As every developer knows, the reaction of a local community to a planning application can ultimately dictate its success. It is also true that community relations can make or break a company. Developers may view local power as a danger, a force that must be contained or crushed. But community relations need not be reactive, crisis-driven and aimed at silencing the outspoken. As an increasing number of developers are now demonstrating, good community relations generally requires less time and money than a knee-jerk crisis campaign. Furthermore it has the potential to speed up an application, benefit the proposals, and even increase financial return on the scheme.
The need for good community relations is wide-ranging. Local people inevitably have a strong emotional attachment to their home. This is not to say that they do not want it to change, but as their neighbourhood, they want to have a share in the vision for its future. They want to feel that their views matter. If they gain a sense of ownership in the changes, their support can shift from being negative or indifferent, to supportive and enthusiastic. Developers need to capitalise on this, treating the community as an expert source of local knowledge rather than a nuisance to be ignored. The results of consultation need not be negative: public consultation has led to significant benefits for the developer. For example, the density of a development has been increased as a result of consultation, bringing about a more profitable scheme. Good community relations can be good for the balance sheets in other respects. We know this because the reverse is true: it can frequently take years of work and thousands of pounds’ expenditure in professional fees to fight an appeal, yet a proportion of that time and money invested in community relations could have prevented failure.
Furthermore, community relations is becoming increasingly relevant. In reaction to scandals in the past, society requires increased openness, particularly in financial and political matters. People who may not have been aware of them ten years ago are now suspicious of twin-track applications, Section 106 agreements and the planning system generally. And they have the means to object. Campaigners, be they organised activists such as Friends of the Earth or a group of angry residents, are becoming increasingly eloquent due to a number of factors, particularly the use of the internet for communicating information. External pressures are growing – the increasing lack of land, for example, has heightened concerns about density and traffic congestion.
So how is best practice achieved? As with any organised campaign, background research is an important starting point. Research should be used to identify and classify relevant people and groups, and familiarise the developer with local issues. Research may be qualitative or quantitative, formal or informal – preferably a mixture of all four.
It is important for a consultation to be planned. Importantly, this is the most effective way of ensuring that no sections of the community or issues are overlooked. Additionally there will be objectors whose views should be heard sooner rather than later to prevent negative publicity. There will also be those who remain silent because they are content but given a voice can add invaluable support. A planned approach can gain the best results in both cases. And although the plan must be flexible, ensure that as the developer, you set the agenda. If the activists are more persuasive and more organised, they will control the consultation and force you into a reactive position.
Throughout the process, it is vital that communication enables feedback, and that feedback is used constructively. If the campaign lacks genuine discussion, you will rightly be accused of engaging in public consultation simply to be seen to be consulting. Similarly, avoid one-way communication which comes across as an attempt to persuade and influence. Both could be more detrimental than no consultation. Responses from the local community will be invaluable to you as research and, as such, should feed into your overall strategy. Methods for ensuring feedback generally include exhibitions, surveys, focus groups, information centres and public meetings. Another successful tactic is independent advisory groups. The groups are composed of a cross-section of the community, generally taken from minority and special interest groups. Groups meet regularly to convey the thoughts and feelings of those they represent and are attended by the developer so that views expressed can be taken on board immediately. It may also be beneficial to provide a link on a special website, enabling people to email comments to the planning authority. Not only does this ensure that anyone who looks at the website is given the opportunity to express their views, but it also shows that the developer favours an open and honest approach towards consultation.
Finally, possibly the most important feature of community relations is to keep at it. Ideally community relations should start as early in the process as is possible and should be on-going throughout. The longer the process lasts, the greater the opportunity to form a constructive relationship with the local community. The effort invested in good community relations should then equal the popularity and ultimate success of the project.