It’s always a Leap of Faith: Reflections on a ‘successful’ deliberative process that never delivered

Max Hardy (Max Hardy Consulting) and Anna Kelderman (Shape Urban)

Designing and facilitating deliberative engagement processes have been among our most satisfying professional experiences, though they don’t always come to plan. Several years ago, we teamed up to work on a very challenging project to create a new planning strategy that identifies increased infill development areas with the City of Bayswater.

The Project

The challenge related to the scale, form and location of increased infill/residential development (more higher density dwellings) in a significantly diverse suburban municipality. The City was facing growing opposition about the changing character of the municipality from those in the inner areas, whilst the outer areas were largely unaware of the controversy. Notwithstanding, the growing population was expected to spread across the municipality, and the housing market responded in ways that not everyone was thrilled about (though not all were opposed, or indeed even knew it was happening).

Shape Urban worked with Max Hardy Consulting to help design and facilitate a deliberative engagement process that asked community members how Bayswater could best accommodate inevitable growth and retain valued characteristics of the Municipality. To do this, a randomised panel of 35 residents was recruited by Deliberately Engaging. Though there was such an enthusiastic response for participation that additional opportunities had to be offered to those who missed out. Those not selected for the panel contributed their thoughts via the Synthetron platform (thanks to Deliberately Engaging) and this information was fed back to the panel.

The deliberative process itself ran very smoothly. The typical benefits of the process were aplenty; participants appreciated the challenges of accommodating growth; they realised growth was inevitable and Council could not prevent it; they also saw the pros and cons of different kinds of development and the perils of not having a planning framework to guide it.

Wise recommendations were provided. Council was pleased with the alignment and supported a planning approach drawing heavily on their recommendations. It was a breakthrough for Council and the community, who had become quite sceptical about anything called ‘community engagement’.

What comes after a great project outcome?

A few months after the community-informed plan was adopted, Council was progressing implementation of one of the agreed infill areas (Meltham) until the City was advised by the Water Corporation that the infrastructure was inadequate to support intense development. It would be too expensive to retrofit and much easier to provide new infrastructure to support greenfield development.

Despite the area meeting all of the State-sanctioned policy directions of infill in station precincts and the intention for the site to be endorsed through further focused engagement, it all fell apart once statutory decision-makers were required to issue a formal approval.  

Much more detail could be included here, but how might this have been prevented?

Reflections on what happened

Long-term strategic planning is the logical process undertaken to lead the long-term planning of supporting infrastructure. The Local Planning Strategy is there to guide both what citizens can expect to see in future development and what supporting agencies need to do to prepare for it.

The Local Planning Strategy work followed the state planning principles for infill development. No issues were expected in delivering the plan over a 20–40-year time frame. The City, and the consulting team, had no reason to believe this would be a problem. It is not as if this was overlooked. The team believed that the strategy recommendations would be a guide for the community and service agencies.

So, this brings us to an ethical dilemma. As practitioners, we do our level best to ensure that the promise of ultimate decision-makers is genuine. Having been satisfied about the City’s commitment, we reassured community participants their efforts would be worthwhile, and likely to be influential and valued. They put in over 20 hours of their time. They went above and beyond. They set aside their scepticism, jumped into the task ad delivered very wise recommendations. And unfortunately, it all appears to have resulted in…nothing (or at least for Meltham).

So, how confident can we ever be that the efforts of community members will be worth it? Are there other things we can offer like capacity building or resumé support that could help ensure the process is worthwhile for participants independent of the ultimate outcome?

And to what extent should we put effort into gaining iron-clad guarantees from all those who have a stake in a process? Does everything from every entity need to be put in writing first? What delays are we likely to encounter given the reluctance of water and energy authorities generally to make commitments until a fully developed proposal is put to them?

For us, it’s a reminder that doing community engagement, including deliberative engagement, is a leap of faith. Can we ever truly promise it will be worth the effort?

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