The six key benefits of early community engagement for larger development schemes

When planning a development scheme, the temptation for organisations to skip, accelerate or water down up-front engagement can be hard to resist. This can result in a vast number of unvalidated design decisions becoming set in stone early-on, with stakeholders then offered a small say in something that’s already been planned.

Making decisions without proper stakeholder involvement is a great way to generate immediate resistance to your project, regardless of its merits or benefit locally. For a great example of how not to do things, look no further than Lambeth Council’s proposal to demolish 300 homes for redevelopment in the Cressingham Gardens estate, where it was taken to court by a tenant and found to have acted unlawfully by removing three options from its initial consultation (possibly in the hope of reaching a quick and favourable conclusion).

Effective community engagement needs to start at the earliest possible stage. Done properly (read: by being planned in) it can be a powerful tool to help catalyse your project. You might even uncover solutions to issues that you didn’t know existed. Done sloppily or not at all and the best you can hope for is wrong type of publicity. At worst, it could result in a long appeal process and a painfully expensive visit to the high court.

If you’re not convinced yet, here are my top six reasons why early community engagement is essential:

1) Generate more valuable feedback

Informing the community of your project and involving them in your research at the preliminary stages of your project means you’re getting local insight from the very beginning. You get a better understanding of the impact of your proposals and  you can ensure that stakeholders are fully aware of the proposed benefits.

When the Netherlands government set out plans to expand Schiphol airport in 2006, they quickly came under heavy criticism from local and regional voices. In an effort to build support, a permanent consultative body known as the Alders Table was founded, bringing together local residents, unions, government officials and the aviation industry.

“The forum’s recommendations have largely been adopted by the government, including capping the number of flights per year and limiting night-time activity. In 2008, the Alders Table recommended that Schiphol be allowed to expand, but did not provoke the unhappy response of two years previously. This purpose-built institution for engagement has allowed the government to pursue a policy of airport expansion which had otherwise been thwarted by public opposition.” Adapted from Institute for Government (2015)

2) Establish your integrity and expertise

By offering transparent insight into how you work and giving stakeholders a chance to have a genuine say in decisions that affect them, you can break down barriers and reduce any misgivings about your organisation. This credibility is essential when it comes to developing a wide base of support for your project.

3) Identify potential weaknesses or threats

The earlier you get an understanding of the local challenges within the area, the fewer major changes you will need to make later in the process. Gauge stakeholders’ reactions to your proposals and identify where the likely pain points might be. You can then establish a far more robust plan to address these challenges.

4) Develop better relationships in the area

Giving residents a sense of influence helps them develop a greater sense of pride and belonging to their local area. Projects are most successful when this is done from the start, where stakeholders’ feedback is acknowledged and acted upon throughout the process. On the other hand, even a negative response to feedback often helps rather than no response at all.

5) Reach the right people

Conducting piecemeal community engagement at the latter stages of a project invariably means you will end up speaking to the people who object the most.  If wider public engagement is seen as a risk, then key local groups should be identified and potential representatives brought in early on. If key stakeholders feel that their views or concerns have been ignored at the early stages, there is a strong chance that they will pose more strident objections whenever the opportunity presents itself. By involving more people earlier, you can obtain a far more balanced view of your project. And by addressing those concerns faster, you’re able to mitigate the strength of any objections.

6) Fewer appeals

Local objections to development proposals are a major factor in applications being refused by councillors. Appealing a decision can take 19 to 38 weeks to reach a conclusion, and of the 11,445 appeals that were decided In 2016/17, only 33% were allowed. The cost of the appeals process is also eye-watering. By engaging earlier, you can avoid these headaches by reducing local resistance and increasing the likelihood that your application will succeed.

So what’s the point?

Well, the point is that some organisations avoid community engagement because they see it as a costly, burdensome and risky enterprise. But the truth is that with the right approach, it can represent a genuine asset to the development and execution of a robust planning project.

The key is to   for community engagement, that you are able to reach a representative cross-section of stakeholders and that you can do so using the right channels, tools and techniques for each demographic.

If you think it’s too expensive to risk proper community engagement, imagine how expensive it could get without it.