Planning matters

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Is your project locked in an echo chamber?

Is your project locked in an echo chamber?

Helen Ashby-Ridgway 18 Jun 2018
Around 10 years ago, Lichfields advised on a modest eight-dwelling development. It was not a sensitive site and the principle of development had already been established by a previous appeal decision. The only difference between the appeal scheme and the later proposal was a new, narrow foul water drainage pipe routed through adjacent woodland. A great deal of iterative design work had taken place on the precise route of the pipeline, particularly to respond to detailed tree and ecology surveys. As the principle of development had already been established, it was decided that community engagement was not necessary for the new proposal. With the benefit of hindsight, this proved to be an unfortunate omission. A number of objections to the pipeline were raised and this small-scale development was called in by the local ward councillor to be determined by the planning committee. A few days before the meeting, the Committee visited the site and at this point it all became clear. An influential member of the community had been reporting to local residents that the development included a 60m diameter pipeline through the woodland: the pipeline in reality would only be 60mm in diameter, however. No wonder the local community was concerned! Had someone stopped and thought about the reality of this for a moment, they would have realised that a pipeline of 60m was unlikely. This was only a scheme for eight dwellings and the woods were only 85m at their widest - the Channel Tunnels are only 7.6m in diameter. Despite these facts, the rumour mill had started and there had seemed to be no stopping it. Having now understood the concerns, we explained the proposal and corrected the misinformation, which put the local residents’ minds at rest. Planning permission was granted at the subsequent committee meeting. Roll on ten years and it is now said that we are living in a post-truth society, with social media playing a significant role in providing fake news. Had our eight-dwelling scheme been submitted today, the local community’s objection, despite being based on false information, could have spread much further afield via social media and misled objectors could have been mobilised in greater numbers. Mis-information spirals and fears of development proposals are heightened through the creation of community ‘echo-chambers’ (today’s online equivalent of the inaccurate information feeding into the rumour mill). Social media often creates echo chambers of similar views and the challenge is to break these up where their messages are inaccurate. Hence there are good reasons why applicants should no longer be ignoring social media as part of their planning strategies, as Sarah Watts’s recent blog on the pros and cons of using social media in consultation and engagement explains. The key concerns for applicants considering using social media include needing to know: how to use social media; how to engage with those who post; how to monitor content; how to be proactive rather than reactive; and how to effectively respond to the most challenging posts, reputation management, data quality and the potential overwhelming volume of information. So what should a developer do? The starting point is to plan to use social media to its full effect - don’t ignore it just because of perceived potential risks. The focus should be on using social media for the benefits it can bring. At the very minimum, a good planning strategy will include social media monitoring. Once underway, this ensures an advantage over those ignoring social media entirely. Monitoring enables the identification of project supporters and makes it possible to identify those individuals and groups where consultation and engagement activities may or may not be needed, and any messages strengthened. And there is more... An active social media management strategy helps discover, understand and identify the influencers and campaigners in a community. This information can then be used to increase levels of engagement as the scheme designs evolves, to encourage positive discussions during the consultation period, to understand the views of the community, and help with interaction where this is needed. It is much more likely that appropriate responses to the naysayers can be formulated in advance too, if and when that time comes. Compared with traditional exhibitions and pre-application events, over the past few years there has been a shift in those who are talking about projects and what they are saying. Social media attracts a wider range of people, drawing many of the hitherto silent majority into the conversation. Local communities know their areas better than anyone and are often passionate about their economic and social history, and any changes that are likely to come about from proposed development. If there is inadequate, deficient or inappropriate engagement with local communities, it is not unusual for their objections to be grounded in fear and a lack of understanding of the proposed development, or for there to be perceived deficiencies in the applicant’s understanding of the context of the site. Monitoring and managing social media as part of consultation and engagement should be undertaken as part of a clear integrated strategy for a development project, rather than being an add–on, or a knee jerk reaction at a late stage in the planning process. Engaging with communities at different stages using a multi-media approach enables wider communities to become involved and empowered – often to the overall benefit of a development proposal. By using a range of tools and techniques, with social media being just one of them, a new group of people can be reached and stronger support for a project can be achieved.

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GDPR - We are ready

GDPR - We are ready

Helen Ashby-Ridgway 22 May 2018
25 May 2018 is a date stamped on every company calendar as this is the date when the General Data Protection Regulation 2016 (GDPR) comes into force.  The GDPR is EU law that will underpin data protection and privacy for all individuals within the European Union and will supersede the current Data Protection Act 1998.   The Cambridge Analytica and Facebook exposures are significant examples of what can happen when appropriate safeguards are not put in place. This is not the first large scale personal data breach that the Information Commissioner’s Office has had to investigate in recent years and the challenges are increasing.   The changes being introduced by the GDPR seek to bring privacy and protection of personal data into the 21st century by tackling challenges posed by society that were not present in the past – including those associated with the rise of “big data” and social media.  The legislation brings with it the risks of substantial fines for companies, far more than those that have been issued for breaches of the Data Protection Act.   For anyone processing personal data it is necessary to ensure that they are doing so lawfully. The processing of personal data includes the collection, analysis, storage, publication, sharing and deletion of such data. At its heart the GDPR requires privacy by design, adhering to certain key principles of fair processing.  At Lichfields we have reviewed  all our policies and processes to ensure that we comply fully with the new regulation.   One of the most important areas of our work involving the processing of personal data is through our consultation and engagement services. We know how important good consultation and engagement with local communities is for many development proposals, and this typically involves the processing of some personal data.     Our clients will be comforted to know that we already have robust procedures in place for processing personal data as part of our Smarter Engagement offer. Whilst there will be some changes to respond to the GDPR, most of our current policies will remain unchanged, as we already adopt the key principles behind the changes, including:   Only collecting personal data where it is necessary; Only processing personal data in accordance with the consent given at the time the data was collected; Securely storing personal data and restricting access to it; and, Disposing of the personal data once it is no longer needed.   In addition, we now have a new data processing contractual agreement which we will use to protect our clients’ interests. The changes under the GDPR place additional responsibilities on our clients as a data controller. By following our procedures and using new contractual agreements we will protect our clients from fines for breaches of the GDPR and loss of reputation.    Where the collection of personal data is necessary for any project, we will be discussing the implications of this with you. However, in the meantime, if you do have any questions we will be pleased to discuss them with you, as we know how important it is for you and us to comply with the new data protection legislation.  

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