The more things change, the more they stay the same

Oliver Deed, Project Manager at KJA, gives his reflections on community engagement in the UK and Australia.


A stakeholder engagement practitioner’s skills can be applied almost anywhere in the world. Facilitation is about understanding the psychology of human beings, the context within which you are working, and providing people with the framework they need to reach a conclusion or form a plan of action for the future. Barring cultural nuances and the occasional linguistic challenge, it does not really matter whether you are in London or Sydney, Johannesburg or Bangkok, the art of facilitation is, ultimately, the same.


Having arrived in Sydney on 12th October and starting work at KJA four days later, this life-long Londoner has been struck by the similar challenges these two global cities face. On everything from aviation capacity, to managing the need for increased densities, from the requirements for placemaking, right through to broadband capacity and everyone's favourite debate about car parking, Londoners and Sydneysiders are united in a shared need to face up to the challenges that are common across major global cities in the 21st century.


Since arriving in Sydney, I have been visited the Waterloo housing estate on a number of occasions as part of the KJA team facilitating a series of community workshops. Our team is seeking feedback from the community as part of the visioning process that will inform the master plan for the future Waterloo redevelopment. These sessions are virtually identical in terms of participant feedback to those I organised on development projects back in London. People share the same concerns about the future, and similar overarching issues punctuate each session. Save for the accents and temperate climate, I could well be back in Blighty. As the adage goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same!


However, there are some differences that are worth touching on briefly. The most obvious difference is the level of power, in planning terms, that resides at the state level in New South Wales. As set out in the Australian constitution, the delineation of power between the Federal Government and State and Territory governments is far clearer than in the extremely complex political ecosystem that exists in the United Kingdom. Such constitutional clarity does not exist back home and, as such, power is inconsistently disbursed across Parish, District, County Councils, directly elected Mayors, Combined Authorities, the UK Government and, for a short period of time, the European Union.


In London we have had a directly elected Mayor since 2000 and slowly but surely the office has accumulated more and more power across a range of policy areas, including in the area of planning. But ultimately big decisions around major residential and commercial developments still sit with local authorities, with the Mayor only given the power to call in decisions, when it reaches over a certain threshold.


Oh how the current Mayor Sadiq Khan would love to find himself on the same footing as the NSW Premier, or even the NSW Planning Minister, who determine State Significant Development applications upfront, without the need to “call-in” an application which is a process that brings both political and public controversy when used. In England, outside of London, Mayoral structures either do not exist, or they are a nascent stage, and therefore bereft of planning powers. The UK has some way to go in terms of regional devolution.


The other key difference concerns the stakeholder engagement sector itself. In the UK, the sector is intimately linked to the world of local and regional political lobbying. When I was instructed by a client on a project back in London, I would be expected to manage the community consultation process, all stakeholder engagement and, most importantly, the political lobbying process. Securing planning permission for a development was the bread and butter of what we did and it showed. Many stakeholder engagement consultancies in the UK have recruitment policies that recruit elected, or previously elected officials exclusively.


So far, my experience has been quite different in Australia, and for the better. The distinct spheres within which the stakeholder engagement and political lobbying sectors sit has been to the benefit of the former - it has allowed for the development of a more mature sector that thinks deeply about methodology, best practice and outcomes beyond just that of securing a consent for a planning application, or a tick-a-box exercise to demonstrate a government department has "consulted" its stakeholders. The nuance has been a very welcome one.


Four weeks in and those are the initial takeaways and I am sure more similarities and differences will emerge. Thousands of miles away from home, the environmental and industry context has drastically changed, but thankfully the art of facilitation remains very much the same.