Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Improving our understanding of community engagement on infrastructure projects

Jenny Stafford - Principal Consultant

At Temple, we believe engaging early with stakeholders to identify local benefits reduces the cost of implementing infrastructure projects, sometimes quite significantly. Our approach is to involve communities in decision making and ensuring local benefit as far as possible (rather than simply informing or consulting on proposals).

We presented some of our thinking about this at a recent CIRIA event on community engagement on infrastructure projects. One of the tools we use is our Controversy-Local Benefit matrix for infrastructure projects, see below. The matrix provides a broad categorisation of projects by levels of controversy and local benefit and makes it easy to see why more controversial projects, either locally or nationally, and those bringing low levels of local benefit are challenging in terms of community engagement. Recognising this, finding ways to reduce impacts – sometimes through the process of considering different options – and increase local benefit (see graph below), helps move projects towards the top left quadrant i.e. those that are more straightforward to engage on.

 Controversy-Local Benefit Matrix. The position of example projects in the matrix reflects Temple’s views but the precise location of the projects in a quadrant or between quadrants is open to debate.

Good engagement can increase benefit and reduce controversy 

Another key message at our CIRIA event was the wide variety of reasons why engaging early adds value: early community engagement builds trust, eases the process overall and reduces costs. This front loading of engagement is the same principle as that adopted by the BREEAM Communities assessment process which demonstrates the importance of early engagement in informing design. It is less expensive to engage early with the costs of doing so increasing during the development process, particularly during the approval or consents stage when there may be legal costs to such engagement and less opportunity to make changes which reduce impacts or increase benefit. 

The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) identifies a spectrum of participation or engagement ranging from informing and consulting with the public to involving, collaborating or empowering. Use of approaches and techniques further along the spectrum see greater levels of involvement and participation and, as a result, increasing levels of public impact and likely benefit.  At its simplest therefore, the IAP2 spectrum suggests that finding ways to better involve the community will be a more effective way of ensuring local benefit and gaining acceptance.  

A final key point about controversial projects is something that may surprise many technical specialists. It might be anticipated that it is important to share technical details when undertaking public consultation on controversial projects. However, what is most important is being able to relate to the views of individuals or empathising, gaining their trust and demonstrating commitment to listening to their views, according to work done by Vince Covello on risk communication. These factors are far more important than sharing their technical expertise about the project itself. In lower concern situations – or less controversial projects - sharing this technical expertise has a greater role to play, see below. 

Temple Group is hosting the IAP2 Foundations in Public Participation course in London, 1-5 December. Click here to find out more and register.

1 comment:

  1. Jenny

    Interesting article. For many years I was engaged in the aggregates sector and more recently working for myself. In both cases I have been involved with the preparation and submission of contentious planning applications. Historically these have been quarries and asphalt plants and more recently residential and motor racing.

    I do take your point on early engagement and it certainly has proved its worth. Quite often though it is a struggle to get all cross sections of the community to engage. It is more often than not that opponents to a scheme will be somewhat more vocal than supporters. You also have the age old debate with many people on technical issues. You may well have proved and demonstrated technically that a particular issue has been addressed but in the mind of the resident that isn't enough.

    A further issue is getting the stakeholders to understand how you operate. Many now take a long term view and if you can persuade them to visit a similar facility they will have a much better appreciation. I have done this a few times and it really does help.

    From experience one matter does concern me is not being able to engage with the elected members and we are all aware of the rules they have to comply with. However it does seem odd that a resident can speak to the councillors at any time yet the applicant in many cases can't. This leads to misunderstandings, use of incorrect information, false perceptions and in all too many cases elected members speaking at Committee and simply being badly informed. This has to improve to allow better communication and engagement.

    Finally it may well be worth some opponents (individuals or groups) taking a more pragmatic and again long term view. It may well be that the applicant has submitted a well planned and designed scheme that complies with the Local Plan/Core Strategy and all policy. In cold light of day that scheme is more likely to get consent than not. It may be that with open dialogue (and as far as one can removing the emotion) that by working together with the applicant a solution can be found. Quite often with a few concessions on both sides a good development with limited impact can result.

    I finish with a classic example of an individual opposing a proposed quarry site in the Trent Valley. He was pictured near Attenborough which is a working sand and gravel quarry and a first class nature reserve. The individual clearly had no idea or appreciation that the nature reserve he was so fondly talking about was the result of mineral extraction.