Improving understanding of community engagement on infrastructure projects

At Temple, we believe engaging early with stakeholders to identify local benefits reduces the cost of implementing infrastructure projects, sometimes quite significantly, writes Jenny Stafford of Temple Group

Jenny Stafford, principal consultant Temple Group

Our approach is to involve communities in decision making and ensuring local benefit as far as possible (rather than simply informing or consulting on proposals).

We presented some of our thinking about this at a recent CIRIA event on community engagement on infrastructure projects. One of the tools we use is our Controversy-Local Benefit matrix for infrastructure projects, (see diagram 1 above).

Controversy-Local Benefit Matrix (see diagram 1 above).

The position of example projects in the matrix reflects Temple’s views but the precise location of the projects in a quadrant or between quadrants is open to debate. 

Good engagement can increase benefit and reduce controversy (see diagram 2 above)

The matrix provides a broad categorisation of projects by levels of controversy and local benefit and makes it easy to see why more controversial projects, either locally or nationally, and those bringing low levels of local benefit are challenging in terms of community engagement.

Recognising this, finding ways to reduce impacts – sometimes through the process of considering different options – and increase local benefit (see diagram 2 above), helps move projects towards the top left quadrant i.e. those that are more straightforward to engage on.

Another key message at our CIRIA event was the wide variety of reasons why engaging early adds value: early community engagement builds trust, eases the process overall and reduces costs (see diagram 3 above).

This front loading of engagement is the same principle as that adopted by the BREEAM Communities assessment process which demonstrates the importance of early engagement in informing design.

It is less expensive to engage early with the costs of doing so increasing during the development process, particularly during the approval or consents stage when there may be legal costs to such engagement and less opportunity to make changes which reduce impacts or increase benefit. 

The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) identifies a spectrum of participation or engagement ranging from informing and consulting with the public to involving, collaborating or empowering. Use of approaches and techniques further along the spectrum see greater levels of involvement and participation and, as a result, increasing levels of public impact and likely benefit.  At its simplest therefore, the IAP2 spectrum suggests that finding ways to better involve the community will be a more effective way of ensuring local benefit and gaining acceptance.

 A final key point about controversial projects is something that may surprise many technical specialists. It might be anticipated that it is important to share technical details when undertaking public consultation on controversial projects.

However, what is most important is being able to relate to the views of individuals or empathising, gaining their trust and demonstrating commitment to listening to their views, according to work done by Vince Covello on risk communication.

These factors are far more important than sharing their technical expertise about the project itself. In lower concern situations – or less controversial projects - sharing this technical expertise has a greater role to play (see diagram 4 above).  


Jenny Stafford is principal consultant at Temple Group


Temple Group is hosting the IAP2 Foundations in Public Participation course in London, 1-5 December. Click here to find out more and register.