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‘No’ seems to be the hardest word

September 29th, 2020

Why effective community engagement is key to delivering better outcomes for local authorities

Local authorities are stretched thin.  Budgets that looked tight before Covid-19 have become strangling, and using these limited resources to deliver the best value for communities is more important than ever before.  For me as a planning consultant, but also for anyone involved in constructing a new home, bridge, road or power plant, the relationship with the local community is paramount.  With the current pandemic serving to shine a light on the stark social inequalities across the country, and development hailed as a critical cornerstone of the economic recovery, councils must now shore up the foundations of their engagement strategies to deliver the projects of maximum benefit to their communities.

New rules of engagement

This comes at a time when, despite funding constraints, local authorities all over Scotland and the UK are grasping the ‘build, build, build’ bull by the horns and aiming to deliver record numbers of new, more beautiful, more energy efficient and more affordable homes.  Effective and meaningful engagement with local residents is vital if we are to build stronger communities at the same time.   

After all, local authorities are in it for the long haul.  Arguably more so than private developers, as Councils have a long term obligation to sustain the best possible relationship with local residents – or else fear losing their confidence.  They will be bringing forward projects for decades to come, and are regularly held to account in local elections – particularly when it comes to spending from the ‘public purse’.  While they endure tightening budgets and other political pressures, a good relationship with the community is one currency they have greater control over, and it is imperative they do not squander it.

Honesty is the best policy

In recent months, Barton Willmore has worked with several local authorities, including the City of Edinburgh Council, Fife Council and East Dunbartonshire Council, to guide major projects through the consenting process, onto construction and then crucially - to completion.  In discussions with the local communities, we routinely face questions or requests for additional facilities, design alterations, or even changes of use.

But residents also understand the current constraints that local authorities are under, as well as the need for new housing at affordable prices.  The key is to be clear and transparent about the viability of schemes, and having frank and honest discussions, without ever being afraid of saying ‘no’.  That word is the single most powerful phrase in engagement.

Communities respect this honesty, and it is beneficial that we as independent consultants have often been able to de-politicise the conversation, especially in these politically fraught times.  For councillors, sometimes ‘no’ can seem to be the hardest word when they know re-election is just around the corner.  But people want, need, and respect the truth, and only then can you have a proper and meaningful dialogue on any proposed development project.

As the schemes have been brought forward, including 750 new affordable homes that we have helped to realise across Edinburgh and Fife in the last two years, residents can see the clear and positive results that the local authority brings, and this further strengthens that trust. 

At the very least, when Councils bring forward new developments, their constituents need to know what they are getting:  not just a new building on their doorstep, but a team of people who will listen and acknowledge their concerns while working to produce the best viable scheme they can in the face of available funding.  They know they won’t get an answer full of spin, but will have the curtain drawn back to a transparent process that shows how their local council is doing the best it can with what it has to deliver better housing, infrastructure and amenities to the community it serves.

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