Andrew Weaver of Copper Consultancy, explains how the Covid-19 pandemic has reshaped how we plan and construct new rail infrastructure

When it comes to stakeholder and community engagement, it has become increasingly challenging for projects to communicate meaningfully with their local people and organisations. Andrew Weaver, Director of Infrastructure at Copper Consultancy, explains how rail schemes have to adapt to the new reality of engagement.

Nationwide social distancing and lockdown measures have transformed how we approach the construction of new infrastructure. From new social distancing measures on site to just getting the right people in a room to solve everyday challenges, we’ve all needed to adapt to a ‘new normal’ for the time being.

This is especially true when attempting to engage or influence local communities and stakeholders. Pre-Covid, we could face-to-face events in town halls and community centres to secure the feedback we need to shape a scheme and explain local benefits, now projects are left with a very different set of options to talk with people affected by current or upcoming works.

Failing to adapt to this new way of communicating could have significant and far-reaching consequences. If developers aren’t able to tell the story about their projects properly, as well as listen and respond to local feedback, local people could become disgruntled at best, or protestors at worst. The reason is simple: communities start to feel that infrastructure is being ‘done to them’ rather than ‘done for them’.

Overcoming this challenge this needs developers to combine the evergreen building blocks of successful engagement with the lessons learned throughout the course of social distancing measures.

Accelerate the pace of digital transformation

Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) tells us that of those who worked from home this year, 86 per cent did so because of the pandemic. At the height of lockdown 46.6 per cent of the UK population worked exclusively from home, with many being under strict guidance to refrain from leaving the house. When everyone becomes a ‘hard to reach stakeholder’, we need to be more targeted and strategic to ensure people hear from us and we hear from them.

The best way to achieve this is to employ future-facing digital engagement tools to target your communications, raise awareness among a greater audience and encourage people towards a specific call to action.

There are a wide variety of toolkits available so look to adopt a platform that best meets your specific needs. The best options will enable you to take an intelligent approach to engagement, showing real-time interactions with key stakeholders and providing insights to ensure you can tweak your approach as required.

We know that with an inherently complex industry like ours, there have been and will always be challenges when approaching digital transformation. Thankfully, throughout the pandemic the Government through the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) has provided regular advice about how to approach compliant engagement. PINS has encouraged the use of social media, website updates and online news sites, alongside more traditional media of newspaper adverts and letter drops. While traditional media is still here to stay, relying more on short, regular updates with your stakeholders will prove invaluable during planning and construction both during and after lockdown measures are eased.

Show your investment in local communities

Communities want to be a part of the bigger picture and feel that they are directly involved with new infrastructure. Ownership of a project, particularly projects which will have a significant impact on the local community such as the construction of a new railway station, is important for stakeholders to buy into as well as understand how it will benefit them directly. Transport developers can achieve this by creating opportunities for communities to contribute to the benefits they want to see and delivering mechanisms for feedback and suggestions. These measures ensure that stakeholders feel valued and listened to.

It also helps to bridge the mental gap between ‘a’ project and ‘this’ project, giving individuals ownership of project benefits and earning public buy-in. Looking to your digital toolkit, online seminars, virtual consultation events and responsive social media accounts go a long way to providing this.

There are also things developers can do on the ground. HS2 is taking a strong lead in this regard through its Community and Business Funds. By giving back to communities that are disrupted during the construction of the new railway, they are showing a commitment to the people they interact with on a daily basis. By offering local groups the chance to request funding for specific community projects, they are also offering a real sense of ownership to those benefiting from the funds.

Make it mean something for local people

Developers can sometimes make the mistake of focusing on the national importance of a project, such as how it addresses policy commitments or similar. However, this can often leave local people out in the cold. They don’t care about how it supports international trade growth; what will it mean for them?

Local communities need to understand how projects will work and affect them, as well as feel a sense of ownership of the project. After all, once construction is over, they will be the people living alongside it.

Therefore, developers should begin by telling the local story and what it means for the communities impacted by development. How many jobs will be created? Will it make local journeys easier? Will it make the way they interact with their towns more seamless or interesting? By describing tangible benefits, developers can sell a vision for local people to latch onto. This in turn can go some way to creating grass-root advocacy that influences decision makers, the media and local people near work sites.

The reality of communications and engagement has shifted. Face-to-face engagements will return, in time. In the meantime, the rail industry has an opportunity to reinvent itself as a forward-thinking, adaptive sector that is spearheading communicative change in the infrastructure sector.

About Copper

Copper was established to build understanding, enable engagement and forge consensus. Specialising in the development of economic and social infrastructure, Copper works with some of the largest organisations in the UK, and on some of the most contentious projects, helping to explain their benefits, build understanding and create advocacy. We work by building a deep understanding of the challenges facing organisations, marrying them up with insight and empathy for the people affected. We deliver campaigns that build acceptance and excitement around the world of infrastructure and development, communicating complex concepts, often in challenging political, social and environmental situations, to enable positive change and ground-breaking development.

Andrew Weaver blends his professional grounding in planning with an understanding of politics and the use of compelling narratives to communicate complex issues to wide and varied audiences. He is instrumental to Copper’s growing transport portfolio, delivering strategies for road schemes across the UK. He led National Grid’s Hinkley Point C Connection – a 60-kilometre linear project in South West England incorporating rural and urban communities and a wide range of environmental issues. The project was one of the first to encounter the NSIP planning regime and he helped overcome the issues and challenges this presented.