Copper’s James Gore makes the case for grassroots engagement to come first when considering investment to kick-start economic recovery in the UK’s regions.

In the face of the worst slump in GDP on record, the pressure on Government to provide an injection of funding to stimulate the ailing economy is growing.  Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, the Prime Minister had already signalled an intention to invest in the UK’s infrastructure as part of the ‘levelling up’ agenda, so it is no surprise to see the sector placed front and centre in recovery plans.

The renewed focus on infrastructure as a catalyst for post-COVID recovery is encouraging.  However, there is a danger that the desire to deliver quickly which lies behind reported proposals to overhaul the planning system could shortcut good practice, reducing long-term returns related to productivity, wellbeing and quality of life.  Proper engagement with communities and customers should not be sacrificed in the rush to get spades in the ground, however strong the temptation is to be seen to be taking action.

Copper has carved out a reputation for supporting successful Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs), with every Development Consent Order submission we have worked on gaining consent, so we understand the importance of getting community and stakeholder engagement right.  Our work does not end once approval has been granted – we have a track record of guiding developers through even the most challenging builds.  And now our latest work is taking us back to the very start of the process, engaging local communities and stakeholders in shaping plans for economic development before they even reach the drawing board.

A clear and compelling vision for growth which has been shaped by and resonates with communities and customers is essential, whether developing new places to live and work, unlocking the potential of existing town and city centres or designing transformative transport solutions.  Making the effort to find out what your stakeholders want unsurprisingly pays dividends when it is time to seek consent or start construction.

While the behavioural changes wrought by months of social distancing could make face-to-face engagement more difficult, even as lockdown restrictions are eased, these challenges are also opportunities to do things differently by looking beyond traditional consultation methods.  Online platforms have the potential to engage audiences who would have been unlikely to attend a public exhibition, and digital materials can be adapted in close to real time based on stakeholder feedback, creating a more interactive and collaborative experience than ‘set in stone’ in printed collateral.

Copper’s research into attitudes to infrastructure shows a desire from the public to see tangible benefits from investment.  Developers must build a benefits-led narrative rather than rely on high-level economic impact figures which can be difficult to translate into meaning at a local level.  And this is only possible by engaging with communities and customers at the outset to identify what these benefits are and how they will make a difference to people’s lives.

While there is broad consensus that the COVID-19 world has ushered in a ‘new normal’, exactly what this looks like and whether it is consistent across different regions remains unclear.  Engaging with communities will help to identify local impacts and develop tailored interventions to address them effectively.  Those who take the time to listen to local voices are more likely to succeed in the long run by responding to the needs of the communities they serve.

The good news is that, even in these unprecedented times, this approach is being recognised as the right one.  For example, community engagement is central to investment plans being developed by 100 towns across England as part of the Government’s Towns Fund.

Combining large-scale, top-down investment programmes with bottom-up engagement at a local level in this way could become a winning combination.  This combination will help deliver infrastructure to unlock the potential of our towns, cities and regions hit hardest by the pandemic and its associated impacts.