Seeking out the hidden majority

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Tony Ingham sets out his tips on how to reach those parts of the community that may mean the difference between a failed and a successful planning application.

We can be a contradictory bunch.

While most of us use mobile phones, the majority of us do not want a mobile phone mast anywhere near where we live. And while 95% of us regularly visit our local major supermarket, most of us would object to having one in our back yard.

And even though we probably know or live with someone that is desperately trying to get on the housing ladder, few of us would endorse a new affordable housing development being built on our doorstep.

Rather worrying when placed next to the government's recent promise of an extra three million homes by 2020.

You only have to open your local newspaper and view the anti this or anti that stories, often accompanied by a photo of glum faces and placards to receive confirmation that we are in fact a nation of NIMBYs.

Or are we?

There will always be a vocal minority who object to new developments, possibly out of fear of the unknown, or because there will be a direct negative impact on their quality of life. But for every vocal minority, there is a silent, even passive, majority.

The challenge for all developers is to find ways to canvass the opinion, and even support, from this silent group. It is difficult, and there is no magic formula, but it can be done.

The silent majority are silent for a reason: They may be either unaware of the impact or any associated benefits a development will bring; they may simply not have been asked or they may be suffering from apathy, an all too common affliction associated with consultation.

Tips for reaching the silent majority:

Get your story straight. Agree your key messages and stick to them to avoid rumour and misunderstanding.

  • Start early. Give people a genuine chance to shape your ideas, rather than just paying lip service to a set of architects plans.
  • Cut through the jargon. Talk in a language that people can understand.
  • Do your research. Understand how the community ticks. Who are the community influencers? – get to know them and encourage them to become involved in the plans. But beware! Community representatives don't always represent the views of the whole community.
  • Join the Facebook generation. Set up an interactive website for the development and communicate the benefits. Those in opposition to a development will be utilising similar tactics.
  • Tour the area. Take an exhibition on the road; employ a team to consult and capture opinions.
  • Be prepared to catch people at their leisure. Get out and meet the people in pubs, social clubs and leisure centres – put exhibition boards in shopping centres.
  • Measure impact. Use telephone research and focus groups to check that your messages are hitting home.
  • Get to know the journalists. Drip feed continual good news stories to the local paper and explore partnership opportunities -'what's in it for them?'

There is no 'one size fits all' for engaging with the local community, and in particular the silent majority. To achieve any kind of success with this group, you need to invest time and resource into the project and be patient, visible and available at all times. Above all you have to be imaginative.

Tony Ingham is chief executive of IPB Communications.

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