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Neutralising the NIMBY

publication date: Oct 16, 2009
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PlanningWhether it’s a small close of four houses or a massive new estate with retail and commercial elements, delays in the planning process are very much in the news. The causes range from market conditions, a lack of willingness by developers, unhelpful leaked letters from our ‘Government in waiting’, lack of resource in local authority planning departments… and many more.

One very real reason that has slipped under the media radar is the prevalence of NIMBY action groups, formed with the sole intention of fighting development proposals – and they are increasingly effective. Many action groups have been buoyed by the notion that the Conservatives will revoke current government targets and force developers to go back to the drawing board. However, by taking a strategic approach to community consultation to foster consensus, there is an opportunity to bring local residents onside and, ultimately, to deliver valuable planning approvals.



DevelopmentCASE STUDY 1
Leisure and hotel development

In addition to involving the local community, consultation should also include groups who would have specific interests in the proposals. On a recent scheme these included people interested in the jobs which would be created, groups likely to use the leisure facilities and business representatives concerned with the need for a new hotel in the area – all turned out to be champions of the development.


IT’S GOOD TO TALK

Many developers used to view consultation as an expensive nuisance. After all, more consultation, even more delay, but good consultation, properly, openly and fairly conducted, offers an alternative. By engaging early and intensively with communities, there is an opportunity to speed up the process. Many councils, government departments and developers are catching on and putting a substantial amount of time, effort and money into consultation. So how do you get it right?

Good consultation informs and placates communities whilst giving them an opportunity to help shape a scheme, but developers must set boundaries. Consulting with a blank piece of paper simply doesn’t work. Local residents aren’t stupid; developers patronise them at their peril. Making it clear from the outset that there are limits to what is being consulted on is imperative.

Once these boundaries are set and that the developer has shown how residents can be involved in a meaningful way, there is scope for negotiation, bringing a sense of working in partnership where change
can bring mutual benefit.

Consultation is about gathering views, listening to them and being seen to respond. By doing this, developers can build support within the community. A steady stream of good news messages in the media, where the developer makes it known how they have taken on board suggestions, is effective.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING

The consultation needs to be early enough to allow for full consideration of all the views expressed and for this to be seen to be the case. If there is not enough time between the consultation event and the latest iteration of a development proposal, the developer is open to accusations of ‘fudging’ the consultation, which can be extremely damaging. But it should not be so early that the level of information is not enough to effectively communicate; the level of expectation from the consultees on what can be influenced
can become too great. The consultation must take into account the requirements of the community. It is a good idea to seek the views of key local representatives on the best format for consultation events before embarking on a strategy. This also helps to engage these representatives, fostering that sense of involvement. A prefabricated exhibition, for example, in a hotel remote from the heart of the community will not work. If it’s open at the wrong times or on the wrong weekend, it will be disregarded – that’s counterproductive. It is important to ensure that the method of involvement is suitable. If it is not, both sides lose.

Involving the right people is a vital part of gaining the true views of a community. Clear, structured research should be undertaken to understand the community, their issues and their key representatives. It is important to identify community and political leaders and opinion formers and involve them. Developers should not be afraid of broadening consultation; the wider the range of views gathered, the greater the ability to judge how widely held views are and which hold most weight.

Many consultation strategies fail to gain balanced opinions and local acceptance because they rely too heavily on the public making the effort to get involved, resulting in just the ‘usual suspects’ (people opposed to development) taking part. Good consultation takes the process to the people, demonstrating openness and a desire to involve the widest possible breadth of participants, increasing awareness, reducing scepticism. Involving those people who wouldn’t normally give up their Saturday mornings to view development proposals, means a developer is more likely to get constructive views.


DevelopmentCASE STUDY 2
Large urban extension in southern England

We are currently working on a large strategic site in southern England. When instructed on the scheme there was a considerable amount of opposition from parish councillors and ward members – ‘dyed in the wool’ opponents; little hope of persuading them that a new development in their back yard could bring anything but disadvantages. At a very early stage we set up a series of stakeholder forums to get their input along with that of other community representatives, local business groups, environmental groups and educational institutions. We made it clear that we did not expect to be able to change their views on development per se but that we would greatly appreciate their contribution. Our scheme was one of the local authority’s preferred options so the line was to say “we know many of you don’t want this to happen but if it does, what would you like to see included – and where?” Even the ardent opponents took part in the forums in a constructive way. By involving other groups, ward members had to listen to the views of people who had something to gain from the development. The attitude of members altered markedly as the plans progressed and there was a real feeling of working in partnership.


FORMS OF ENGAGEMENT

Exhibitions

A valuable way of taking plans to the wider public and receiving considered responses. It can be used effectively with other methods to form a larger programme. The public exhibition format allows the viewing of plans in a controlled environment; far more effective than public meetings that often result in a few loudmouths drowning out the more reasoned majority.

Stakeholder Forums
These work best earlier in the planning stage; allowing key representatives and interested locals a real opportunity to influence a project, facilitating indepth discussion of plans and other visual materials, generating community-led, creative solutions prior to engaging with the public at large. In any community there are a small number of decision-makers. Often, they are shouted down by the protestors; forums bring these people together to discuss the development and understand the developer’s constraints.

Opinion Research Campaigns
A more quantitative method of researching the views of the public; particularly useful in gauging the level of support within a community for a development. The polling programme can be conducted in person, by telephone or face-to-face – or by mail.

Roadshows
Another successful method of consulting a wider area. A standard presentation on the project can be used to discuss the main points of a development with different stakeholders, for example parish, town or community councils, residents’ associations or sports clubs. This option can be particularly successful for large strategic sites covering a number of communities. It is an effective way of involving people who are unlikely to travel to a public exhibition in a fixed location but may wish to view development proposals brought to their ‘doorstep’.

The Media
The media can make or break a project and certainly impact on the way a scheme is perceived. It pays to establish a relationship with the local press covering a development area, especially if the project is large or controversial. Using the media is also a cost effective way of informing the community of development proposals and disseminating good news messages.

Feedback is Fabulous
It is always important to let people know how their input has been fed into the proposals. This is a two-stage process.

Firstly, it is important to let people know the outcomes of the consultation process. Then, after careful consideration, explain how you have taken on board the views expressed, or why you may not be able to respond to some opinions. People have the right to be heard, but most understand that not all opinions can be included. The important thing is to be transparent.

DevelopmentCASE STUDY 3
Major regeneration scheme in east London

Over six months three large exhibitions were held. The fi rst was on the development site. Although this had a good turnout, it was not as large as expected. The site itself was separated from the main urban centre so the second and third exhibitions were held in a venue on the main high street of the town. This resulted in fi ve times the number of attendees, including many people coming in off the street. It also produced a wide range of opinions. The consultation programme enabled the project team to learn of the community’s aspirations for the site and what they felt they could ‘get out of it’. As a result changes were made to the plans which created amenities to be enjoyed by people living outside the site as well as new residents in the new development. In this way, the consultation helped to gain greater local legitimacy for the developer’s proposals resulting in a unanimous approval at planning committee.


In summary, if done properly, consultation can foster a sense of ownership for new developments within communities. Stakeholders and residents can become champions of schemes and have a real influence on the final application, while NIMBY opposition groups, who often don’t represent as large a proportion of the wider community as they would claim can become isolated.

Through effective communication and engagement, politicians can, in turn, see how a scheme has evolved to take on board the wishes of their constituents, often resulting in speedier planning permissions for developers.


James Garland is a Director of Green Issues Communications a leading political planning consultancy. www.greenissues.com