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The fine art of public consultation

Gaining the support of locals is getting harder all the time. Anna White examines some of the opposition developers have experienced and shares their tips on getting in right

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Angry residents marching against Haringey Council Photo: Paul Swinney/Alamy
Angry residents marching against Haringey Council Photo: Paul Swinney/Alamy

Pete sat by the side of the road in rush hour and counted the cars going by. It was an arduous task but not a difficult one – the traffic through Godalming typically crawls along at peak times and is easy to observe.


He is a member of the Godalming Community Group (GCG), a group of residents who are up in arms about 262 new homes that will be built on fields on the edge of the Surrey commuter town.


Opposition has been mounting since last spring, when developer Ashill Land first revealed its plans for the Ockford Park scheme. The development will help Waverley Borough Council meet its new housing targets and keep a small local school open, and the plans also include parking for 500 cars, charging points for electric vehicles, new parks, a community centre and 78 affordable homes. The number of units is set to almost double if Guildford Borough Council approves the other half of the site, which is within its boundaries.


However, GCG argues that the valley town is reliant on the congested A3, which carries commuter traffic from Hampshire and Surrey into London and can bring Godalming to a standstill. It conducted its own traffic survey to counter the one Ashill published. For three days, members of the group monitored congestion at three junctions during rush hour and now believe that Ashill underestimated traffic by 21% in the morning and 34% in the afternoon.


Unfortunately for them, the traffic survey, petitions and public campaign were to no avail – Waverley Borough Council voted through the scheme, following a four-hour meeting in a hall packed with hundreds of disappointed locals.


Such developments are often contentious, but this is not a case of ‘nimby versus progress’. Local Liberal Democrat councillor Paul Follows, who voted against the scheme, believes the public consultation process has not been engaging or transparent enough. He claims open public meetings have been thin on the ground. Apart from the town hall debate that culminated in the vote, there was only one session last spring.


“This was held at very short notice,” says Follows. “There was a patchy leaflet drop, missing out about half of local residents living in the relevant area.”


“As well as appeasing the locals, it’s also a chance to listen to them. We can use that intelligence to shape plans rather than retrofitting. There are some great ideas out there”


Locals also feel short-changed. The community infrastructure levy (CIL) is a financial contribution made by a developer to the council to be spent locally. This will become fixed in Waverley from 1 March. Follows explains that if the council had waited until then to approve the plans for Ockford Park, Ashill would have been liable to pay £8.6m; instead, pushing through approval means that figure has plummeted to £3.8m.


Ashill insists extensive traffic studies were undertaken and £1m of the CIL will go towards transport improvements. Regarding the leaflet drop, a spokesperson says: “Two leaflets in April 2018 and August 2018 were circulated to 850 local households. The information… was also widely circulated through local media and social media channels.”


As well as the exhibition, the developer held smaller sessions with councillors, parish council members and individual residents. There was an online feedback forum and Ashill made changes to plans in response to residents, such as adding six self build plots.


However, the residents oppose the principle of building on that site and maintain the proposed transport improvements will be ineffective. The development will now be dogged by angry locals at every stage. The relationship is irreparable.


An inner-city community tends to be more transient than a rural one and well-accustomed to cranes and the hum of construction.


Yet, urban regeneration can consume an area long before approval is won or a shovel has broken ground. In fact, the £12bn proposed masterpiece in Earls Court, London, has become the ultimate political football in the property industry.


Developer CapCo (Capital & Counties) bought the 77-acre site in 2012 and Conservative-led Hammersmith & Fulham London Borough Council approved plans in 2014. The scheme aimed to deliver 7,500 homes, of which 6,000 would be luxury apartments for private sale and 1,500 would be affordable homes; half the affordable homes would be replacements for 2,000 residents of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates, which are due to be demolished.

A hospital being demolished in Godalming to make way for homes Photo: James Jagger/Alamy
A hospital being demolished in Godalming to make way for homes Photo: James Jagger/Alamy


But when Labour won control of the council in 2014, it blocked CapCo’s plans and in November last year, London mayor Sadiq Khan called for the two housing estates to be handed back to the council. CapCo is now looking to offload the site to a Hong Kong real estate company.


The political feud over the regeneration of two estates in Haringey caused the leader of the Labour-led local council, Claire Kober, to stand down. The 20-year, £2bn project to build 6,500 homes is one of the most ambitious housing policies a local authority has ever pursued. But a failure to gain support from many local residents, suspicions about developer Lendlease, and the rise of grassroots, left-wing political movement Momentum threw the project into disarray.


Finally, last July, the council dropped Lendlease and decided to take the project in house.


“There is a natural suspicion of the intent of any developer,” says Mark Connell, planning director at consultancy JLL. “But there is also a natural cynicism about the competence of a local council.”


Adam Challis, JLL’s head of residential research, warns that councils must enter the challenging world of housebuilding, fully conscious of all the risks. “In pulling away from Lendlease, the council has accepted full responsibility for housebuilding in their area. When things inevitably get delayed and snagging has to be done, they will have to cope with the complaints from a disappointed public. The ugly and difficult issues will now land on their doorstep.”

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When a regeneration scheme descends into political mayhem, it can cause development fatigue, so when the council and developer are ready to present a cohesive vision, it may be too late to engage the public.


The smooth running of a consultation is determined from the very first point of contact. “There is no substitute for getting boots on the ground quickly,” says Colin Campbell, head of strategic land and planning at developer Hill.


“There is no substitute for getting boots on the ground quickly.” Colin Campbell, head of strategic land and planning, Hill


But it’s not just about presenting to huge swathes of the community in a vast, impersonal town hall. Campbell advocates the personal touch: knocking on doors, having cups of tea with residents and hosting small workshops where locals can offer feedback before plans are set in stone.


“We try to avoid the big event early on where we’re presenting to an angry mob. It’s hard to answer a question in such heated situations,” he says. “It’s much better to meet people face-to-face in smaller numbers. As well as appeasing the locals, it’s also a chance to listen to them, and understand the area and the issues. We can use that intelligence to shape plans rather than retrofitting. There are some great ideas out there that we must tap into.”


Even on projects producing fewer than 200 homes, Campbell would expect five or six public sessions or meetings before seeking approval.


To tap into local knowledge in a meaningful way, developers and architects are devising new methods of engagement. For example, Matthew Weiner, chief executive of U+I, says his firm uses translators and provides material in different languages.


Apps have moved into community engagement Image: Uniform's AR map for Harrow
Apps have moved into community engagement Image: Uniform's AR map for Harrow


Lucy Smith, a partner at architectural practice HTA, went even further. She created a giant magnetic board to represent a site and large movable pieces to depict doctors’ surgeries and tower blocks. HTA ran workshops at which residents were encouraged to move these pieces to indicate where they would like their amenities.


“It allowed us to take into account their views but also educated them about spatial awareness and economic masterplanning. For example, if the housing part of the scheme is denser, a larger green space can be created,” Smith explains.


The 11,000-home transformation of Barking Riverside from two old power stations is one of the largest regeneration projects in Europe. Consultations with residents revealed they were concerned about crime, so in both phase one (already sold) and phase two, townhouses are set around garden squares to create passive surveillance from windows overlooking the green quads.


“We involved them in designing the public space and parkland on the site,” says Matthew Carpen, project director at New London Architecture. “This means they are more likely to monitor the treatment of their environment and discourage anti-social behaviour.”


“Software and websites help to build up the picture of the new scheme and online newsletters are playing a much greater role in keeping people up to date. But none of this replaces the public exhibition and human contact”


Reaching a wide demographic is also key. Hill’s Campbell says that most locals who turn up to meetings are still middle-aged to more senior white men. But in the heart of Lambeth, Smith ran workshops alongside local charity groups at which she taught architectural drawing and model-making, and gave machinery training to pull in the young. As part of the regeneration of the Winstanley and York Road estates in Wandsworth, students are competing to design the showroom for the social homes.


Campbell recommends meeting student councils in schools to find out what they, as future homeowners, want from their areas. This is something that is especially relevant, given the poor affordability and supply of housing across the UK, with many young people believing they will never get on the property ladder.


Using social media and the internet is also essential, to reach not just the young but also the busy.


“Those who cannot make town hall meetings and workshops must be able to access plans and feedback forums online,” Smith says. She uses virtual reality software on iPads to help residents visualise a street and walk along it.


“Community forums and open dialogue is really important, but Facebook tends to be avoided. It can encourage a barrage of abuse sabotaging the discussion,” says planning expert Kate Greatrix, strategic communications and engagement director at planning and design consultancy Barton Willmore. “Software and websites help to build up the picture of the new scheme and online newsletters are playing a much greater role in keeping people up to date. But none of this replaces the public exhibition and human contact.”


Barking Riverside is one of the largest regeneration projects in Europe Photo Hufton+Cro
Barking Riverside is one of the largest regeneration projects in Europe Photo Hufton+Cro


Developers must also stretch their reach geographically. Typically, they knock on doors on the roads in the immediate vicinity of a new scheme. But people further afield could benefit. JLL’s Connell suggests looking for areas of young renters and families who are eager to get on the property ladder. “Developers should map these pockets of support, as well as look to tackle negativity,” he says.


However, Connell warns that an eagerness to engage can also be dangerous: “It’s a mistake to turn up at the first meeting with a blank piece of paper and mislead the public that anything can be done.”


Smith agrees. “You need a viable vision to present and you can adapt it from there,” she says.


Parachuting in a chief executive to face the public can also be inflammatory if he or she has not been immersed in the project. Spokespeople must show empathy and local knowledge.


Hill’s Campbell puts 12 to 18 months aside for the initial consultation, but public engagement does not end with planning approval. Smith recommends putting an architects’ office on-site “and the door should always be open”.


How to get it right: Mark Connell, planning director, JLL

1 You might not have all the answers, but meet early

2 If you consult too late, your ability to change plans is limited

3 Consult beyond the public exhibition and don’t just identify those who will be negatively affected. Seek out those who might benefit

4 Go back to the community to tell them what you can’t do, as well as what you can do, and manage expectations

5 Listen more than tell

6 After the application is submitted, don’t be a stranger


U+I’s Weiner believes regeneration schemes – particularly those run by public-private partnerships – are under increasing scrutiny, particularly in London thanks to the watchful eye of the mayor. Last July, Sadiq Khan warned that existing residents must back through a public vote any schemes that involve the demolition of social homes, if the schemes are to receive funding from City Hall.


“We’re supportive of the local community playing an important role, but question whether it should override the approval of a scheme,” says Hill’s Campbell, suggesting requiring approval will slow an already sluggish build rate. A ballot should be taken into account but not be the final deciding factor, he suggests, especially as councillors are democratically elected.


Ballots of residents are not the only new challenge developers have to field – the switch from Section 106 to CIL undermines the public consultation process.


Section 106 required the developer to make a visible contribution on-site, such as a new community hall or social housing; the CIL is purely financial, goes straight into the council’s coffers and can be spent elsewhere in the district, without directly benefiting those residents affected by the new housing development.


Weiner calls civic trust the “magic glue” that binds schemes together. “Without it, they fall apart,” he says. However, trust cannot be bought with a chunky CIL or forced by a council under pressure to hit housing targets. It has to be earned.

Find out more The art of community consultation will be discussed at the Festival of Place on 9 July.


Anna White is a journalist, copywriter and communications consultant. She was head of property at the Telegraph Media Group and has worked for KPMG, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ernst & Young.

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