Community consultation in major infrastructure

5th November 2012

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  • Stakeholder engagement ,
  • Consultancy ,
  • Construction ,
  • Engagement



Laura Woods from SKM Enviros describes recent developments in environmental impact assessment (EIA) practice on consulting local communities

The use of community consultation in EIA projects has, until recently, been best practice but not obligatory. Consultation was largely used to inform the local community in closest proximity to a proposed development. However, there were no hard-and-fast rules for how it was to be undertaken, who it was to be consulted and how it was to be used to benefit the project.

There are still no strict rules for undertaking consultation with local communities, but there have been quite significant moves forward in how it is approached, initiated by guidance and regulation surrounding the consent process for nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIPs).

The obligation to undertake community consultation in NSIP projects has the potential to rub off on EIAs for other projects in the planning system, not least in increasing the expectations of best practice.

Regulatory drivers

The Planning Act 2008 mandates community consultation with the aim of developing a fairer and faster development consent process for NSIPs. Although the methods and exact detail of consultation are not specified, the Act defines the local community as a definitive consultee (Section 47 consultee) and outlines a process to ensure they are consulted during the EIA and pre-application phase for a NSIP. The onus is on the developer, or promoter, to ensure this process is followed and instigate meaningful consultation to benefit the project.

Other key policies, regulations and guidance documents have since been published which provide further context to how community consultation should be undertaken in such projects. These have included Infrastructure Planning (EIA) Regulations 2009 (as amended by the Localism Act 2011 (Infrastructure Planning) (Consequential Amendments) Regulations 2012), community benefit protocol, national policy statements and guidance notes issued by the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) (previously Infrastructure Planning Commission).

As outlined in these documents, process requirements for community consultation in NSIPs includes, but is not limited to:

  • Identification of the necessary people to include in the consultation target areas.
  • Agreement of a strategy for undertaking consultation, with input from the relevant local authority.
  • Notification of the strategy, including: where information will be made available; methods of contact with the developer; and timescales for consultation in the press.
  • Presentation of environmental information with regard the proposed development to enable the community to give an informed opinion.
  • Iterative process for addressing comments and ensuring the community remains fully involved throughout the process.

Effective engagement

There are currently 94 NSIP projects registered with PINS. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to consultation and the approach taken often reflects the nature of the development, location and the characteristics of the community groups affected.

The common thread with the majority of these projects is that they clearly demonstrate that there is potentially great value in undertaking consultation with the community.

Effective engagement rather than just communication of information can foster a genuine rapport with the community in which the project would be located. However, this can only happen if the developer, working with their consultants, is prepared to engage with the community very early in the process and be transparent in what is presented to them.

Developers must also be available to engage with community members in the most convenient ways, and ensure an iterative process for addressing any issues raised and feeding back information to the community throughout the project.

Valued contribution

Despite the regulations giving an outline of the process needed to be undertaken by developers, the interpretation of how community consultation is undertaken and the understanding and recognition of its value continues to vary.

Nevertheless, there seems to be increasing acknowledgement that community consultation is valued as a potentially positive influence on gaining development consent for proposed developments.

Crucially, consultation with the community provides the opportunity to legitimise the project from three perspectives.

First, in the eyes of the community, they have the chance to be involved in the evolution of the project and know that they are making meaningful input to its design and impact assessment.

Second, in the eyes of the developer, they have the opportunity to make a meaningful relationship with the local community and have a greater chance of development consent.

And third, there is greater legitimacy for the democratically accountable decision makers if there is demonstrable evidence of effective community consultation.

This article was written as a contribution to the EIA Quality Mark’s commitment to improving EIA practice

Laura Woods is an environmental consultant at SKM Enviros


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