Communities want detailed answers on infrastructure: AFR, 11 October

The Australian Financial Review recently covered the Next Generation Engagement project’s pilot research findings and plans for next steps. 

Australian Financial Review, 11 October 2017

BYLINE: Jenny Wiggins

SECTION: COMPANIES AND MARKETS; Pg. 18

Controversial infrastructure projects such as Sydney’s WestConnex motorway and Perth’s abandoned Freight Link could reduce costs if planners spent more time asking communities what they wanted, according to University of Melbourne researchers.

More than $20 billion of Australian infrastructure projects have been cancelled, delayed or mothballed in the past decade due to community opposition, including Melbourne’s East West Link toll road and the Perth Freight Link – both dumped – and the Gold Cost desalination plant, which has been idle most of the time since it was opened in 2010. Scrapping East West Link cost Victoria almost $1 billion.

The University of Melbourne’s Next Generation Engagement project, which aims to improve community interaction on infrastructure projects, has called for the development of evidence-based tools to quantify the impact of engagement, including on financial costs.

“We don’t have an accurate method to price social risk,” said Kirsty O’Connell, the project’s industry director.

Communities are increasingly demanding to be engaged in projects’ development and design, and are far more sophisticated than they were 20 years ago, Ms O’Connell said.

“People do understand planning, they do understand project delivery and they want really detailed answers.” Sydney’s WestConnex motorway is among projects hit with protests and lawsuits as communities try to prevent the toll road from being built. Residents’ group Rozelle Against WestConnex has called the Sydney toll road “wasteful, harmful and ill-conceived”.

Dr Sara Bice, Next Generation’s research director, said projects often did not bring in community engagement experts until it was too late and they were under attack. Communities should be engaged far earlier, during the planning phase and preparation of business cases, where they could help improve projects, she said.

Ms O’Connell, who led communications and engagement during concept development for the federal government’s $10 billion Inland Rail project, said meetings with farmers and experts in land and water management had been useful in developing flood maps.

“That was a really important aspect in helping to de-risk that project and helping to understand what locals knew because often their knowledge was superior to what was held in a physical record,” she said.

Next Generation wants to set up an international research centre to examine the value of community engagement; how to encourage professionalisation; how to measure social risk and the costs of community opposition; best timing and approaches; and the role of regulation and policy.

Dr Bice said other countries were also beginning to examine the merits of community engagement. They include China, which has become more concerned about the environmental risks of infrastructure projects due to severe pollution and wants to understand the best contracting methods for public-private partnerships.

Next Generation is already working with Beijing’s University of Tsinghua, which co-sponsors a centre for public-private partnership, on collaborative case studies.

The Singapore-based EDHEC Infrastructure Institute, which collects infrastructure investment data, is also interested in collaborating.

Next Generation has published an initial report on its research priorities and has opened it to public comment before a final report in November.

Industry had backed the project because it acknowledged a cost associated with community conflict and was looking for tools to improve engagement, Ms O’Connell said.

This story was originally published in The Australian Financial Review.