Project: Hymers College Learning Resource Centre
Skills: PR, media relations, planning and running consultation, stakeholder engagement, social media management and monitoring
Developer: Wykeland Group
Some planning applications sail through – others are a scrap. Hymers’s fight to build a library was, at times, frustrating and infuriating, but it was ultimately successful.
Hymers College is one of the highest-achieving schools in the North. A fee-paying school, Hymers had the odd status as being the only school in the region without a library.
The independent college looked to fix that and – together with developer Wykeland and architects Jefferson Sheard – put together plans for a contemporary Learning Resource Centre (LRC).
The residents’ objections stemmed from the fact the three-storey LRC would replace the single-storey disused gymnasium, which sat between the residential Edwardian terrace and the college’s grand Victorian main building. The development would also see the removal of a number of mature trees (although more trees were planned to be added after the construction was complete).
The main points of objection were around the loss of light into the homes, the loss of mature trees, and claims the modern building was out of keeping with the late 19th – early 20th century aesthetic of the conservation area.
The resident’s association were very vocal and made their opposition clear early on in the planning stage. Expecting media interest, we followed key association members on social media. We did this to get a sense of what their claims to local media might be, so we could be ready to counter quickly with demonstrable facts.
Through social media, we were also able to track their activity and we attended all their public meetings so we could report back to the client and partners.
In a push to get wider support, the association circulated a scare-mongering letter around the local area. The letter made some claims that were “misleading” – and that’s describing its accuracy generously.
The number of trees being removed was inflated, but there was no mention of the new semi-mature trees that would be planted. According the letter, building work would start at 7.30am, seven days a week, whereas the contractors planned to work only during normal working hours.
The letter also suggested the construction of LRC would increase visitor numbers (not true) and would reduce parking (not true) leading to more students and visitors parking on the street (again, not true).
Our client was frustrated – dealing with objections is one thing, but having to counter wilful misinformation is quite another.
The association’s letter was out in the public domain so we advised acting quickly and decisively before local media picked up the story. To counter these claims, we drafted a letter on behalf of the college’s headmaster, got it approved, and we hand-delivered a copy to each house in the area.
The letter repeated each claim in the original letter and countered it with facts. We then went to the local media ourselves, so we could be in front of the story. It is so important to always be in control of the story.
We ran the public consultation – writing and designing the leaflets, A boards, and we even manned the sessions. We also monitored the local authority’s planning portal so we could see how many objections had been made. We countered these by approaching key figures in local business, industry and regeneration and persuaded them to submit letters of support for the LRC – sometimes going as far as ghost-writing the letters and sending them to them to sign.
The plans were passed, and Hymers LRC went on to win the prestigious School Library Association Inspiration Award in 2017