Economic development aims to create stronger communities and sustainable economies – objectives that most people support. So why do attempts to transform towns, cities and regions across the UK face apathy or even resistance from the very people they are intended to benefit?
At the heart of this question is an underlying challenge which many public and private sector players face – getting the UK public involved early enough to meaningfully shape plans. The challenge to those in government and business is to demonstrate a real understanding where and how people live, work, study and visit, to inspire engagement and engender confidence that investment can be delivered positively. This is best achieved when people and organisations work together.
What do you think should be the highest priority for government investment in your region?
The UK can appear to be a nation divided along geographical lines on the big issues, from Brexit to the global pandemic. At the same time, devolution continues to widen the differences between the UK’s nations and regions. Against this seemingly fractured backdrop, the government has championed a programme of infrastructure investment to ‘level up’ the country. But, is there enough common ground for investors, developers and business leaders to work collaboratively with communities to build successful and sustainable places?
In Copper Consultancy’s latest insights report into how the public view investment in places, the perception of a divided nation could not be further from the truth. While the results of our research do vary marginally between regions, we see an opportunity to galvanise the regeneration of towns and cities right across the UK by offering citizens the chance to shape strategies and visions on their terms.
How much, if any, involvement have you had in shaping a local plan or vision?
To explore how we can get the public to play an active role in shaping the future of places, we recently surveyed a nationally representative sample of 2,038 people.
Our key findings identified some significant barriers to public participation in shaping their communities, but also commonalities that developers of all kinds can capitalise on to extend their dialogue with communities meaningfully and authentically.
- There is a low-level awareness of plans and visions for places, with only 27% of people feeling involved in shaping these. However, many felt that digital tools would encourage them to take part.
- COVID-19 has made people more pessimistic about the prospect of government investment making a difference in their communities. As a result, plan-makers and developers face a challenge to build trust with communities who may be pessimistic about the outcome of investment.
- 76% of people could be encouraged to get involved in shaping the future of places, but they want to do so on their terms. For example, at times, locations and through platforms that fit around their lifestyle and everyday commitments.
- Awareness of existing investment in places is low and those that are aware expect to see results quickly. Those charged with investing in places face a dual challenge: aligning projects with the priorities of the public and demonstrating results fast.
- Priorities for investment remain relatively unchanged since COVID-19, with housing, renewable energy, and waste and recycling deemed most important.
- Levelling up means different things to different people. Despite some scepticism over central government’s understanding of local context, partnership working between central and local government, combining investment funds with local expertise, will be positively received.
When, if ever, do you expect to see the results of investment?
Based on our report findings, we suggest the following five steps for organisations and developers seeking to engage the public in planning the future of our places.
1. Move away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach to consultation in favour of tailored options which enable local people to engage on their own terms in whatever time they are willing to spare.
2. Be positive about the benefits of your project and tap into the strong public support for investment in housing, renewable energy and waste recycling, encouraging local people to be advocates for investment.
3. Build a coalition of partners across central and local government and the private sector, maximising funding and building confidence in your ability to deliver positive outcomes.
4. Maintain channels of communication throughout development and delivery, celebrating milestones to demonstrate progress towards shared goals.
5. Make use of digital tools alongside traditional face-to-face engagement to bring more people into the conversation.
As investors, developers and business leaders, we can champion positive change in the consultation process, moving away from tick-box exercises to meaningful dialogue. Collaborative engagement between organisations and communities not only builds stronger communities and sustainable economies, but minimising opposition can have a profoundly positive impact on an organisation’s long-term reputation, as well as its balance sheet and employee morale.
Our full report on Attitudes to Economic Development can be found here.
Copper Consultancy has more than 25 years’ experience providing communications and engagement to build advocacy for highly complex infrastructure and development projects. We also support developers of all kinds to maximise their presence and authority within their sector and locale to achieve key corporate objectives.