NIMBYism has always been a roadblock to development. However, you don’t have to have been paying close attention to the housing and construction industries to have noticed that planning has, in recent years, become an even more controversial and emotionally charged issue than it used to be, and especially so in London.
‘Regeneration’ and ‘gentrification’ are treated like dirty words, and barely a major scheme goes by that doesn’t garner an opposition campaign. From holding hands around a proposed development site to battling riot police in condemned flats, high profile examples are not hard to find. In the age of online petitions and social media, it is easier for those opposing a proposed development to organise themselves and build a network of support, be they local residents or politicians, or pressure groups such as The Victorian Society or the Skyline Campaign.
In many ways, this is a good thing: it is a function of greater accountability and transparency from local authorities (all planning applications are easily available to view online, for example) and it demonstrates that people are invested in their local built environment and heritage assets; discussions about the sorts of development we want and need are brought into the mainstream, rather than being a niche interest with major decisions being made under the radar. Which brings us onto a downside highlighted by a recent report by Centre For London: opposition to new developments in London is a contributing factor to the shortage of new housing in London. Vocal opposition may lead to a good scheme being refused planning permission, and over time this has meant that there are many places where developers will not bother submitting an application. When London is only building half the 50,000 new homes that are needed each year, this is a problem.
It is therefore important to understand why this happens, and what methods can be implemented to placate or respond to residents’ concerns. The Centre for London report, STOPPED: Why people oppose residential development in their backyard, is illuminating on this topic, and outlines many issues and solutions that we have seen first-hand while working on developments around London. STOPPED is an acronym – Services, Trust, Outsiders, Place, Politics, Engagement, Disruption – for the main reasons that developments attract critics.
Residents fear that new housing will put pressure on already straining infrastructure, like GP surgeries and public transport, and they don’t trust that the Local Authority or developers are acting with their interests in mind. Locals worry about big changes in the local area, with new people moving in and the make-up of shops and restaurants (the dreaded gentrification). Planning debates can often become politicised, even though the process is meant to be quasi-judicial. Many people feel that developers’ consultations are nothing of the sort, and decisions have been made already – they have no input, and then find their neighbourhood turned into a construction site for a considerable period of time. Go to any planning committee meeting, and you will find any or all of the above points raised in opposition to a proposed development. So what can be done?
Many of the recommendations in the STOPPED report are things we at Nudge Factory recommend to our development clients. Start a dialogue early with the community you are working in and give residents plenty of opportunities to hear about your plans and discuss them with you. This could be as simple as sending out a newsletter with an email address to ask questions, to hosting roadshow events around the wider area where residents can pop in, view the plans and talk with developers, architects and other consultants. If a developer is proactive in this way, it can lead the direction of discussion around the scheme, rather than have it shaped by those who might oppose it. We often find that if you do this, residents who visit who may have some legitimate concerns about the effect of the proposal on the area, can become more amenable to the scheme if they hear about the developer’s desire to work with the community and motivation to deliver real benefits, or even become positively enthused!
Through hosting events like this, and public consultations, you can demonstrate to local people – and also to councillors and MPs – that you are listening to their concerns and that you are working with them, rather than imposing a development onto them. We would encourage all members of the project team to attend events like this and speak to members of the public. Many of them come very well informed, and ask interesting questions about things that developers may not have fully considered; at the very least, it is a good exercise to get staff out of the office to visit the coal face where the plans they are working on interact with the wider public.
Given the length of time it takes to turnaround redesigns and significant changes to a proposal, it can be difficult for a developer to make changes based on local feedback, but any consultation must offer something meaningful and engage the people who will be affected by the plans. One successful example of this, which we have worked on, was a proposal that included a new children’s play area: four different styles of playground were depicted, and the children visiting a community event – that featured face painting and balloons as well a planning discussions – could vote on their favourite. Small things like this can go a long way to establishing good community relations that will stand a developer in good stead when their application comes to be determined.
We recommend that you read the full Centre for London report, it contains many more excellent ideas for mending the relationship between residents, local authorities and developers, which is necessary if London (and indeed the UK as a whole) is to increase the rate of housebuilding to meet demand.
As the Nudge Factory motto says: Good for the community; Good for business.