Over the past few months I have provided strategic and practical advice on engaging communities in siting a government-led nationally significant infrastructure project (NSIP). What is unusual – and what hooked me in – is that the government intends to adopt a community consent based approach and this is a departure from the past.
Decades of troubled, top-down attempts to impose a public programme on a community has helped shaped this new approach. It follows the devolution trajectory supported by legislation such as the Localism Act 2011 in England and, in this case, international consensus on how to address a challenge shared by many other countries.
This particular infrastructure project is likely to be met with caution both in its subject matter, which isn’t well understood and also natural skepticism over a community consent based approach. It won’t be an easy topic for most people, but it has the benefit of time. The aim is that over 15 – 20 years a community will have gained sufficient knowledge for the people living locally to decide whether to proceed to host the project or not. If they do, there will be long-term benefits for the community and an opportunity to transform the local economic, social and environmental outlook for theirs and future generations.
I can’t say too much about this piece of work yet, but in 2017 the government policy that outlines the consent-based approach will be open for consultation. I will be encouraging national civil society / third sector organisations that have a place-based focus, to encourage their members or audience to respond. When the consultation has concluded the responses will help shape how the consent-based approach is delivered and then the NSIP will go live within the year. No location for the project has been identified and the consent based approach will start by encouraging communities to come forward to find out more. Where a community wants to engage more formally, there will be resources to help it to do so, including investment and the provision of independent support and advice.
The subject matter has meant that I have had to step out of my comfort zone and learn about a new policy area quickly; to anyone else who practises community engagement this will be all too familiar. The more I have learned, the more interesting it has become because it marks a departure from the way that government has done business before. I want it to work because if the consent-based process is undertaken well (and we are currently sweating delivery scenarios and detail), it should set the standard for other public infrastructure projects. Once the precedent is set, there should be no turning back – communities will rightly expect to be involved in national matters that may affect them locally, not after, but before the event.