People-Power

Campaigning for local change

Mark Wallace on grassroots movements

The prospect of the Localism Bill will shift planning decisions to local communities, requiring businesses to develop innovative public affairs, communications and campaigning solutions to build support for new development. Decisions around planning will move even further away from being a purely technical issue and deeper into the realm of petitions, mass public involvement and even referenda.

Development proposals are often controversial, understandably inspire strong feeling among local communities and attract keen media interest. As many developers have found to their cost, it is not sufficient to liaise with council planning officers about the technical aspects of a planning application while neglecting the local political environment or only paying lip-service to consultation with the local community.

This is why the Portland Approach to planning campaigns draws heavily on our heritage as an agency that brings political experience to the business world.

We look at planning applications as political campaigns, run by a team with extensive experience of frontline, on-the-doorstep politicking to build local support for local projects.

The ultimate objective is to get the client’s application voted through by the local authority planning committee. To ensure that this decisive meeting goes smoothly, we work alongside our clients and their planning consultants from a much earlier stage, long before any application is filed with the council.

From the outset, our work is intelligence-led. Every community, every council chamber and every local media environment is different, forming a unique landscape which we must understand in order to operate within.

Achieving a good understanding of the concerns and priorities of local residents and their elected representatives is the essential foundation of a successful campaign.

No election candidate would visit their constituency for the first time on polling day, without having built support with voters and surveying local issues – and if they did, they would deserve to lose. For the same reasons, a planning campaign that storms into an area with no knowledge of local people and issues will soon find itself in trouble.

Knowing the landscape equips us to identify the key focal points within it, and the best ways to reach them. As well as elected councillors and local authority planning officers, third parties such as local business, charities, Parish Councils, town or village societies, sports clubs, journalists and even vicars all have the potential to play a part in whether an application is successful or not. Identifying who they are and where they stand is the first step in gathering allies to your campaign and identifying potential critics who without action may pose a threat.

Successful communication requires focused messaging. By assessing the local media and economy, as well as more in-depth investigation through focus groups, we identify where opportunities and risks lie in public opinion. For some areas, a development may be attractive as an answer to high unemployment, while somewhere else it may be improved retail choice or better community facilities that swing public opinion behind a proposal.

With local influencers mapped out, relevant concerns and issues understood and appropriate messaging established, the campaign is prepared to begin consultation and promotion around the client’s proposal. Ultimately a successful application campaign can be broken down into three distinct activities: informing, promoting and recruiting.

Inform

Any applicant has a duty to inform the public and elected representatives about plans that they wish to bring forward. As part of that process, we organise and host public exhibitions of the plans, provide targeted written and in-person briefings to elected representatives and liaise directly with neighbours to the development site who hold a particularly important position in any planning consultation due to their obvious interest in the proposals.

Promote

As well as fulfilling the responsibility to inform people about the plans and take on board their views, it is of course essential to actively promote the proposals, too. Targeted leafleting to the local area, a media campaign around key announcements and presentations of the proposals to key local groups all serve to communicate the positive benefits of approving the application.

Recruit

The political approach that sets Portland’s planning campaigns apart means that popular support and grassroots activism is essential to our work. By employing the tactics more commonly seen in election campaigns, such as door-to-door canvassing, petitions, citizen advocates and even protests in support of planning applications, we ensure that our clients’ proposals have real, vocal support among the local community.

We work to recruit hundreds or even thousands of members of the public to take an interest and an active, supportive part in the planning process. Planning officers and committees give a lot of weight to submissions from members of the public and this application of political campaigning techniques generates support on a scale which is rarely seen and is very powerful.

With the advent of the Localism Bill, this approach and the support it generates will become even more crucial to the successful progress of planning proposals. The requirement for consulting and involving the local community will become greater, submissions from the public will be given more weight and referenda will become more common, particularly on controversial development schemes.

This is an approach that has proved effective. Portland joined the Tesco planning team to build support for a referendum on a major planning application in Sheringham, Norfolk helping to end a 14-year long attempt to introduce a store to the town. Developers in 2011 are faced with a planning system which is evolving to pose new challenges and offer new opportunities. Portland’s experience and approach is set to become even more essential and effective.

Mark Wallace joined Portland after serving as Campaign Director for the TaxPayers’ Alliance