Think global, act local on community engagement
The much heralded Localism Bill is about to shake up the way development plans are submitted for any major organisation, particularly in the burgeoning energy and environment sector.
As David Cameron’s vision of the Big Society starts to take shape, any major plan will need to take heed of local community sentiment.
The Localism Bill currently passing through Parliament at a great rate of knots – which should become law in October when it will receive Royal assent – will dramatically change the whole way that new development proposals are viewed and accepted or rejected.
The Bill creates an obligation for developers to ‘publicise the proposed application to bring the proposed application to the attention of a majority of the persons who live at, or otherwise occupy premises in the vicinity’.
For the energy industry particularly, this means planning in communications strategies that address local community opinions from the word go.
Organisations – whether private or public sector – planning developments from a nuclear power plant, to a renewable waste plant, or a housing development, will have to provide evidence they have listened to, acted on and incorporated local views into the final proposal.
This means embedding consultation and engagement activities into the plans from the outset. It will no longer be acceptable to ‘pay lip service’ and run one or two surveys among local people to see what they think.
For the energy industry particularly, there is the challenge of embracing local opinion, no matter how extreme or vocal it might be.
The various means of open, transparent communications could include public meetings, events, community workshops, online polls and surveys. It could – and should – even see a return to ‘door-knocking’ where large organisations openly speak to the communities affected by their plans.
Indeed, in an age when we now hold more communications tools, both online and offline, than ever before, those who see this as an opportunity should flourish, embedding engagement as part of their plans.
To be effective, any local consultation and engagement should be planned in early and should be considered as a long term commitment.
The challenge will be how to make the proposal easy to understand, using straightforward language.
The messages will need to be communicated in the audience’s choice also, whether electronically through e-mail, online, through social media or just plain, simple meetings and discussions. As if to emphasise this point, the government has drafted a Plain English Guide to the Bill.
Localism will be a challenge, yes, but also a huge opportunity.