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“Engagement is one of the best ways to ensure that economic development serves its communities”


With everything going on at the moment, and finite resources, local authorities are doing as much as they possibly can to support businesses in their area to survive over the next few months, and to ultimately grow in the long-term. 

One of the things that is key to this goal, whether it is the current major focus on business support or working with the wider community and stakeholders on different plans, is to involve people from the start. Don’t just come up with a grand idea and say this is what you are going to do, or that this has been decided by national or local government in tandem, and throw it to people that this is the avenue you are going down. 

I speak from the perspective of someone who works for a planning consultancy who does a lot of work on major housing schemes, and it is fair to say that whilst everybody recognises there is a need to build new homes, a lot of people do not want those homes built anywhere near them. What you do find is if you involve people right from the outset, and get them involved in shaping an actual scheme, it is amazing how it can transform mindsets.

So if you can speak to businesses to find out what kind of support they need, or communities to shape schemes in town centres, it is reasonable to expect that you will get an awful lot more buy-in from people. It is also important to show people how a particular intervention or programme can deliver benefits for an area. Greater Manchester has been particularly good in this regard over the last few years, as it will often have an evidence base outlining why a particular scheme or development has been put forward. I am not saying that it has got everything absolutely right, but it has been fortunate that it has had a team of researchers who have been able to gather a lot of the evidence needed to help inform decision-making.

Engagement is one of the best ways to ensure that economic development serves its communities. From a planning perspective, stakeholder and community planning consultation has always been a fundamental part of the process and that still remains the case. It has been more challenging during lockdown, as it has to be largely done by video, but I think planning consultancies and local authorities have done a fantastic job in terms of ensuring planning applications are still being discussed at planning committee meetings. 

There is an argument that whilst it may be desirable for communities to have a more intense role in terms of shaping developments in certain instances, getting the balance right in terms of community involvement is key. Some people will always want to be more involved than others, but you have to be realistic and say that we do ultimately need to deliver something within a certain timeframe, and sometimes this is linked to the funding available.

Ultimately, you have got to show you are delivering results and making a difference. If you can get people involved in schemes from the outset, and they are continually involved throughout the process, and they can see there is a genuine outcome at the end, it has a rolling effect and can ensure far more local buy-in for schemes. Once local residents and businesses can see they are helping to shape the future of their area, gaining buy-in for future initiatives can become more straightforward.   

Richard Cook is Director, Economics at Pegasus Group and a member of the Institute of Economic Development. Richard was a panellist on the IED’s “What are the most appropriate mechanisms for economic recovery, and what is the role of local government within that?” webinar on 5th November

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