Good advice to developers — how to win over skeptical politicians to your project

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By Nick Keable

Vice President, UK Operations, The Saint Consulting Group

With so much public opposition to large-scale development, it may be helpful to summarize some advice we share with clients to help developers save time and money and win planning consent.

protestA prospective client asked me an interesting question today: “What options do I have to win over the skeptical politicians who will vote on my planning application with the backdrop of considerable local opposition?”

The simple answer is that whether he is in London, England or London, Kentucky or London, Ontario, he has four options:

1. Do nothing – And hope that logic, reasoned argument and helpful supporting evidence submitted with his application will win the day. Frankly, not a bet I would take.

2. Employ a PR company to talk up his proposal – Prior to joining Saint Consulting in 2005, I ran one of those large PR companies that do just that. And I would now like to confess something: it doesn’t work. At least, this approach used to work, but now is very much less successful for a number of reasons, some of which are as follows. First, people are much more skeptical of developers’ arguments in support of a proposed development than they used to be. Second, as our annual Saint Index research shows, the anti-development brigade are more numerous, more sophisticated and more aggressive then they used to be. And third, most conventional public consultation PR tactics – which principally revolve around extolling the virtues of any development’s features and benefits – never win over hardcore opponents and in fact are very good at actually generating more opposition! This approach inevitably leads to a sterile conversation between ‘us and them’ where much time is spent attempting to win over the unwinnable.

3. Use a consensual approach – This is much favoured by architects and planning consultants. We gather in a church hall and ‘charette’ the future with reps from the local community. Together, holding hands and singing ‘Kum Ba Yah’, we all magically agree that what this town really needs is a nuclear power station and 2000 new residential units on its western boundary! Now, this approach can work for non-controversial projects but I have yet to meet the developer who proposed a highly controversial project and, using this method, won the day.

4. Show the politicians the proposal wins them votes – The simple truth is that politicians don’t support planning applications they believe will lose them votes at the next election. But on almost every project I have worked on over the last fifteen years, the opposition lobbying the politicians against was a tiny, tiny minority of hardened NIMBYs. Using the logic of the Saint Index findings, there are always supporters for every project. The trick, mostly never attempted by even seasoned property professionals, is to unlock the silent majority that would support the new homes, new jobs, new community improvements etc. By showing the politicians that there are supporters and they are numerous, they relax about the small band of noisy NIMBYs and logic wins the day.

My prospective client’s reply to my explanation? “You mean you can find supporters for my projects? Huh, I’ve never had even one supporter before.”

Nick Keable is vice president for UK Operations, The Saint Consulting Group, email or call +44 207 592 7050.

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