It’s become increasingly clear in recent years that local communities are becoming more engaged in the planning process, particularly where they feel passionate about individual sites or the impact of development in their areas. This doesn’t just mean old-school NIMBYism, but more a growing desire to have some influence or control over how ‘their’ areas develop. Most people will only engage in the planning system when it’s directly relevant to them when a pre-app or planning application is submitted for a site. For developers, this means the need for a more collaborative and flexible approach to consultation, from scheme inception right through to implementation, in order to engage and understand how communities feel and what they will and won’t accept.

The revised NPPF reaffirmed the need for development proposals to be shaped by ‘early, proportionate and effective engagement’. This means positive and effective consultation and discussions with local residents, communities, local organisations, businesses, statutory consultees and the Council from as early as possible and throughout the planning process.

Whilst we fundamentally agree with this approach and blogged about the importance of stakeholder consultation some time back, we’re always keen to learn how this part of the planning process is evolving. So having recently tuned into a really useful webinar hosted by The Planner Magazine to hear the latest on ‘Effective Engagement’, we thought we’d relay some of the advice provided by Sue Manns (Sue Manns Associates and pending RTPI Vice President for 2019), Martyn Evans (Common Place), Natalie Broughton (Hackney BC), Ross O’Cealliagh (Urban Initiatives Studio) and Craig Maclaren (RTPI Scotland).

What is Meant by ‘Effective’?

The NPPF offers little on this, so you need to think about how meaningful and inclusive your consultation process should be. This means doing more than a basic leaflet drop. You need to really think about your target audience, how to engage them and then give them enough time to get involved and respond. This will help you get a true handle on local opinion and gather more balanced and representative views from people of all ages, genders and ethnicities and people with disabilities. It’s critical to remember that different people use places and spaces in different ways.

Sue Mann noted that 75% of consultation responses generally come from the 50+ age group, an interesting stat that highlights how vital it is for you to start engaging with your younger audience, as they will have very different views on development. Ross O’Ceallaigh of Urban Design Initiatives suggests three reasons why this group are often overlooked in consultation: Apathy (irrelevance to their lives, lack of attachment to an area), inconvenience (unlikely to seek out an event), and organisational prejudice (you don’t necessarily choose to reach out to them).

How Can You Reach Out to this Generation?

Aside from simply asking them how they would like to be engaged, the obvious solutions are a savvy use of technology, social media and digital platforms. This has to be more than providing a website with details of your scheme. Use digital marketing, twitter, instagram, LinkedIn; ask Council’s if you can upload information to their Consultation platforms. Two great examples of alternative digital approaches have recently included ‘Reusing Dublin’, a platform where people can upload information about vacant and derelict property in the city, and the London Cycling Campaign, where cyclists used a button on their handlebars to identify areas unsafe for riding in the capital, which created a digital map of hotspots over a two-week period. Ok, this might not be strictly relevant to your development proposals, but they do highlight how technology can engage a more digital savvy (dare we say it younger) audience. Technology won’t replace traditional methods of engagement, but it’s certainly a valid complement to them.

Talking of old school methods, you can’t beat talking to people. Craig Maclaren of RTPI Scotland explained that they’ve recently opted for a more positive approach north of the border to consultation and engagement. This has involved taking schemes out to people through more accessible consultation events, covering wider geographical areas and targeting individual groups. This is the best way of selling your scheme – go to local schools, old people’s homes, drop in centres, church groups etc – take it out there, tell its story and embrace collaborative working.

A Few Suggestions to Takeaway

With some great tips coming out of the webinar, here’s a few suggestions on how can we all make consultation and engagement more positive, constructive and collaborative in 2019:

  • Use a great stakeholder facilitator – people who know what they are doing, know the local area, understand the local groups and community organisations. Use appropriate local venues. Think about how you can encourage people to come along, such as pop-up consultation cafes. Coffee and cake is always a good incentive.
  • Go out and find people; it’s lazy to think that people will come to you and make their views known.
  • Use a combination of old-school and new-school methods of consultation – public events with a good digital presence. Nothing beats a good chat, but only if you can actually talk to people. Remember that digital platforms can capture different types and sometimes more accurate feedback, as on-line responders tend to think more widely about their response as they have had more time, whilst immediate face to face discussions tend to focus on immediate thoughts.
  • Use plain English to write your consultation documents, consultation boards and your digital documents, so that they are accessible and understandable from the outset – avoid using technical planning jargon. Really think about how concepts will be understood by children or non-professionals.
  • Think about the visuals; it’s not just about language and words. Make them interesting, engaging and vibrant. Show information clearly and succinctly.
  • Go the extra mile and work on building trust. Always make sure you feedback and explain how comments have been taken on board and decisions made – treat engagement as a continuous process. Always bear in mind this will have to be wrapped up in a Statement of Community Involvement that will support a planning application submission.
  • Show leadership and be brave – explain that you can’t protect everyone’s interests, but that you can protect the wider interests of the community in generating great development, economic prosperity and sustainable development.

Some of these are obvious whilst others won’t necessarily apply or work for your scheme, but it’s clear that Planning as a whole has to embrace new methods of engagement if we want our system to be properly representative. This has been a useful reminder to us to keep pushing the consultation agenda in all our projects, now you need to think about what you’ll be doing to get people on board with your proposals.