COMMENT PLATFORM: Smoothing out the planning procedure. The ability to discern party factions makes public affairs a valuable ally in the planning process, says Mark Pritchard

Unlocking the door to those coveted words ’resolution to grant planning permission’ can often owe a large part to the work of public affairs professionals.

Unlocking the door to those coveted words ’resolution to grant

planning permission’ can often owe a large part to the work of public

affairs professionals.



For when it comes to obtaining planning permission, some might say, that

town planning is the science of which public affairs is the art.



The true public affairs professional is not just someone who sits on

over-lengthy council meetings, but is rather more likely to be a

strategic thinker who offers clients strategic analysis with the

experience and knowledge to implement the advice.



This advice should ideally be based on the conclusions of a political

audit which has assessed the likely levels of support for a scheme.



While some opponents may never support an application, there is case

evidence that the power and size of an opposition lobby can be greatly

diminished by public affairs professionals effectively creating

awareness and understanding about a scheme - at worst, moving some

people from active opponents to passive opponents and at best,

mobilising a significant support group.



This is done by using a wide range of proven PR techniques such as

direct mail campaigning, public exhibitions, community relations and so

on, which can be used to inform key opinion-formers and decision-makers

as well as the electorate at large. Much progress can be made when the

agreed strategy is to objectively inform members rather than trying to

subjectively influence them. It is important to remember that it is

often a lack of information about a scheme which produces ignorance and

hostility.



Another key consideration in any campaign is the potential for

misrepresentation in the media. Indeed, the media plays an increasingly

important role in informing people about what is happening in their

communities - alas the demise of the town crier! It is essential

therefore that the public affairs adviser is someone who is both

familiar and comfortable with the media, knowing their likes and

dislikes, and knowing when, where and what medium to use for maximum

impact.



Similarly, crisis communications experience may be required if a project

becomes particularly controversial and encourages site trespass or

public protests.



What public affairs advisers need to remember is that the relationship

with the journalistic fraternity is a process of reciprocation - both

parties need each other - but this needs care and attention. Most of

all, a working knowledge of the media can allow a client’s project’s

downside to be minimised and upside maximised.



Despite strict guidance to councillors from the Local Government

Association and following the Nolan Committee recommendations, the UK

remains a democracy and, approached in the right way, companies (often

bringing significant employment to an area), have as much right to

communicate with their elected officials as the public. The planning

consultation process therefore should not exclude reasonable dialogue

between members and those who wish to do business in their

constituencies.



Public affairs specialists usually offer a broad range of expertise;

however, perhaps the most important contribution they bring to any

development team is their knowledge and assessment of how much

’politicking’ there may be on a particular council and how, if at all,

it is likely to impact on a client’s application. Their ability to

discern factions within party groups as well as where the balance of

power lies can often be the critical factor between planning success and

failure.



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