When the nation went into lockdown in March 2020 our industry was faced with the immediate challenge of how to undertake community consultation in a world where face-to-face engagement was not possible. We adapted to this new environment through online engagement, webinars and online polling among other techniques. The internet and social media, alongside old fashioned phone conversations, have enabled us to continue reaching out communities with an interest in our clients’ proposals. However, while the means of communication for our industry have changed – perhaps for ever – the basics have not.
Our approach to consultation and engagement continues to be underpinned by three fundamentals: Understanding the territory, relationships and trust. Done well, and in conjunction with each other, these can make all the difference to the success of a project.
1.Understand the territory
Before commencing any programme of engagement it’s important to thoroughly research the local area, its community and its politics. This is about more than researching who the local ward councillors are or who’s on which committee. These are important of course, as is an understanding of any ambitions the local authority might have for a site. However, it is important that we create the conditions where each side understands the other’s perspective and, for our industry this starts when we do our initial research. People perceive a change to their local built environment through what I call ‘bread and butter’ issues such as, “how will this affect my journey to work, will my son/daughter still be able to get into the local school or how will the view from my home change?” Early research needs to explore thoroughly what these might be and enables us to pitch our early engagement correctly and sensitively. However, while it tells us what local issues might be it cannot definitively tell us what they actually are. And this leads us on to the next point …
A client once told me that good working relationships are fundamental to the development industry. I think that the same applies to those of us whose business is consultation and engagement. Engaging local stakeholders is about more than just sending an email or ticking off the list those people that you have spoken to. It’s about commencing an ongoing dialogue through which we, local residents, businesses, groups and their elected representatives work through the evolving proposals. Good working relationships are developed by taking the time to understand each other’s point of view and a clear understanding of the key issues – which include the need for a scheme to be financially viable as well as what is important for local stakeholders and which they perceive as having an effect on their daily lives. Dialogue is best undertaken in person rather than by email. Currently we are limited to engagement via laptops. Face-to-face is better (when life returns to normal) and by phone also helps. Giving a voice to all sections of the local community is also important at this stage and builds a clear picture of everyone’s perspective.
Trust takes time to develop and is a two-way process. It often takes time for people to work out how they feel about a proposed scheme. They may agree that a derelict site near them needs to be re-developed and understand that it brings with it an opportunity to deliver affordable housing for the local area – which they or people they know might benefit from. However, the prospect of change to their local built environment introduces them to a world – with local plans, PTAL ratings, S106 agreements etc – which they are unlikely to be familiar with. In these circumstances trust in the people who are delivering that change can make all the difference and trust is best developed by investing time to see someone else’s point of view and working through issues together, where this is possible.
The pandemic has changed how we communicate with each other but the fundamentals that make up good consultation and stakeholder engagement have not changed. People still need to talk, listen to each other and work together.