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Why communications can make or break a regeneration project

Tim Downs has worked in property, infrastructure, transport and regeneration marketing for 13 years for both public and private sector clients. He’s currently a director at Aberfield Communications who are working on the redevelopment of York Central, a 45-hectare brownfield site in the centre of York, and the Leeds Public Transport Investment Programme (LPTIP).

Writing for NewStart, he explains investing in marketing and communications can be as important as investing in a place-making strategy if a regeneration scheme is to gain planning approval.

We’ve all been involved in projects that we passionately believe in and find it difficult to understand why there is sometimes opposition when plans seem logical and the benefits far outweigh any downsides.

But anyone involved in this sector knows that when it comes to the places people live, their communities, towns and cities, logic sometimes seems to play little part in the eventual decision-making process.  Passion, emotion and sentiment are often just as important in deciding the planning outcome. Why is this the case? Because the eventual decision is taken by people.

That’s not a criticism of the process or a judgement on one or the other. They are both critical in helping planning committees reach decisions that balance the needs of local people with the requirements for development.

But it does demonstrate the need for effective communications that go beyond consultation and engagement, as a critical part of masterplanning and place-making in order to help maintain that balance.

And this is where big public-private sector regeneration and investment projects can come unstuck. The pressure not to be seen spending money on ‘marketing’, particularly in the public sector, can often lead to communications issues that ultimately go on to negatively affect planning decisions.

Quite often funds are made available in the early stages of projects for masterplanners and planning consultants, and even communications specialists, when there is the need to demonstrate engagement to feed into the Statement of Community Involvement.

However, once this has been satisfied and an application submitted is where I’ve witnessed a significant drop-off in the appetite for proactive communications and the effects this can have.

Too often communications move into a passive state, partly not to be seen spending money but sometimes because there is a collective sense that the job is done. I’ve also heard it said that ‘we can’t be seen trying to influence the planning process’, but there is plenty that can be done that doesn’t demonstrate a risk in this area and doing nothing poses the bigger risk of a negative outcome.

Firstly, I would argue that to allow this demonstrates that there wasn’t a real commitment to effective engagement and communications in the first place, just doing what’s required. Secondly, I would suggest that communications is probably not represented at a high enough level in your organisational structure and that the decisions are being taken by people with no comms background.

The issues often arise if there is opposition to elements of your scheme. If there is a passive approach to communications, misconceptions can gain a foothold and become widely accepted, your voice can easily be swamped or a void is created, to be filled by those shouting most loudly.

It’s at this stage that any vocal opponents of your scheme will be mobilising to try to influence the planning process as much as humanly possible, so you need to be in a position to respond and, where necessary, proactively promote your perspective.

If a narrative is allowed to continue unchallenged it will inevitably reach the ears of the elected members of the planning committee and has the potential to become political. That’s when you start to lose control of the situation and it’s incredibly difficult to wrestle back to restore any balance.

In my more junior days, I witnessed situations like this, with one particular example being the Odeon theatre in Bradford, which had some passionate supporters determined to save the building, while regen planners wanted to demolish the site to improve access to the city centre for the University and Bradford college students. The accepted response was not to engage with the pressure group as doing so would give them greater airtime or the air they needed to fuel their fire. By not engaging what it actually did was to provide them a free run at the media with little coming back. The result was that the Bradford Odeon was handed into council ownership and only now, 10 years later, is there some progress in bringing the building back into a state where it can be used for public events.

I didn’t agree with that approach then and in the social media age it’s even less of an option now. This kind of response relinquishes any sort of control and puts a greater distance between opposing sides.

A more proactive approach should always be taken with a well-defined programme of activity that sees you through not only the application phase but right through to determination and ideally beyond.

Thinking this far ahead not only ensures that communications remain constant but also that you can build in enough flexibility to turn the volume up should it be required.

This sort of approach should be adopted even if you don’t have any significant opposition and not only as best practice. Being prepared in your communications provides a level of confidence that translates through the rest of what you do and out into the wider community.

That confidence can go a long way in providing the reassurance that you can deliver on a project and make it a reality. This is particularly important in regeneration projects, especially in areas where there have been previous failures and a high degree of scepticism. For those very same reasons, that confidence to deliver is sadly lacking in many of the UK’s regions (why that should be and the lack of support and funding from central government is another article all together) and is the overriding impression that is left when there is a failure to invest in effective communications.

 

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