Be Positive

John TwitchenIn his last blog, Copper Consultancy’s John Twitchen noted two issues. The first one explored collecting stuff. In this one, he turns his attention to the other biggie – infrastructure…  saying we have to be positive, proactive and proud. CIWM Journal Online Exclusive


We’ve spent a lot of money on vehicles, bins, bags, boxes, large sheds and conveyor belts. And, surprise-surprise, this hasn’t made everyone recycle everything. But it has meant that we have a fine array of shiny new kit, processing, preening and preparing our recyclables and waste, turning it into feedstock for new products or energy recovery plants.

A lot of the new facilities have been through the planning system in the last 10 years or so, with some appearing to fast-track their way through whilst others become bogged down. Why is this? Often, there are reasons, sometimes seemingly none. Yet at the centre of each project there is a cross-roads where politics meets proponent.

It’s not just the resource management industry that finds itself in this situation. Industry in general has, for much of the last 30 years, been going about the process of planning for and delivering infrastructure the wrong way round. Upside down, back to front, inside out.

Unfortunately, many infrastructure projects have begun with a defensive announcement about how important it is that this highly regulated large box or long thing is built. Then the “proponent” stares at their feet and waits for what they believe – what they perceive – is the inevitable tide of objection. “Sshhhh! If you keep your head down, you might just be alright…” say the advisers. Wrong.

The tide of objection is, in most cases, barely representative of even the most affected local community. But if you’re staring at your feet, waiting to hear from objectors, you won’t know this, of course, because the only people you’ll hear from are those most opposed. What else would you expect?

Balance. Reputation. Support

network-peopleWhilst it is absolutely not a numbers game, nor a referendum, it is crucial to talk to as many people from as wide and diverse a range of interests as possible. Why? Balance. Reputation. Awareness. Improvement. Neighbourliness. Support.

The most successful projects are those where time is taken to clearly explain the proposals, including the benefits as well as the drawbacks. Detail can be negotiated, aspects can be improved, elements can be agreed – common ground can be stated. Direct jobs are important, but so are the hotels, haircuts, stamps, signs, sandwiches, cleaning contracts, safety equipment and other things you can definitely find nearby. The rounded picture of the positive legacy.

Otherwise it’s just another thing, another change, another challenge to the status quo. And maybe some community benefit cash on the table but with no way of focusing it on local preferences and priorities. No buy-in.

Positivity is the watch-word. Think about new homes. They are marketed at people who don’t currently live there. By definition! And the marketing often commences before they are built, before permission is granted. Demonstrating engagement, involvement in the design, demand – enthusiasm, even – and setting out the many positives of the new development is how these projects are delivered. Yes, there is still objection. But it is in context, rather than the context.

So industry, developers – whether we are talking about railway stations, factories, power stations, resource management parks, wind farms – we have to demonstrate:

  • what the development brings
  • how it contributes to the local economy
  • who stands to benefit
  • when people can get involved.

There is a more fundamental issue at the heart of this, and that is the poor land use planning process, especially around early identification of strategic sites. This is born out of equally poor political leadership and a lack of executive-style politicians at the local level. But we’ve not got time to go into that here. Suffice to say that executive leadership seems to be getting the job done, as we explore in a recent blog on our website.

We can’t “magic up” political leadership or evolved, adopted and supported strategic plans overnight. But what you can do is go away from here and turn your communications – your approach to development – on its head, shake it up and try again. It works.

Lead from the front: positive, proactive and proud. Proud of our industry, in the absolutely essential role we play.

John Twitchen is Executive Director at Copper Consultancy, the UK’s leading environmental and infrastructure communications agency. John is an RWM Ambassador and sits on the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management’s communications committee. Follow him at @johntwitchen @CopperConsult

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