engage fully and provide adequate time for responses.  The timescale of the consultation should be set out in a document which can be accessed by all.

    Informative

    A consultation is a learning journey: from informative research, to a comprehensive and a well-reasoned conclusion.  Consulting bodies should see themselves as learners rather than to teachers, something which should be apparent in their dealings with stakeholders.

    Manages expectations

    Expectations within a community are likely to be as varied as the individuals that constitute it. This is best tackled through thorough stakeholder research, not only of information but of feelings and expectations.  With a greater understanding expectations, both for the consultation and the proposals, the consultor is better placed to communicate the parameters and prevent disappointment. Care needs to be taken to motivate residents to secure their involvement and realistic expectations.

    Accessible

    The visibility of those carrying out a consultation is a strong indicator of its likely success. Key members of the consultation team, however senior, should be seen to listen and learn.

    Strategic

    Ultimately, a good consultation must be well researched, based on firm objectives, structured and designed to produce meaningful analysis and evaluation. The strategy should be well understood within the consultation team and communicated to wider audiences clearly, perhaps in the form of a Consultation Mandate. As with all public relations, a strategic approach which conforms to a set of guiding principles is invariably the best route to success.

    Additionally, as a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), I am committed to abide by the CIPR’s Code of Conduct.

    Under the principles of the Code, members of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations agree to:

    • Maintain the highest standards of professional endeavour, integrity, confidentiality, financial propriety and personal conduct
    • Deal honestly and fairly in business with employers, employees, clients, fellow professionals, other professions and the public
    • Respect, in their dealings with other people, the legal and regulatory frameworks and codes of all countries where they practise
    • Uphold the reputation of, and do nothing that would bring profession into disrepute
    • Respect and abide by this Code and related Notes of Guidance issued by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and ensure that others who are accountable to me (e.g. subordinates and sub-contractors) do the same
    • Encourage professional training and development among members of the profession in order to raise and maintain professional standards generally.

     

    Much of this is common sense, good manners and responsible business practice. But together, I think the Principles and the Code of Conduct address all of the issues which might cause a consultation to be brought into disrepute and as such might be a useful framework for others running public consultations.

    Word cloud

     

  42. Community relations during construction – working effectively with residents

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    There are many different facets to community relations during construction which will be addressed in later blogs. This first blog on the subject concerns the vital role of resident liaison.

    It goes without saying that local residents will be more positively engaged with a development team and less critical of it if their locality is kept clean and safe, and that they are provided with timely and adequate information should their daily lives be disrupted.

    The following tactics are all regarded as good practice in overseeing community relations:

    • The appointment of a community liaison officer is an excellent starting point as this ensures a single point of contact for local residents, a co-ordinated and consistent approach.
    • In some cases, this role may be taken on 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 found to be useful in imparting information.
    • Face to face and small community group meetings are helpful to speak directly with those individuals affected and respond to their concerns.
    • Community liaison panels are a more formal means by which the development team 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 series of photographs, hosted on a website or social media page.
    • Other engaging 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 with the incentive of free cake, to encourage direct communication between the construction team and community.
    • The local media can be a useful means of providing updates to the wider community and also establishing a positive relationship with a local journalist which can be useful in the case of complaints.
    • The development team also has the opportunity to provide a series of events, such as ‘topping out’ a significant building, opening a play area or aspect of infrastructure.

    PNPR, through its new brand CommunitiesOnline, recently set up a community relations website for Essential Living’s Berkshire House scheme in Maidenhead.

    Essential Living had previously carried out a comprehensive pre-planning consultation using ConsultOnline to run an online consultation alongside an offline consultation.

    When planning consent was granted and construction commenced on site, a community relations website was put in place which provides substantial information about the scheme, its design, the construction timetable, the build-to-rent sector , facilities for residents, the site’s history and the team. Construction updates, with images of the development in progress, are posted regularly and as required, and users are invited to register both for construction updates via email and for future lettings availability. Quick links on each page provided help with navigation, while links to Facebook, Twitter and Google + encouraged users to share information.

    The website was promoted using the social media accounts set up for the planning consultation and is monitored using Google Analytics.

    It’s early days for the Berkshire House website, but there is every indication that this is viewed a very positive initiative in forging a good relationship with the local community.

    Penny Norton

    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.

  43. Changing tactics in consultation

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    In researching and writing my book 21st Century Consultation and Community Engagement: A Guide for Developers, Planners and Local Authorities, I’ve been looking into the ever increasing number of consultation tactics that exist – getting on for 300, I think!

    Of course many are variations on a theme, but there are some very clear patterns emerging:

    • The increased use of qualitative, as opposed to quantitative tactics – local authorities don’t just want to know figures and percentages, they want to know about thoughts, ideas and sentiment.
    • The demise of the public meeting – something few developers ever enjoyed – and the rise in its place of participative planning – such as Planning for Real, Enquiry by Design
    • The importance of early engagement: dialogue on issues as opposed to a ‘tick-box’ for an already complete masterplan. Nick Woolley’s Concerto model is a great example of how early engagement can engage on issues very effectively using both a qualitative and quantitative approach.
    • The rapidly growing and exciting toolbox of online consultation tactics – conversation about a development proposal takes place online whether a developer intends it or not; the question is not whether to run an online consultation but how best to interact with existing online conversations in a positive an effective manner.

    I could go on – and I will: from January 2017 there will be 100,000 words on the subject, available from all good book shops.

    But in the meantime, here are a few thoughts on selecting appropriate consultation tactics:

    • Accessibility – do the tactics selected give all sections of the community an opportunity to comment?
    • Analysis – consider the outputs required for a convincing consultation report, including achieving a balance of qualitative and quantitative response
    • Anonymity – consider the benefits and drawbacks in relation to the consultation’s objectives
    • Appeal – make it fun
    • Balance innovation and more established methods
    • Cost – are the chosen tactics realistic in terms of the consultation budget?
    • Different tactics appeal to different people
    • Ease – avoid requesting unnecessary information or requesting that a form is posted when an email would be an easier option for most
    • Mix old and new means of communication to appeal to the various demographic groups within the community
    • Past successes – consider what has worked well in the past, or discuss successful local consultations with the local authority and local groups
    • Time – assume no prior knowledge; give people time to digest information
    • Variety – don’t rely on just one method: different tactics appeal to different people

     

    Consultation tactics wordcloud