The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (for obvious reasons, PACAC from here on) has some interesting things to say on delivering major projects. It wants to know how the government will ‘build, build, build’ while at the same time avoiding a generation of white elephant projects.
One way it sees of achieving this is to get local support early. PACAC says this can be done through consultation at the ‘early decision-making phase’. This simplifies a complex problem about when it’s best to start consulting local communities.
National or regional infrastructure often involves looking at solutions across large areas at an early stage – how do you define local people in that context? Local people absolutely have a role to play in improving major developments. They live and work in the area and understand it better than a developer can hope to.
But for it to be effective, consultation needs to be at a point where an average person can (a) understand how a proposal might impact them while (b) still being at a stage where it can be influenced. For most major infrastructure, this balance is only met where there are ‘lines on a map’ – some form of site selection or route options. Making sure consultation happens at the right time is critical: don’t think in terms of early or late, it’s a case by case issue
However, even if it may not be appropriate to consult communities, projects can still start building support from the earliest stage. The solution lies in another of the report’s recommendations. PACAC wants more ambitious, measurable benefits as a marker of success for new projects. This should go further. The benefits new infrastructure will bring to how people actually live their lives should be front and centre from the very beginning.
Far too often projects – particularly government-backed ones – focus on macro benefits such as total investment or jobs unlocked nationwide. While these are important, they are unlikely to win over someone whose house is next to a major new development.
Framing major infrastructure in things that mean something to people can go a long way to building support.
Instead of how many billions are being invested, we should talk about why a new road or railway is needed to help get that Amazon delivery to your front door. Or how reducing congestion not only supports national climate goals but helps improve the air quality on your street or through your village. It’s about explaining that new housing is not there to meet a Whitehall-dreamt annual goal, but to ensure that your children or grandchildren can continue to live and work in the communities they know and love.
By helping people understand the importance of new infrastructure to them, the scales can be tilted in favour of major projects. This paves the way for successful consultation that communities want to engage with, to help improve the design for and, ultimately, to support.
Kai Pritchard is an account director at Camargue