“Making the most of the Islands”- an example from the Isles of Scilly
The Isles of Scilly are beautiful islands that lie 28 miles off the Cornish Coast.
Steeped in legends and history the 200 small islands and granite rocks form a magical place with sparkling white beaches, azure seas, abundant wildlife, small fields, stone cottages, clear skies, and stunning views.
The idyllic landscape and unspoilt feel masks some real challenges that either directly or indirectly impact the natural beauty of the place, for example:
- A decline in the once thriving flower farming is leading to unused farm land opportunities to diversify the economy are constrained by the high cost of transporting goods to and from the mainland
- Open heathland has remained ungrazed to the detriment of wildlife and archaeology
- Sea level rise poses unknown threats to this already drowned landscape
- Visitors bring with them a thriving tourist economy but also impact on the sensitive landscape
- Second home ownership and affluent incomers mean house prices are beyond the reach of many local people Old farm buildings and stone walls are falling into disrepair because of changes in land use and loss of traditional skills
The community of about 2000 live on just 5 of the islands. During the year over 130,000 people come to the islands for day visits or to stay awhile. But these people are referred to as ‘visitors’, not tourists, and this conveys the warmth and welcome they receive.
The feel of the place is that older values still hold sway. There is a strong, close-knit community and people are friendly and open. They are also outspoken and independent and don’t suffer ‘interfering mainlanders’ gladly. There is a strong sense of history and gradations of belonging from Scillonian (‘3 generations under the sod’) to islanders (born on Scilly) to resident and then visitor.
Some members of the community are go- ahead and innovative wanting change that brings a new vitality to the islands, broadens the economic base and provides jobs for local people. Others are concerned that change could threaten the aspects of Island life that everyone values most. The challenge is to find a way forward that retains the best of Island life whilst bringing sensitive and carefully managed change.
In 2001 the Officer held open ‘surgeries’ on each inhabitant island to collect views from residents and visitors. This showed the complexity of the task and the range of views and ideas that would need to be integrated. To add to the challenge there was only one and a half staff in the AONB unit and a tight statutory deadline.
It was decided that a consultant was needed to design and run a process that would help people agree the contents of the AONB Plan. Funding was available and although the timetable was tight there was just about enough time to run a participatory process – although in hindsight not enough time was available to ensure all key people fully understood and supported the approach. The process was called ‘Making the Most of the Islands’
A facilitated participatory process is a very different way of making decisions:
- More people have a say
- No organisation or individual has a veto Values and perceptions influence the outcome as well as factual knowledge Events involve facilitators and participation tools and techniques.
- Workloads can be unpredictable
- The outcome is open
Before launching into a participatory process it is important that key people (partner organisations and internal management) understand the benefits of facilitated dialogue, how it works, what it will be like, and that they agree this is the approach they want to use.
The process manager will want to see this agreement and get a mandate to facilitate. They will want to be sure that stakeholders are being respected and given a real say in the decisions. They will also want to know that the staff leading the project are supported in what will be a demanding process.
Once the decision has been made to go ahead the process manager will usually want to set up a core group of key people from the lead organisations to share responsibility and advise on the process as it goes along.
Experience suggests senior management and specialist experts are often most likely to find the whole approach challenging. Senior managers are used to directing activities, making swift decisions and taking a lead role. Experts are used to giving advice that is acted on. Sharing decisions and exploring options with other stakeholders may feel frustrating. Also, without understanding why they are used and how they work, the tools and techniques of facilitation may seem a bit like game playing – unnecessary and too informal for serious issues. So it is important that key people build understanding about how it works and consensus about using a consensus building approach!
In the end the real test of a good stakeholder process is the momentum and co-operation created for implementation. Unlike traditional consultation this does not have to wait for the document to go through several drafts and be printed. Implementation can and usually does begin as soon as wide agreement and support for a particular action is evident.
The stakeholder feedback for Scilly on the action plan indicated a good level of support along with offers of resources and help for implementation.
The AONB Officer reports that there is already increased participation and interest in projects that are underway and progress in implementing the action plan is encouraging.
Stakeholder dialogue is good practice amongst participation approaches. It has many distinct advantages over traditional consultation.
The majority of stakeholders appreciate being involved and feel they have been able to influence the future. The process builds better understanding and more trust.
To achieve all this requires a skilfully designed process, good planning, and adaptability by both the process manager and the lead organisations sponsoring the process.