It’s time for a conversation

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I’m always fascinated to observe community action over issues of importance.  Community activism and lobbying is usually a text book case of a frustrated community who isn’t being heard, no matter how loud they shout.  So they have to shout louder.  And louder.  But is anyone listening?

I’ll use an example from within my local community but will hand over to wine guru (consequently a god in my eyes), James Halliday for an explanation:

“The McLaren Vale Grape Wine & Tourism Association is understandably up in arms about a proposal for South Australia’s largest home builder – Fairmont Homes – to convert 77 hectares of a total of 177 ha presently used for cereal crops into high density urban housing and the usual supermarket/warehouse/Bunnings-type shopping centres. Phase 1 would see 1200 dwellings and 2500 residents, Phase 2 yet to be disclosed. Curiously, indeed astonishingly, none of the many hundreds of pages of planning documents include any use of the key words ‘tourism, grape, food, and or wine industry’. At no point in the entire process was the community consulted about any of the decisions relating to the planning process until the obligatory ‘community consultation’ period at the end of planning. Indeed the community was not notified of the consultation period, and became aware of it two days before the closing of the process.”  Read more at The Tentacles of Urban Sprawl, James Halliday, 21 September 2010

I’ll confess to not knowing all of the facts about the issue in question but know for certain that there is an angry community (in fact, several angry communities in relation to various ‘urban sprawl’ threats in South Australia at the moment) who feel that they haven’t been consulted.  And if there was a consultation process, no one told them about it or gave them reasonable time to provide submissions.  As we so often see, consultation processes regularly expect members of the public to provide formal written submissions in response to hefty documents without clear information as to what is negotiable, what isn’t negotiable, and so on.  It’s often a complicated process that only the hardened and well resourced community member participates in, and even then it requires a decent amount of time to pull something together.

The concerned community is passionate about this topic.  It’s important to them and they won’t back down.  Their concern is not just the specific housing development in question but to quote local businessman James Hook, “Our region needs proper planning, not a system of sprawl out and build services later” .  With the use of social media on their side, I remain regularly updated of the protest plans through pages such as ‘We Oppose Seaford Heights’ and ‘Stop Urban Sprawl – Mount Barker’ (with collectively over 1000 fans, and they are just the groups I’m aware of) and the more they are ignored, the louder and more angry these communities get.

There is growing debate within the South Australian community in relation to population growth and the impact this will have on urban development and infrastructure.  But at the moment any discussions happening within Government are happening very separately to those happening in the community.  The longer there is that divide, the less healthy the relationship between Government and community becomes.  The less healthy that relationship, the less likely that sound, informed decisions are made.  It’s a situation without a happy ending for anyone.

The solution?  As simple as it sounds, I believe that a conversation is needed.  Imagine a Government that opened up the opportunity for some healthy dialogue and deliberation not just between them and the community, but between the community themselves.  But most importantly, a Government that strives to reach the broad community to invite them in to the conversation; provides straightforward, timely and safe spaces for healthy debate and consultation; actively listens and takes on board the issues and topics they hear from the community insight; and transparently makes decisions that are based on the conversation that has taken place.  This is no easy feat and would need careful coordination and very thorough planning but with the right commitment, could certainly be achievable.

It’s a simple and very ancient philosophy on which I base all of my work in community engagement:  Tell me I forget, Show me I remember, Involve me I understand.  Confucius 450BC.

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