Governments promoting major projects could reduce anxiety and criticism in impacted communities by adopting a more strategic approach to assessment and approval processes.
A key issue is that governments are often committed to a project well before these consultation procedures are undertaken, yet the community expects that there will be no decision to proceed until this is all completed.
The approvals stage of a project, where environmental and community impacts are assessed and attempts to mitigate them are made, can impact design and routes, blow out costs and change procurement.
This is a key risk that needs to be managed halfway through the process from idea to action, says Patrick Ibbotson, Maddocks partner and sector leader for the firm’s NSW government practice.“Consideration needs to be given to more assessment and community engagement …”
“There is a fiction in the legislation that the decision to proceed with the project follows the assessment and approval process,” he said. “Really at that [approvals] stage with most projects, it’s a done deal. Government has committed, it has taken it to an election and said ‘we want to do this’, or the minister has stood on the field where the project is going to go and hammered in a sign or dug something and said ‘we’re on the way with this’.
“So there’s a lot of commitment to the project already.” The next step is mitigation not a “go-or-no-go decision”.
However, while governments must lead and advocate for new projects, there is a catch-22. Committing early without assessments of impacts leads to criticism. Not committing looks weak and making changes is characterised as a “backflip”.
So how can a well meaning government make infrastructure plans that are well received, and stick? Ibbotson says one approach is to think more strategically through the order in which project plans are made.
“If you don’t get the strategy right, if you don’t get the scoping and planning right, then you’re not going to get the assessment and procurement right. Consideration needs to be given to more assessment and community engagement at the early planning and scoping stages of the project,” he said.
Consider a hypothetical project: a new road that could be useful to the community, allowing traffic to better flow through the city, but construction costs make it so expensive that its benefit to cost ratio is below 1:1.
“You might be able to change the scope of the project, so that you do a bit less, or you might be able to stage it so you don’t do it all at once,” Ibbotson said.
“You might be able to do more, and say ‘well, if we add an extra kilometre this will get these extra benefits’,” he says, adding that it could be a key point to start engaging more formally with the community.
The problem is acute for local government as well. Maddocks recently collaborated with local governments to write a how-to guide on major project delivery tailored to their needs.
The Major Projects Guidance for Local Government details a strategy from initial idea to constructing and validating a business case, then selecting proper procurement, tendering and on to assessment and delivery. Crucially, the document lists many stages where the authority should rethink, delay or abandon a project if the conditions are not right to process. It states:
“Budgetary pressures and ever increasing community expectations mean that projects need to be planned and delivered more effectively and efficiently than ever before.
“Councils are looking for value for money in overall project solutions as well as the transaction costs of developing a project.”
The document guards against being seen as a one-size-fits-all approach, but looks to provide knowledge to “approach the planning and implementation of projects in a structured manner, and ensure that resources are applied efficiently”.
Ibbotson says it would be better to bring the consultation forward with “a more strategic assessment” that looks at community concerns first. “Bring that forward into the strategic assessment rather than have it halfway through,” he said.
“When there’s community consultation the community feels a bit cynical about that, there’s scepticism about the process.”
Using the hypothetical road project mentioned earlier, government roads organisations will schedule works according to their own plans that don’t generally draw media attention. Therefore they are less a target of community backlash, and can be scheduled more fluidly as priorities change, but engage with expected community needs early in the process. Ibbotson says this is a much more favourable approach.
“They have plans stretching out over a number of years of which roads they’re going to upgrade and main roads they’re going to build, and planned based primarily on operational and financial constraints, and that needs to be the way it is,” he said.
“The planning system on those projects works quite well because they know that before they build those projects they have to go away and do their assessment.
“Essentially the decision that they want to build it has been made, and the planning and assessment process is the last check to make sure there is not going to be any unacceptable impact before they go and do it.”
Patrick Ibbotson is Maddocks partner and sector leader for the firm’s NSW government practice. He has specialised in development and environmental issues since 1988 and has worked extensively with infrastructure and redevelopment projects across Commonwealth, state and local government agencies.
Written by: Dan Moss