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People in Planning: Considering Consultation Content with Sally Hussey

Sally Hussey | Principal Writer and Editorial Director, Bang the Table

Can community influence the planning system? Sally Hussey looks at the critically overlooked aspect of consultation content in the new ebook, People in Planning: Considering Consultation Content and questions what should community involvement be in a planning consultation.

Two competing approaches have emerged in planning consultations. On the one hand, those structured around clearly defined subjects (where the community is asked focused questions that shape a planning application). On the other hand, local residents have a “blank piece of paper” to comment.

This is not to underdetermine barriers to community involvement in planning consultations – barriers that have led to a lack of public trust and confidence in the planning system, in the extreme. To be sure, engagement methods can be time consuming. Disinclination to engage or the sense of a “finite capacity” for engagement – so-called “consultation fatigue” – can also inhibit community involvement. Difficulty persists, too, around the concept of “community”, where people identify with multiple communities (residence, interest-based, ethnicity, cultural, political and so on).

Despite these hurdles, which can be common to engagement, barriers specific to planning can augment exclusion. Barriers to engagement in planning find exclusions from the planning process (engaging seldom heard groups, for instance) and exclusions in the planning system. Particularly where the system is considered inequitable, or there is a gap between the notion of community empowerment and community experience where attempts to influence proposals rarely change planning outcomes.

But there is also the widespread notion that consultation (or engagement) facilitates community’s ability to influence the planning system. Public consultation with community members and residents is expected to benefit proposals, mitigate any challenges the scheme may face when considered by a planning committee and, as such, increase the likelihood of planning consent. Yet, while some tensions are inevitable, where community and developer expectations vary this can fuel mistrust.

It can be argued that this lack of trust is underscored by the fact that planning is a characteristically complex and often contentious process. The balance struck between community involvement and the consistency and efficiency of the built environment (secure investment) can, then, be felt in the ability to reach decisions to achieve planning consent. The perceived chasm between community and developers (where residents prefer more engagement and developers less, or where anti-development sentiment is high, for instance) brings into question this fine balance: what should a community’s involvement be in a planning consultation?

What is consultation content?

In my latest ebook collaboration, consultant specialist and associate of the Consultation Institute (UK) Penny Norton redoubles this question through the notion of “consultation content”. For, she underscores, what’s the point in public consultation unless you know what you should be consulting on?

Here, she narrows the interface between the two approaches that have emerged in planning consultations through the lens of consultation content. “What is consultation content?” Norton asks, and, by way of clarification, hones in on its oft-overlooked crucial significance: “The subject matter, or topics that are consulted upon – probably the most important element of any planning consultation.” Where planning consultations suggest an overemphasis – indeed over organising – around the scope and methodology of planning, consultation content, by contrast, is rarely discussed. (Where scope covers the scale of the consultation – think geographical or demographic of consultees – methodology speaks to the approach used – exhibitions, online tools, face to face or blended engagement, for instance). Consultation content, on the other hand, speaks directly to the subject of and in the consultation.

Norton deftly charts the terrain between two competing approaches that have emerged in planning consultations. She questions what is the ideal content for consultation, what shapes it, and what should be included as she redirects critical attention to content. Indeed, public engagement is increasingly accepted as a way to modernise the planning system and democratise local decision-making. Norton points to this in the UK government’s recent consultation on the New Model Design Code in which “local residents would not only be consulted on elements within the Design Code, but on its content.”

In researching People in Planning, Norton interviewed practitioners and consultants across the industry in the UK in April this year. Norton, who has written definitive texts on best practice public consultation and community involvement in planning (Routledge, 2017) and most recently, as Editor, communicating construction (Routledge 2020) and promoting property (Routledge 2021), inflects her extensive experience across property, construction and regeneration as she steps through material planning considerations, viability, policy requirements and technical aspects. She brings together diverse views and insights from experts and professionals in development, planning, engineering, traffic as well as communications consultants.

She discusses benefits of local input as well as barriers. (In the area of affordable housing, for instance, where there is national and local policy disparity, there is limited scope for community voice despite the “local strength of feeling”). In exploring “contentious content” – for instance, transport and traffic schemes, where with technical engineering issues and lack of understanding can lead to antagonism – she reveals that in avoiding consultation on subjects of concern to local community, the fear of raising issues is in equal measure to fuelling activism.

Shaping the built environment today

Communities were provided an opportunity to shape the built environment with the introduction of Neighbourhood Planning in the UK in 2011, which facilitated local residents to create a shared vision for their neighbourhood. But questions around community involvement in planning are timely. The UK faces substantial changes to its planning system with the forthcoming introduction of a new Planning Bill, witnessing one of its most radical changes since 1948 (and largest overhauls of its planning system). While it is argued that the new planning laws are likely to, as an editorial in The Guardian put it, “demolish layers of local democracies”, empowerment of local communities and stakeholders is paramount in gaining public trust in the planning system. Proposed changes to the planning policy could drastically affect community involvement, not to mention the role of engagement and community well-being in the planning system more generally. (Indeed, the Queen’s speech, announced in May this year, failed to include a bill to improve the regulation of social housing despite a government White Paper in 2020.)

While involving local people in planning processes is essential if changes are to be a success in the UK, there is the unignorable reason that community engagement is critical in planning in Australia. The significance of this ebook, then, is in the question it raises for practitioners developing consultation strategies: ‘What content must the consultation address?’ ‘How might development teams approach consultation content more efficiently?’ And ‘how can community make a positive contribution to planning consultation?’

Cities are increasingly enmeshed by inequality. Not to mention the redoubled need to secure the built environment. With the imperilling, continued rise in carbon emissions brought about by urban environments, certain groups of society, moreover, are made un-equally vulnerable to climate instability. Existing inequalities – unaffordable housing, deep racial divisions – have been further accelerated by the COVID crisis, issues which I have explored in previous ebook collaborations on rethinking urban mobility and roadmaps towards community recovery.

With the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic in countries like the UK and Australia, infrastructure has become key to government economic restimulation with the acceleration of infrastructure projects. Coupled with the increased mandate for public participation globally, the importance of “consultation content” couldn’t be greater.

People in Planning: Considering Consultation Content is freely available to download here.

Sally HusseyAuthor Bio: Sally Hussey is a writer, researcher and lead editor who interrogates global challenges in public engagement and community consultation. She collaborates with world-leading experts to inform on-the-ground practitioners, public engagement professionals and the wider community on cutting-edge insights and analysis. Sally has an extensive background in the publishing, academic and arts sectors and is recognised by the Who’s Who of Australian Women.