Consultation and engagement are key requirements in the UK’s planning system and, crucially, a vital part of development proposals. In this respect, transport infrastructure delivery is not an exception: rather, given the way it impacts – economically, socially and environmentally – on those directly affected and on local communities in general, it represents an even more challenging endeavour. In these circumstances, public consultation becomes crucial at the early stages of the planning process. Pre-application consultation with the public has become a statutory requirement for a wide range of projects in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and for ‘Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects’ in England and Wales.
Rightly so then, Lichfields’ five point plan for smarter engagement with local stakeholders and communities provides an effective strategy whereby developers can tailor and carry out effective consultation and engagement strategies.
To stress the importance of effective engagement I can provide a case study insight into the side-effects of a poor consultation process. My experience is based on research that I recently conducted for my MA dissertation on the Pedemontana Veneta (‘PVM’), a 100 km motorway being constructed in the north east of Italy. To provide some context, it is probably worth stating at the outset that the project – defined by the public authorities as ‘the most important infrastructure project currently undertaken in the North East’ – is a financially-troubled one with 30 years of debate, 20 of design and 15 of call for tenders. The motorway aims at delivering a strategic objective, that of linking the region’s industrial districts, which for three decades have represented the backbone of the region’s economy.
The project is a highly contested one too, particularly by local residents. What I found out when interviewing them is that opposition is linked, critically, to a lack of effective pre-application consultation. By profiting from a legal void in Italian statutory requirements, the PVM developers had not properly engaged with communities. Even when they did, they had shown a tendency to ‘talk down’ to them.
From the public authorities’ and the developers’ perspective, it may be argued that this lack of public engagement was not cost-effective either. In particular, both had to face costly and time-consuming appeals (a recurring issue in local opposition to new facilities that is usually related to concerns over the decline in property values).
In the context of the inevitable mutual mistrust arising between local residents on the one side and developers on the other, neither the former nor the latter have come out on the winning side. Indeed, local protesters have highlighted a ‘plansplaining’ attitude by the public-private consortium whereas the latter are representing their counterpart’s activism as uncompromising and individualistic NIMBY opposition.
There is also a positive lesson that can be learnt out of the troubled PVM construction story. The lesson deals with the potential benefits resulting from effective public engagement with protest groups. Indeed, one of the most interesting insights unraveled by this case study deals with the contribution that local residents could provide – if properly engaged – to improve the development scheme. Thanks to their understanding of the local area and its socio-economic dynamics (some of the protesters I talked to were also planners, engineers and environmental scientists), residents have the potential to make a real contribution to achieving a successful planning outcome. Far from being radical ecologists campaigning for an uncompromising no, the local communities of the Pedemontana area actually managed to formulate an alternative proposal. Specifically, at the core of their opposition to the existing motorway layout is a project review aiming at completing a financially sustainable infrastructure that should be permeable to the community’s needs.
Everything considered, the central message of the PVM experience is that smarter engagement does matter and, if delivered properly, it can assist in delivering a successful planning outcome and can neutralize potential objections.
The appeal of owning a house remains strong. According to research more than three quarters of under-25s still aspire to own their own home. Yet there exists a massive shortage of houses for us young people to buy. A shortage of houses means sky high house prices, and a generation of people who feel locked out of the market.The economic benefits of housebuilding are clear - for instance, NLP research demonstrated that the UK housebuilding industry employs over 600,000 people and generates at least £1.4bn in tax revenue. Yet less is made of the more subtle, harder-to-capture social benefits of owning your own home – something which seems increasingly out of reach for my generation.It almost seems too simple to explain the root cause of the housing crisis as simply a case of supply and demand – but in truth it really is. A mixture of increased demand has been combined with a lack of supply to mean that housebuilding has simply not kept pace with demographic and social trends.
These forces have combined to drive house prices sky high (over just the ten years between 2001 and 2011 the average price of a home increased from 7.4 times the average salary to 11.1 times). As a consequence, more and more young people have to enter into the private rental market, and for most owning their own house is an all too distant possibility. Research by the think tank IPPR shows that half of all those renting privately think it will be at least 10 years before they can even think of buying their own home.Some might ask why my generation should even want to buy their own house? Germany is often cited as an example of a well-functioning economy with low rates of home-ownership. Two main reasons exist - first is the economic one. By paying rent to a landlord instead of mortgage repayments, one is essentially losing out on owning a valuable asset. Yet the aspiration to own one’s own house is more than about money. Young people, just as their parents’ generation did, want somewhere that feels like home - a place that we can put our own stamp on, to feel safe and secure in, or a place to start a family. It should come as no surprise that home ownership has been associated with increased life satisfaction, whereas not owning a home has been found to make young people delay achieving major life ambitions – polling shows one in five of those who have never had children said they’re delayed starting a family because they didn’t own their own home.Homeowners are more likely to become more involved in neighborhood groups as a way to establish ties with others and integrate in a new community. Renters who move, however, are less likely to turn to civic participation as a way to build new social network ties. A locked-out generation of young people means an unsettled generation, and an unsettled generation will lead to unsettled communities. IPPR analysis finds that owning a home increases someone's sense of belonging to a neighbourhood as much as simply living there without owning for fourteen years. For example, when controlling for all other variables, an individual who has lived in the same home for 20 years yet does not own it is likely to feel only the same sense of neighbourhood belonging as someone who owns their home but has lived in it for just 6 years.Whilst renting may make sense for those in their early 20s, the UK rental sector is not as secure for those who want a long-term home (in Germany, leases are generally indefinite, and landlords can only evict for specified reasons, whereas in the UK, landlords are generally able to evict tenants with two months’ notice). Many students, having graduated, are priced out of renting independently (especially in London) so have been forced to live with their parents in order to save even to be able to afford to rent – but this has been shown to arrest development and affect relationships (such as the ability to find a partner)One way the Government is trying to increase the number of young people entering the housing market is through the provision of ‘starter homes’ - sold at 80% of the full market value to first time buyers for the most part under the age of 40 (and as currently proposed, over 23). Whilst the technical details are yet to be fixed, developers will be able to provide starter homes as part of meeting their overall affordable housing requirement - which some critics have suggested would lead to the continued decline in the overall number of affordable housing units being built.What makes this so frustrating is that the simplest solution to fix the housing crisis – building many more houses in as many tenures as possible – is severely restricted by the political hot potato of protecting the Green Belt. The Green Belt - whilst conjuring up images of pleasant English rolling hills and scenic landscapes - includes land which is covered by airports, quarries, railway embankments and sewage works (oh and golf courses – more land in Surrey is covered by golf courses than housing). It has been claimed that the release of just 3.7% of London’s Green Belt would provide land to build up to a million homes.This crisis will not be solved until politicians not only accept the scale of the crisis but the obvious solution lying under their noses.It should now be obvious that Britain needs to build many more homes. Housebuiliding provide a massive boost to Treasury coffers - housebuilding creates jobs and tax revenues not just directly through construction, but also indirectly through fitting them out them with kitchens, curtains and carpets. Yet even more importantly it is necessary for my generation, which has exactly the same aspirations that my parents had. Building enough houses which people can call home - a place they feel safe in and feel happy to raise a family in - will in turn be good for society as a whole.