Campaign: Councils inspire local interest in parkland

In 2005, East Sussex County, Rother District and Hastings Borough Councils gained a European Union grant to transform a 600 hectare area of under-used Sussex countryside (including a soon-to-be-closed landfill tip) into Pebsham Countryside Park.

Campaign Pebsham Countryside Park
Client East Sussex County Council
PT team TK Associates
Timescale Sept 2005-May 2006
Budget £50,000

The project was intended to be an amenity for all residents, regardless of age and ability, and TK Associates was hired to inspire local involvement and fend off any criticism.

Objectives
To raise awareness of the project and conduct a high-quality consultation exercise to find out what residents wanted most from a new park.

Strategy and Plan
Working in partnership with leisure market consultancy Acorn, TK Associates decided it was vital to engage community groups and sports clubs in order to appeal to as many people as possible. These included the disabled, ethnic groups, deprived sections of communities, people with learning difficulties, the elderly and the young.

The PR team announced the initiative to local media in the summer by securing councillor Matthew Lock, chair of the Pebsham Countryside Park Steering Group, to act as a spokesperson for all media enquiries.

Over the autumn the main task was to explore the views, concerns and aspirations of residents. Workshops were held with residents, business people, special interest groups, councillors and young people. Public exhibitions were held in shopping malls, arts centres and village halls in areas surrounding the new development, including Hastings, Bexhill and Crowhurst. Activities were supported with questionnaires, which were made available in libraries, dentists' and doctors' surgeries and online.

Feedback and updates were regularly posted on a specially created website. These updates were also sent to local media.

Measurement and Evaluation
Lock was signed up for a guest presenter slot on BBC Southern Counties Radio. The campaign achieved 31 items of media coverage, including a six-minute bulletin on Meridian Tonight, and substantial coverage in the Bexhill Observer, Hastings Observer and the Argos in Brighton. It was also mentioned on BBC Online.

Results
Analysis of the consultation feedback by TK Associates, involving around 1,000 respondents, showed that 76 per cent of local people were in favour of the project. Findings from the consultation - that residents wanted a wildlife and countryside conservation area, sports and play facilities and woodland - were used to draw up designs for the park. These were then presented to the public in February.

After a further phase of public consultation, more than three-quarters of respondents claimed to be in favour of the design. The three councils are now working on a more detailed development design, a business plan and a timetable for implementation.

Granada Meridian TV reporter Jonathan Mendenhall says there is still some local concern about the future of the landfill site, but describes the public consultation as ‘thorough' and TK Associates as ‘very obliging and helpful'. He adds: ‘When an interviewee pulled out at the last moment, the PR agency's MD came down to the site from London just to do a five-minute piece with me.'

Second Opinion

Phil Reed, managing partner at Brahm PR, has worked on several public consultation projects.

Done badly, public consultation is just a tick-box exercise designed to overcome the real or perceived objections of planners, community groups and the like - more communication than consultation.

With this project, however, all parties involved should be applauded for taking a thorough approach to consultation. It was textbook stuff and, arguably, suffered creatively as a result - but it was comprehensive. OK, they weren't trying to sell a nuclear power plant, but they avoided the temptation to cut corners.

Engaging minority and special interest groups at the outset was a wise move, and doing this through workshops and meetings rather than leaflets and media relations created a sense of inclusiveness.

Having questionnaires available and publicising the feedback will have generated valuable stakeholder involvement in, and commitment to, the project.

How much the eventual design was influenced by public opinion isn't known, but the local research showed attitudes to the project were very favourable.

Getting the councillor on local radio was nice, but this was a visual story, so I would have liked to have seen more footage showing what the park could look like.

Perhaps more could have been done on site - such as a visitor centre with interactive displays - and with schools, but I'm being picky.

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