Tuesday, 28 January 2014

When Perceptions are Everything, Community Profiling is the Key

Peter Cole

Principal Consultant

The UK’s major infrastructure engineering industry is currently enjoying a relative boom time, with a large number of proposals being progressed at a rate of knots for a range of projects, from high speed rail and major new energy infrastructure, to super sewers and significant airport expansion.
The various planning mechanisms that have been put in place to deal with these applications stress the importance of public engagement and early consultation with potentially affected communities. It is therefore perhaps not a surprise that the socio-economic assessments traditionally carried out to inform these applications have morphed so as to provide a stronger focus on the ‘softer’ non-economic impacts of a scheme upon a given community. Increasingly, these impacts are meriting their very own assessment and topic chapter within an Environmental Statement – the ‘Community Impact Assessment’.

Recognising that this is a relatively new science, just how effective are these assessments at really getting to the heart of the matter, or, the heart of the community?
Defining the sensitivity of a community to any particular impact isn’t just a case of looking at local demographic statistics and counting user numbers. Where impacts are likely, engagement should actually be part of the assessment methodology. It is important to realise that a communities ‘perception’ of impacts may be very different from the ‘actual’ impacts as normally assessed in an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Understanding perceived impacts, however, is key within a Community Impact Assessment in terms of engaging positively with a community, applying the correct sensitivity to resources and in identifying the most acceptable mitigation.

There’s no hard and fast methodology for applying this principle to Community Impact Assessment, as clearly the approach needs to fit the project, the geographical area and crucially the characteristics of the communities likely to be affected. Having said that, in the majority of cases, face to face engagement would seem to be a given, with resident/user questionnaires and interviews with local community organisations being a good starting place, complementing demographic characterisation through desktop research.
As discussed, the process can be utilised by developers to ensure that they have considered (and are fully appraised of) a community’s sensitivities and priorities when developing alternatives and mitigation/compensation measures. In addition, Temple Group have also recently used this approach to aid local authorities who wish to understand the potential implications of major infrastructure proposals on their communities - giving the local authorities a sound basis for challenging assumptions within developers’ Environmental Statements.
Temple Group is now looking to take the Community Profiling concept one step further and develop uses and benefits which can be utilised by contractors post-consent. By reviewing mitigation requirements at the pre-construction stage, a contractor may be able to sense check these requirements (given some time may have passed since the requirements were originally conceived) and therefore avoid costly ineffective actions or disruption to work programmes because of poor relations with local stakeholders.

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