By Erika Bugnar
The elderly population of the UK is growing rapidly. By 2032 people aged 65-plus are expected to make up almost a quarter of the population. Because of local opposition to planning applications it is proving difficult to match demand with new developments. The author examines the source of opposition and looks at ways of responding to the concerns of residents and stakeholders.
As the population of Britain is ageing we need to ensure that we have the capacity to look after our elderly.
Despite these facts, it seems to have become increasingly difficult for developers to get planning permission for retirement homes or Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs). What are the reasons for this and more importantly, what can be done about it?
The single most important hurdle to developers are NIMBYs- ‘Not In My Back Yard’ . These individuals or groups can sometimes appear to be irrational in their opposition to development proposals. Often their anxieties are far-fetched and the impact of the proposals on the community is small or even benign. Many times they raise issues such as character and sometimes even ‘flooding’, which more often than not is improved by the development. NIMBYs however, aren’t all bad news- without neighbourhood opposition certain projects that have the potential of devaluing the community would get passed. However, it is important not to get ‘bogged down’ by the NIMBY’s and instead focus on mobilising support from other parts of the community.
The need for the development-There seems to be a perception that there is too much development especially with regards to flats or apartments. However, there is a real need for more housing for the elderly and there is most definitely a need for CCRCs. The important hurdle to overcome is finding a suitable way of conveying this to residents, NIMBYs and stakeholders alike.
Prejudice and misinformation- Whether it is the local newspaper, NIMBYs or politicians that allow prejudice to throw a ‘spanner in the works’ for developers is debatable. Regardless, it seems that retirement homes have been tarnished with the same brush as a housing development. The important message to get across is that CCRCs will not generate extra traffic in peak hours, nor will they place any burden on the schools in the area. In reality CCRCs will more often than not have their own bus service and residents will use local shops and facilities.
So, how do we overcome these hurdles, is there a way of dealing with NIMBYs and compromising our way to a ‘happy ending’? Fortunately, there are different ways of dealing with residents and stakeholders, each requiring a bespoke approach set against general principles:
It is an easy and common mistake to make, to leave consultation and stakeholder engagement until it is too late. We would always advise clients to consult early and thoroughly. This means that a parallel approach should be adopted: on the one side local authority officers should be consulted and on the other side relevant stakeholders are brought up to speed with the proposals early on, when they still feel that they can have an impact. Most importantly, consulting early allows for all parties to get the correct facts, avoids misinformation and heads off any complaints by opponents that they were ignored or heard about this ‘through the grapevine’. Furthermore, early consultation benefits the developer by allowing him or her to get an idea of local issues they need to be aware of. A clear demonstration of this is a site that we worked on recently where it became clear that the officers and councillors had different priorities, had we not adopted a parallel approach, we would have been in for a surprise at committee!
A stakeholder is anyone who may be affected, beneficially or otherwise, by an organisation’s activities. The first thing to do is ‘map’ them; who they are, what their interests are and their background etc. More often than not, a stakeholder will just welcome the opportunity to be involved and not actually raise too many issues. This is key, for the simple reason that no one wants an application to go to planning committee and hear the members arguing that no one has been consulted. And if you had given them the chance they would have told you what is wrong with the proposals, giving you enough time to rectify the plans, saving you money, time and reputation with the committee and appear ‘open’ and ‘consultative’. As a direct result of consulting early, stakeholders will respond positively.
Almost every developer will have experience of the standard public exhibition, inviting the public to look at and comment on the thought-out planning proposals. There are other ways too, and far from being a hindrance, public consultation can save the developer a great deal of time and money in the long term. This doesn’t mean that you can get away with a hastily produced glossy A5 flyer- it will cut little ice with the planning committee or highly cynical opposition who will quickly refer to the consultation as a token effort. Each project is different and needs a mix of strategies. For example, it is easy to forget how to include the ‘silent majority’, these are the people who are less likely to attend the public exhibition or respond to adverts in the paper.
However, they are often the people who are actually in favour of the proposals or at least have a balanced view. Our advice is to always put these at the head of the consultation and gauge their views by street-stalls on a Saturday, door-to-door surveying, school surveys or business surveys. This approach has worked time and time again when dealing with CCRC applications as residents have happily signed support cards and we have been able to demonstrate to the planning committee the wider (silent!) support for the proposals. After all, politicians who make the decisions on planning committee are heavily influenced by the people who shout the loudest.
One example is an application for a retirement home in a small village that we worked on recently. The whole village of 120 residents was surveyed, out of which 80% signed support cards. This response was contrary to the views of the ward councillor who was adamant her residents were against the proposals!
Going for the win- win situation
As part of the ‘strategy’ in approaching residents it is important to uncover ‘win-win’ situations. For example, a small shop, as part of a CCRC, increased transport links, or a communal space that will be to the benefit of the community as a whole- these types of wider benefits can prove important in getting the support of the residents who initially struggle with the ‘What’s In It For Me’ factor.
Proper, well thought-out and strategic consultation, not to mention effective engagement with relevant stakeholders, is vital and can dramatically increase the chances of achieving project success.
Finally, one has to realise that every project comes with risks, it is all about how you best minimise these and mobilise the support of the wider community. Surely, the first waves of NIMBYs are approaching retirement themselves.
Erika Bugnar is with Green Issues Communications, a political planning specialist.