Is majority opinion being drowned out by the vocal minority?
North Yorkshire County Council’s decision to approve an application for fracking has received extensive coverage in the national media. Most of the reporting on the decision to grant approval for the application has prominently featured the chanting and heckles by the anti-fracking activists who gathered outside the County Hall in Northallerton. The Guardian’s report led with a quote from a campaigner who described the decision as “a declaration of war”, while the headline on the Huffington Post mentioned the protestors who chanted “shame on you” outside the committee. The (mostly) reasoned and considered debate that took place inside the Council’s meeting room was hardly mentioned.
The recent coverage of the fracking decision highlights one of the most frustrating truths of public engagement: those who disrupt, shout and heckle get greater attention and coverage of their opinions than those who do not. For example, a public meeting might be attended by 99 open-minded people with a diverse range of priorities and opinions, but one person who heckles and is disruptive can dominate the way the meeting is reported, even if their views are completely unrepresentative of the others in the room.
This is what happened with the fracking debate in North Yorkshire. Most of the coverage made no reference to the three and a half hours of contributions from supporters during the meeting, which included experts, technical consultants and local business owners. One supportive local even questioned how many of the protestors were actually from the area.
The challenge facing those who undertake public engagement is to ensure that the voices of the ‘silent majority’ are not drowned out by the vocal minority who shout the loudest. This is particularly important in the planning sector, where supporters of development can feel intimidated and pressured by strong opponents. At MPC, engaging this silent majority is a key aspect of our work.
In March 2015, working with housing charity Shelter, we published research that demonstrated that supporters of local housebuilding outnumber opponents by a 5:3 ratio. Despite this, the research found that opponents are three times more likely to become actively involved in the planning process than supporters.
Giving a voice to the silent majority who support development must be a key aim of anyone running a public consultation. Only then will we have a planning system that truly reflect communities’ views, not just those who shout the loudest.
If you would like to discuss how MPC can assist your work, please call 01225 422243 to talk to a member of the team.
This article was written by Account Executive Richard Parry