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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
Borough and parish council news
Details of MPs, councillors and candidates
Information about local authority consultations
Information about local groups including residents’ associations
Information about local businesses
A range of local campaigns, often concerning local authority services, planning or construction work
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Failure to engage with a wider audience, specifically the ‘hard to reach,’ and to gain responses from the ‘silent majority’.
Apathy and consultation fatigue.
A lack of clarity about the aims of participation leading to disaffection.
Failure to explain the situation and its limitations effectively.
A lack of creativity resulting in a lack of motivation.
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.
Lack of awareness of opportunities to participate.
Provision of too much or too little information, or failure to simplify complex information.
Disappointment in the consultation by those being consulted.
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.
Lack of dedicated resources (people, funding, technology).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Access to information
Public participation in decision-making
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.