Consultation and Engagement: Managing reputation for SME developers

In the age of social media and hyper connectivity, reputation management and PR should be at the forefront of the mind for professionals involved in potentially controversial or sensitive projects. The planning and development industry is no exception. A major scandal can spread through Twitter like wildfire, and a reputation that has taken years to build up and maintain can be lost in minutes.

For developers, there are many reputational risks associated with bringing forward a planning application. You have all manner of issues that can cost you your reputation. From heritage to construction, politics to finances, you have to plan for much that can go wrong. I’m afraid I’m going to add another issue to that list: consultation and engagement.

For a new SME developer in the marketplace, it is absolutely crucial that you conduct community engagement and public consultation processes in the right way. Take it from us, those that shirk the responsibility of appropriately engaging with the local community will suffer further down the line as you start to cultivate a Google Search news story feed that is littered with negativity.

The risk of getting things wrong was highlighted most recently in the London Borough of Greenwich, where a developer at the larger end of the spectrum, Fairview New Homes, tried to shrug off complaints about the impact of its construction work on the site of its Synergy development in Charlton.

In a messy spat between local MP Matthew Pennycook and the Senior Site Manager, the developer it was shown the negative impact the development was leaving on residents was nothing more than a mere afterthought. Pennycook has since said he intends to name the developer on the floor of the House of Commons as an example of malpractice in the sector, which will leave a further, negative, digital footprint for the company. Fairview are lucky that they have a large portfolio of sites and a marketing budget that can offset the negative. Can the same be said of SME developers looking to make a name in the marketplace?

The case of Crescent Gardens in Harrogate paints a similar picture. The beautiful former headquarters of Harrogate Borough Council was all but set to be turned into a building of luxury flats, but is it now to be put back on the market after the contract to sell it to developer Adam Thorpe Property fell through.

This was in some part a result of the consultation process which had been criticised heavily throughout and the project team’s failure to articulate a narrative that appealed to local people. Chairman of the Harrogate Civic Society Henry Pankhurst commented “in my view it is an exhibition of plans rather than a public consultation”.

Another recent example is that of Alumno Group’s Painters Yard scheme – an application of more than 300 flats and a hotel on a derelict site in the heart of Colchester. In November 2018, campaigners camped out overnight to protest the plans for flats and a hotel, citing the scheme would harm the “cultural heritage” of the Painters Yard site, which is close to the town’s Roman wall. The camp out was attended by the local Conservative MP Will Quince.

The scheme was eventually rejected by Colchester Borough Council in March 2019 for reasons including perceived poor design and lack of public consultation, denting the reputation of Alumno Group in the process. And again, a negative digital footprint has been left by this scheme which it will have to overcome in the future.

When controversial news stories are published, they become instantly accessible to the wider public through a simple Google Search. When a developer buys a site in an area, what do you think the first thing residents and politicians do? Yes, they search them online. Negative stories increase the likelihood of obstruction from opposition groups and councillors, as no resident or politician wants to work with a developer who has a history of upsetting people. When formulating these objections, resident groups will often cite negative stories as a reason for opposition.

Thus, it is paramount that a reputation management strategy that anticipates risk and plans accordingly should sit front and centre of your approach to bringing forward a planning application. That is not to say however, that all events and crises that turn up throughout the planning and development processes can be insured against. But good preparation and practice generally make for good outcomes.

Zac Slater