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How this council turned its community engagement around

Water professional or not, it’s a rare person who wants a new wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) built in their backyard. But a growing population means new infrastructure has to be built, sparking debate and occasionally discontent within the community.

Logan City Council (LCC) in South East Queensland knows this tension better than most. As one of Australia’s fastest growing local government areas, two new WWTPs have been proposed in Logan over the past decade as a way to prepare for growth.

During a presentation at Ozwater’19 next month, representatives from LCC will discuss the radically different approaches they took to community engagement for the two different projects.

A newspaper from 19 October 2017 shows the community response to Logan City Council's proposal to built a wastewater treatment plant at Cedar Grove. A newspaper shows the community response to Logan City Council's proposal to built a wastewater treatment plant.

For example, LCC’s strategy with the first WWTP was to inform residents where it would be located. The result? Backlash from the community over the absence of consultation, particularly as those living next to the plant wouldn’t benefit from it; they were on septic systems.

“Residents found out about the location after a decision had already been made,” said Logan Water Infrastructure Alliance Community and Stakeholder Engagement Officer Tania Keelan.

“Council received some very strong messages from the community with regard to consultation, and that it should have occurred before the location was chosen.”

After experiencing the negative publicity and community protest surrounding the first WWTP, LCC was determined not to make the same mistake when it came to discussing the second treatment plant with residents eight years later.

In 2018 it went to the community with a new strategy that LCC Community Engagement Program Leader Tamara Weaver said was designed to show residents it was willing to listen.

“Historically, some councils have made decisions without really considering how they affect their residents,” Weaver said.

“At LCC, we are committed to our residents and making a difference in their lives, so we really want to engage with them, particularly around these big decisions.”

Rather than telling residents where the second WWTP would be located, LCC asked them what they thought should be considered when trying to find a location. It held information sessions and set up an online platform where community members could leave suggestions.

“We had every piece of information they could want online,” Weaver said.

“We over-informed them so they could make a really informed opinion and give us feedback about the best spot for this treatment plant.”  

Although the community was initially sceptical, Keelan said LCC was able to show people it had changed its approach.

“They had lost a bit of trust in the council and didn’t believe the site hadn’t already been chosen,” Keelan said.

“But by being honest and transparent, and asking for feedback on how the council should approach the selection process, we were able to build the trust back up again.”

Where the magic happens

Although community engagement can be difficult around topics like WWTPs, Weaver said it’s important to persist and remember the water industry is there to serve the community.

“Often we get so caught up in our deliverables that we forget about the person on the other end who our product is going to,” she said.

“Every engagement piece we do, we start to understand our community better.

“We might be the industry experts, but the residents are the residential experts and they have the pieces of gold you might not have thought of – that’s where the magic happens.”

She said the LCC team wanted to share their experiences at Ozwater’19 to put the spotlight on community engagement and highlight what the council got right the second time around.

“It’s not often that as organisations we go out and share our learnings on a national level to say, ‘We didn’t nail this the first time but look what we learnt and applied the second time around’,” Weaver said.

“We want to give people an opportunity to learn through what we didn’t quite do well the first time."

Learn more about how Logan City Council is working with its customers at Ozwater’19  in Melbourne on Wednesday 8 May. Click here to register.