Public engagement essential for the long view too

Focus has turned to improving public engagement earlier for long term infrastructure policy – something that Whitehall has largely been poor at, writes Robbie Owen, member of the National Needs Assessment Executive Group

Effective public engagement has long been a major sticking point for UK infrastructure projects. Promoting healthy, grass roots debate in which the voices of local communities are heard while not stifling progress with lengthy delays to essential projects is challenging to say the least.

Significant progress has been made in recent years in some respects. When it comes to the planning consent stage project promoters now realise that effective engagement can really improve projects. 

But the focus is now on how to equally improve engagement at the earlier long term infrastructure policy making stage – something that Whitehall has largely been poor at. 

A delicate balance must be struck between genuine engagement and forward thinking and decisive infrastructure planning which will truly transform the UK's ageing infrastructure. As the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) looks towards its National Infrastructure Assessment, the question is how do we achieve this equilibrium?

The issue was hotly debated by infrastructure industry heavyweights, including the Institution of Civil Engineers’ President, Sir John Armitt, who gathered at Pinsent Masons' London office last week as part of the ongoing National Needs Assessment (NNA) facilitated by ICE and involving 12 other leading organisations. 

Gathering evidence from across the industry, the NNA seeks to inform the NIC’s own needs assessment by providing an independent perspective on the UK’s long term priorities. 

At the session, there was clear consensus that rather than shy away from the debate, those advocating projects before their inception should value alternative views and recognise the contribution they can make to shaping the future of infrastructure.

Indeed, lessons can be learned from other global markets. In France, transparent debate on infrastructure driven by the Commission Nationale du Débat Public has successfully promoted genuine discussion at the earliest possible stage on how the country's needs should be addressed by individual infrastructure projects.  

Taking engagement to its most extreme, the Swiss government gives the electorate the final decision on some infrastructure projects with mini-referendums used to decide their fate. We may baulk at such a suggestion with the fear that nimbyism would hold too much sway. But the Swiss experience is largely positive with the electorate demonstrating it's up to the task by approving nationally critical projects.

These models would not work in their exact form in a UK context. But we need to find a better way to involve the public on such projects. Promoting education and engagement can lead to action with widespread public support.

Better communication and collaboration is long overdue. Yet Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’ll take some time to foster significant progress and for public opinion to genuinely influence infrastructure policy-making. Only then will we see a shift in public attitudes towards the more controversial projects. 

As the NIC starts to influence the future of UK infrastructure policy, we have an opportunity to do things better. Seeking the input of communities and the public more generally should play an important part in the NIC’s work, if its recommendations are to gain public recognition and acceptance and therefore be that much more persuasive of government. 

This could be the real game changer for engagement and ultimately will help to unite us all in overhauling UK infrastructure. I hope the evidence we garner through the NNA’s own engagement contributes to this change.

Robbie Owen is head of UK infrastructure planning and government affairs for Pinsent Masons and a member of the National Needs Assessment Executive Group