Fast-track planning must not come at the expense of genuine community consultation

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Last month's announcement in the Budget of reforms to planning regulations so that applications cost less and take less time to process will be welcomed by those in the industry who have often been frustrated in their past efforts to develop sustainable projects.

Planning Minister Greg Clark announced that the government will "introduce a new presumption in favour of sustainable development, so that the default answer to development is ‘yes'". On that basis it is welcomed by our team at Green Energy Parks. As a nation we need to develop our renewable infrastructure and fast.

There is a danger, though, that others could take this to mean that community feedback and engagement will mean less than ever to planners and developers. We firmly believe that, if the public is to be convinced of the essential need for more renewable developments in the UK, it is crucial that developers do not see these planning reforms as a short cut to foregoing community consultations and trampling over the concerns of local people.

Moreover, in-depth, detailed community engagement is - we believe - in the interests of any project seeking planning consent, to harness the support of the local population at the early stages so as to work together effectively in the long term.

Our experience in the case of EnergyPark Peterborough was that, through extensive consultation, the public's initial perception of our project as a faceless industrial development was utterly transformed within the space of a year. Members from the local community who were opposed to our project ended up changing their views and began to see the proposal in terms of the many benefits it would bring for the wider community.

Of course, this process required significant investments of time and effort, both from ourselves and from members of the public, but it has proved to be an extremely worthwhile exercise and relations with the Peterborough community are now stronger than ever.

We have always been determined to listen to people's concerns and engage with their interests - at whatever level they are pitched. Our belief has always been that local feedback allowed us to put forward an application for EnergyPark Peterborough that the community had contributed to and felt some ownership of.

Of course, promises to improve communities can be seen as empty rhetoric if developers are not willing to invest sufficient time and resources. At EnergyPark Peterborough, we are establishing a community fund to spend £300,000 over 15 years on developing local projects and services.

The spending of this capital will be directed by our Community Cohesion Committee, consisting of members who represent local businesses and residents. The Committee welcomes funding applications from locals and groups, and provides another fantastic point of contact between ourselves and local stakeholders.

This inclusive approach to community funding ensures that we are able to share our successes with local stakeholders, as laid out in the Operations and Maintenance Agreement for EnergyPark Peterborough. Whilst ours is far from a definitive model, it does demonstrate that community dividends should be a concern of all of us in the sector.

With projects such as EnergyPark Peterborough, successful community engagement goes far further than the cynical perception of merely hushing up residents' complaints in order to rush through the planning permission process.

The fact is that our EnergyPark will have real and tangible benefits for local people, whether that be through job creation, investment into the local economy, or the creation of a Research and Development Centre - working with Cranfield University - on the EnergyPark site itself. This is far more than a mere exercise in spin.

The bottom line, then, is that developers must have empathy and a commitment to their host communities at all times if they are to take full advantage of the latest planning reforms. We must see the government's motivation behind the reforms as intended to clear the backlog of applications and cut down on bureaucracy.

Yet crucially, they must not be seen as an excuse for sustainable developers to lose the ‘common touch' or aggravate resentment from individuals and local groups who could otherwise profit hugely from many of the proposed developments.

Helen Rome is a Director of EnergyPark Peterborough, a subsidiary of Green Energy Parks.

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