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Planning to engage – hearing the community voice through the change process

What does the Environment Planning and Assessment Bill mean for engagement and consultation?


The newly passed Environmental Planning and Assessment Bill (2017) introduces some significant changes for the way communities are consulted on development proposals. Developers, government, NGOs – in fact anyone with an interest in developing infrastructure needs to take notice of these changes.

The two biggest changes, as noted by the NSW Property Council are:

  1. The enhanced place of community consultation in the early stages of the planning process, and
  2. A new focus on strategic planning at a local level.

So, what does this mean for community engagement?

While more of the detail will become clear in forthcoming regulation, it’s clear that hearing the community voice, reporting on the outcomes and tracing key principles through the planning process will become essential elements in any major development.

This means organisations planning to undertake development need to start thinking and planning early on in the process to consider how the community will be consulted and informed throughout the whole development process.

Community consultation is not a disguise for PR

The requirements for consulting the community on proposed developments are not a public relations or marketing opportunity. If communities feel the consultation is piecemeal or has been completed as a tick-box exercise, the backlash can derail the project and badly damage the reputation of project leads.

Community stakeholders are complex, with varied political interests. The insights gained from consultation can have profoundly positive impacts on the planned development, and conducting the process thoroughly is a valuable exercise.

In KJA’s recent experience consulting with communities on large scale, state-significant projects, we’ve found that effective consultation involves:

  • Structured inquiry around themes that are agreed with the community
  • Flexibility to adapt to different demographic groups such as CALD communities, young people and the elderly
  • Listening, not just informing, which means giving people the chance to really tell their stories and share their insights rather than flooding them with key messages and promotional collateral.

Consultation is an opportunity to embed powerful insights throughout a project

At KJA we are seeing more and more that community engagement at the front end of projects yields rich insight that can shape the final deliverables. If these insights are applied to design and procurement they can yield results that are nuanced to community needs and are ultimately very commercially attractive because they are, simply, what people want.

Additionally, engagement needs to be seen as a key driver of transformation - not as a discrete work stream. As the diagram below shows, communication and engagement should be used to trace the process of discerning changing needs, managing change implementation and, finally in the consolidation phase – making change and reform stick. Communication is the glue that makes change stick.

                                               Communication is the glue that makes change stick

                                              Communication is the glue that makes change stick

Clear principles applied thoughtfully lead to defensible outcomes

Finally, accountability is king when it comes to managing political and commercial risk. This is why KJA advises our clients to consider endorsing key principles that arise from community consultation that will be used to shape a performance framework for delivery.

If people see where their feedback is shaping outcomes, they are more likely to be open to discussions about trade-offs and compromise.