Community Engagement for Success ' an interview with Spencer Neal, Director at Keeble Brown
We are delighted to welcome Spencer Neal, Director at'Keeble'Brown to our Future London Summit on day 1 at London Build to discuss Community Engagement ' The Cornerstone of Successful Development.
Spencer Neal has had an illustrious career, being the Managing Director of the New Statesman for over 14 years, gaining an in-depth understanding of complex political structures and stakeholders, whether they are local authorities, businesses or individuals. 'Now, as a Director at'Keeble'Brown, his role is essentially creating and facilitating the stakeholder relationships that his clients need to make their projects a success. This enables clients to focus on delivering the results while the team at'Keeble'Brown mix their strategic insight with modern media dynamics to help the project navigate its way through to a successful conclusion.
We caught up with Spencer ahead of the show to ask about the importance of community engagement and how this impacts on the success of projects but also to understand what he expects from the show.
What does successful community engagement look like?
'Community engagement is all about communication. A successful strategy is one that delivers a positive outcome that satisfies the wider community as well as the developer and vested stakeholders. In most circumstances, the strategy should be evolutionary: responding to feedback and adapting to events as they arise; and they always do.'
'There is always a narrative to develop, with key messages to be shared throughout. To be successful, community engagement achieves and demonstrates a real understanding of all stakeholders involved, their needs, hopes and fears. Developing trust across the stakeholder group is critical.
'To take our work with the University of Greenwich as an example, we worked with the University on communications for its '76m Stockwell Street building, which opened in September 2014. Stakeholders ranged from students and staff to the broader Greenwich community and the architectural community. The scheme was within a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which added a whole new set of stakeholders.
'We began with workshops for staff and students to see what they wanted out of the building and the process.
'Part of our strategy was to position the building as an essential part of the University's future, as it embarked on a programme of improvement, growth and investment, to attract the best students and staff.
'We ensured that design and architecture media were (and would continue to be) aware of the innovative design elements of the structure and that they are showcased in high-profile media.
'We used the town-centre location of the building to highlight the role of the University within Greenwich and demonstrate the institution's commitment to the local community and stakeholders there.
'We organised several high-profile events around the opening to engage stakeholders and influencers, including an official opening event at the end of 2014 with William Hague as the guest of honour. We'secured high-profile coverage in a range of media including The Observer, The Guardian, Architects Journal, RIBA Journal, the BBC, and the prestigious cover feature of Landscape, the Journal of the Landscape Institute.
'After the opening, our focus shifted to ensuring the building was in the running for key architecture and design awards. The building was shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize.'
What challenges does the sector face in adopting best practice in community engagement and why is it important?
'I think the primary challenge the sector faces is in overcoming what is often a fairly caustic mix of hostility towards developers and cynicism about the benefits of development. Even the most well meaning and sympathetic developers are surprised by the challenge of winning local support or even understanding.
'Effective community engagement can not only support an efficient planning process, it can reduce hold ups and facilitate a more cost effective construction programme. Informed feedback can help developers save on cost and even help them add value to the final scheme.
'In terms of the challenges we face, as consultants, some of these are the same as they've always been - encouraging participation; designing a survey that provides useful data; overcoming cynicism and keeping the project design team on track ahead of public exhibitions. I think these days there also challenges around the use of different engagement platforms, access, diversity and voice. It's obviously important that the results aren't skewed to favour one particular type of stakeholder.
'Most policy-makers and planners understand and, to some extent, aspire towards a more inclusive participatory processes. But, there is far less consensus in the sector about how to make meaningful, inclusive participation possible.
'Many organisations struggle to communicate effectively. It's too easy to end up making assumptions about what type of environment will attract the people who will eventually live, work or learn in it.
Without in-depth stakeholder knowledge, projects teams comprising excellent architects, developers, and construction builders and other specialists, all with talented people and great ideas may miss the mark when tendering. Or, obviously, struggle to get planning permission because of objections from stakeholders who are not happy about a development they cannot see the point of and are not invested in.
'Contextual factors create different problems in different situations, and the participation process itself can create biases that may benefit some participants over others.
'Real stakeholder engagement and public consultation works to help find answers to questions that it would never have thought even to ask. And present solutions to problems that they didn't know they had.'
Why is attending London Build important and what do you hope it will achieve?
'We're here at London Build,'because'Keeble'Brown wants to engage with as many people as possible. We are always looking to learn new things and understand the concerns of others involved in development and regeneration. If we find opportunities where we can use our expertise to help project teams deliver a better built environment for London, that would be great too.
'London Build is clearly important. If delivering development, regeneration and a better built environment were easy it's unlikely the UK would be struggling on housing, infrastructure and sustainability in the way that it clearly is.'
'An event like this is an opportunity to share insights and ideas and perhaps reassure each other a little bit.
'Many organisations struggle to do this work well and end up guessing what type of environment will attract the people who will eventually live, work or learn in it.
'Without in-depth stakeholder knowledge, excellent architects, developers and construction businesses with talented people and great ideas may miss the mark when pitching and end up losing out on business or struggling to get planning permission because of objections from stakeholders who are not happy about a development they cannot see the point of and are not invested in.
'We'd like to come away having helped people understand why, in this day and age, communication and engagement are essential tools in development and construction and how these tools could be doing more to support their business objectives.''
Don't forget that you can see Spencer Neal speak at 1:00pm on the 23rd of October at the Future London Summit so register for your free ticket here.
Interview by: Costello Palmer Communications
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