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.
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.