When I was young and innocent and in my first job on a local paper, I was sent to a village meeting where residents engaged in intense and passionate debate about the impact of gravel extraction on the local community.
The story had everything: plucky local underdogs take on big bad multinational; legal machinations; and the inevitable conflict between environmental degradation and boosting the local economy. I filed my copy, a cameo of drama, tension and suspense. Opening the paper the following Friday, I found a brief couple of paragraphs under the heading 'Gravel row grinds on'. I learned my lesson.
A sense of perspective is as essential when dealing with local conflicts as malaria tablets if you're visiting somewhere tropical. That doesn't mean there aren't genuine hopes, fears and aspirations that need to be addressed. It's about being able to see the bigger picture and, just as vital, being able to explain that bigger picture to those who have legitimate reason to be mainly concerned about their own corner of it.
The latest row to hit the housing market renewal pathfinder in the Potteries is a case in point. Renew North Staffordshire has been accused of wasting money on environmental improvements in areas that will eventually be redeveloped. Councillors in other areas have argued, understandably, that money should be spent in their areas instead. That's what their voters expect them to do.
Renew, as validly, says it has to make choices and prioritise its activities. Absolutely. But that isn't the whole story.
Wise and intelligent decisions that are for the long-term good of an area are frequently taken in ways that may ignore, antagonise or demean those who object. Those who are good at developing strategies, analysing trends and implementing policies aren't always that effective at explaining their conclusions to people who may feel threatened or excluded.
That's why a key part of our drive to improve skills has to be to improve our ability to negotiate, communicate and listen. Particularly in large-scale projects, both practitioners and punters need to learn how to talk as equals before the trench warfare begins. A sense of perspective should be part of everybody's training.
Julian Dobson, editor
- New Start Online Online magazine