We get it, we know that of all of those on the consultant team for a planning project, the ones who do the communications, community consultation and political engagement are generally the last to be appointed and, sometimes (but by no means always), with a degree of reluctance. Everyone knows they need to consult and engage but a part of the industry is still uncomfortable and uncertain with how to approach this part of planning. For some, it is seen as an optional extra which is only required for large schemes and even then many believe it can be resourced internally.
Whilst there are some developers and landowners who have fully embraced the process with workshops, exhibitions, online engagement and collaborative working, for many it remains just a bit too out of the comfort zone and poses too much uncertainty on pressured commercial timescales.
However, with the need – and benefits – of engaging early and throughout the process becoming ever more evident, and with a political communications industry which itself has become increasingly professionalised and recognised, why is the development sector not treating this aspect of planning in the same way as all of the technical requirements?
I am constantly amazed when the impact which an active community and engaged politicians can have on a development timetable is a revelation to landowners/developers. And herein lies the problem. If the time frame for a planning application and start on site is predicated on the site due diligence undertaken prior to the completion of purchase or signing of an option on the site, and that due diligence doesn’t include an assessment of the community and political landscape, then you are never going to have a complete picture. As a result, frustration sets in when projects are seen to be delayed by the engagement process and this can have a negative impact on what should and could be constructive engagement.
If, from the outset, a political landscape assessment was undertaken as part of the due diligence process, then clients can build this into their financial modelling in the same way that technical constraints, policy constraints etc are incorporated.
Whatever the scenario – whether a marginal council in a long-term election campaign or simply a highly engaged community, you should know and understand what the potential implications could be for the project timescales, have a strategy to manage this and incorporate this into the development programme at the planning stage.
Engagement is not one size fits all and it doesn’t have to be extensive and costly if the project doesn’t require it – but you are unlikely to know really how much you need to do unless you have assessed it along with your planning and technical reports.
Whilst having an awareness of the potential issues does not mean there is a silver bullet to resolve them, it makes it much easier to engage constructively and positively. People will always have genuine and legitimate concerns over development taking place near their home. Sometimes, these concerns will be overcome, sometimes they won’t. Sometimes there will be intransigent opposition, sometimes there will be support. One thing that is certain, if there is an impression that consultation and engagement is an afterthought and has not been given due consideration in the project timescales, then the project is more likely to run into trouble politically and publicly.
Our advice – acknowledge the role communications and engagement in each individual case has from the outset, build it into your programme and go some way to de-risk the process at the beginning. You have little to lose and an awful lot to gain.