Closing the perception gap to accelerate waste planning

When it comes to extending existing waste sites or building new ones, developments often get held up in the planning system thanks to public perception, but this can be changed with the right approaches as 52M's Lee Petts explains.

 

Waste sites: dirty, noisy, smelly and dangerous. I think it's fair to say that this is how most people probably view them which is why they're not eager to live near them and typically oppose plans for new ones or making existing ones bigger.

To a degree, this perception will be born out of the past portrayal of landfill sites and 1970s incinerators belching black smoke into the sky, and then made worse by news stories of fridge mountains, illegal waste dumps, pollution incidents and fires and explosions - all of which are amplified on social media nowadays.

As waste professionals know, these perceptions don't typically match the reality, but that hardly matters: perception becomes the reality.

When it comes to planning applications, there are two dimensions to stakeholder perception that are key: firstly, there is the way in which the public actually perceive your plans, and then, secondly, there is the way in which local authority decision-makers perceive public perception.

If elected Members of the local Waste and Minerals Planning Authority (MPA) develop the view that the voting public are significantly opposed to your plans, then it will inevitably make them more circumspect and could tip the balance in favour of refusing you the permissions you seek - even if their planning officers have recommended approval.

So, what can you do to overcome this twin threat of public and decision-maker perception?

Firstly, keep building-up 'reputational capital'. Make sure you regularly secure positive publicity about your business and its achievements, especially in relation to awards for safety and environmental good practice. By doing this, consistently, you can ensure that your most important stakeholders can see you have a proven track record of performance, that you're a safe pair of hands and a good neighbour. This is a crucial element of gaining the so-called 'social licence to operate' and will help reduce the number of project objections registered with decision-makers.But don't 'greenwash' - make sure the stories you tell are real and substantive.

Secondly, engage in early and meaningful conversation with potentially affected residents and neighbouring businesses if you start to think about developing a new facility or want to extend an existing one in their community. Steer clear of box-ticking approaches just to demonstrate to decision-makers that you've discharged your obligations to publicly consult on your plans, and actually give people and businesses a genuine chance to shape your plans instead. This way, you can help to ensure that any objections are related to genuine concerns and material planning considerations rather than the fact you didn't engage well enough.

And, thirdly, try to lift your plans off the page when it comes to submitting your planning application so that decision-makers can better see for themselves what it will be like.  Planning applications are necessarily technical but that doesn't mean they have to be prosaic and that you can't get creative - instead of just a location drawing showing the boundary of your development outlined in red, you could get some aerial drone photos and maybe even video to show it in proper context. If you have an existing site, it can be especially advantageous to supply photos and videos that decision-makers can view to get a sense of scale, proportion and any impact that growth might have on your neighbours. If you can, invite the elected Members that will decide your application to come and visit your site.

If you do these three things together and well, you can significantly improve your chances of achieving a positive local planning decision which is better for you, the communities you operate in and local decision-makers.

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