Politics and policy – acceptance and acceptability: where are the distinctions?

John Twitchen Copper Consultancy

Ask eight people for their views on the title of this article, and you’ll get eight different answers. I know, because I did. What I won’t do is relay the myriad of answers, but it does serve to make a point.

The role of politics and policy in infrastructure projects, and the acceptance and acceptability of development proposals is something which is hotly debated and confusing at the same time. 

You might think you have clear policy: sound, evidence-based, practical, deliverable… common sense, even. But that policy has behind it politics – and not just politicians. 

"Time after time, I’m asked what makes a good project, in terms of public acceptability. My answer? Good manners, common sense… and people."

John Twitchen, Copper Consultancy 

Only yesterday, I was at a Parliamentary event, and industry representatives were playing politics with policy, and tying themselves up in knots in the process. It was fun to watch, but also disappointing. And they had completely missed the public acceptability point – the impact and imposition on people. 

Policy is what a Government is aiming to deliver, whereas politics is the art of forming and enacting policy, winning control and staying in control of Government. Or undermining it for political ends. 

But is infrastructure “above politics”? The consensus is that some is, and more should be – it should be a catalyst for mass engagement, ahead of the curve, change for the greater good rather for the sake of change. One such example is the Isle of Grain LNG terminal, which provides a facility of significant national importance (and one that is able to operate above global political issues, supporting UK energy security). 

But what about acceptance and acceptability? 

Acceptance implies a grudging admission that, although something may not be ideal, it’s probably the best compromise available. Perhaps this is unfair – it is a process, often of education, occasionally negotiation. Acceptance of the need for something is critical when it comes to infrastructure development, but making the end result acceptable is also key. 

Acceptability is all about making the best (or best available) acceptable to the greatest number of people. It will have benefited from reasoned discussion, which in turn implies that it has been well thought-through and well argued. 

Utopia? No. Logical? Yes. It takes time, it takes confidence, but acceptability really should be a key performance indicator of policy. 

Crossrail presents a good example – Crossrail 1 isn’t even open yet, but there is already a clear and growing consensus that Crossrail 2 is needed, will bring major benefits, and will happen. It looks like it’s going to pass the “acceptability test” with flying colours – the key is to ensure that any issues are addressed, and the widest possible constituency is on board… so to speak.

Will Crossrail 2 be derailed? I don’t think so. Will it succumb to politics? Again, I think not – only the positive, advocacy sort. Will it need policy? You could almost argue no! It’s got such momentum, that it is driving policy.

Time after time, I’m asked what makes a good project, in terms of public acceptability. My answer? Good manners, common sense… and people. 

Making a good case for a good idea should be the easiest thing in the world… 

John Twitchen is Executive Director at Copper Consultancy, a specialist infrastructure communications and community relations consultancy. John is also co-chair of the Consultation Institute.