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Big engineering projects often face public opposition. But are we as an industry doing enough to show how important our ‘shared infrastructure’ is?
We consider it the right of the UK citizen to have access to infrastructure that is safe, that provides a high level of service, and increasingly, is respectful of the environment.
Yet sustained high-profile campaigns of local opposition to schemes as varied as HS2, the installation of offshore wind farms, and most recently, expansion of Heathrow Airport, reveal that this expectation is not mirrored by a reciprocal obligation on the part of the citizen to accept that construction and upgrading of vitally important national infrastructure may disrupt daily life.
Is there an approach to infrastructure provision that could help overcome this lack of public acceptance? And, if so, what are the consequences for its planning and engagement?
In recent years decision makers in the UK have learned how a lack of public consensus can prevent the efficient and timely delivery of infrastructure designed to address pressing challenges such as population growth and climate change.
For the public, many of the promised benefits of major infrastructure schemes lie in the distant future and are thus difficult to grasp fully, while the huge costs of these projects are usually – if only in part – paid for by the public too. Overall decision-making and funding processes are perceived to lack openness and transparency, despite the requirement for public consultation for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) under the Planning Act 2008.
Participants at a seminar we at Dialogue By Design hosted with UCL Transport Institute in March agreed that a much better job needs be done to convey to the public why infrastructure is needed. This is especially true for major schemes, for which there are likely to be certain groups that receive no direct benefit.
In such cases, Professor Brian Collins argued that leveraging the concept of ‘shared infrastructure’ might contribute to a more convincing need case, increase the legitimacy of a scheme and reduce the likelihood of widespread opposition.
The social value we receive from infrastructure in shaping the economic, cultural and political systems which we participate in as members of society is often taken for granted. We tend to forget that, while we might be inconvenienced by road building on our doorstep, we are almost certainly making use of electricity carried along pylons disturbing communities distant from us. The challenge here is to articulate that both local, negative impacts and wider, shared benefits to different infrastructure are linked to one another within in a larger eco system. If people understood this shared nature of infrastructure, there is a real chance they would oppose it less.
We would argue that leveraging the rights and obligations of the public relies on two interdependent conditions. The first is having a strategic planning system, and the second is creating a space for meaningful public engagement on the need case.
More and more is being written on the need for a strategic and cross-sector approach to national infrastructure planning in the UK, as opposed one that is piece-meal, reactive and short-sighted. Participants at our event emphasised that this absence of a coherent strategy in addition to the current decision-making and consultation process have led to a widespread and deep-rooted lack of trust.
When people feel excluded from decision making, they can become distant, disengaged and suspicious of the real motives behind a scheme being proposed. A strategic infrastructure plan in which each project makes a defined contribution to an agreed over-arching objective, while engaging both early in the process and specifically on the question of need would go far towards rebuilding this trust in the long term.
So, having a strategic planning process and a space for meaningful public engagement are mutually reinforcing and necessary for the public to adopt the concept of infrastructure as shared. If the public is not presented with the need case and provided with a meaningful opportunity to debate it, we cannot expect them to accept their obligations. In the long run, only an approach that is founded on the rights and obligations we have as members of a society would allow for the provision of infrastructure that is effective, timely and built on public legitimacy.
On Monday 23 March 2015, Dialogue by Design and the UCL Transport Institute co-hosted a seminar, We Need to Talk about Infrastructure, chaired by Jim Steer of Steer Davies Gleave. We posed a simple question: when Government plans to invest £375 billion in infrastructure projects up to 2020, how can this be done with local communities, rather than against them?
This chapter is an extract from the Infrastructure and the Citizen policy paper, which can be downloaded for free from the OPM website.
Elena de Besi is a Project Coordinator at Dialogue by Design (OPM Group). She works on public consultations, such as the HS2 Property Compensation 2014 and the National Grid North West Coast Connections consultations.