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Career development: Running a consultation

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Consultation is very much the order of the day in contemporary planning. But, asks Simon Wicks, what is it, how do you do it, and where can you find help?

Localism, community, neighbourhood – these are watchwords in contemporary planning, and all point towards one end – talking to people who are affected by development, and giving due weight to their opinions.
A consultation represents just one aspect of this conversation. According to the RTPI’s Guidelines on Effective Community Consultation, it is therefore different from ‘involvement’, ‘engagement’ and ‘participation’, which imply continuing relationships as opposed to a single event with a fixed aim.
The RTPI says a consultation is: “The dynamic process of dialogue between individuals or groups, based upon a genuine exchange of views, and normally with the objective of influencing decisions, policies or programmes of action.”

1. When to consult – and why

Local authorities have long had to consult on planning applications. More recently, the Localism Act and the NPPF have obliged public authorities to consult on local plans and to support communities in developing neighbourhood plans – which may involve a consultation.
More broadly, local authorities must also prepare a Statement of Community Involvement (SIC) outlining how they intend to involve the community in decision-making.
In addition, the Localism Act requires private developers to consult before they apply for planning permission. The idea of creating a “dynamic process of dialogue” is – theoretically at least – at the heart of the modern planning system.
Nick Wates“Planning is something that everyone needs to be involved in as a society and a neighbourhood at every level,” says Nick Wates, founder of CommunityPlanning.net. “We need to collaborate on how we solve the problems we all have.
“I come back to first principles, after planners like John Turner and Tony Gibson. Their fundamental belief was that people know and understand their local environment better than everybody else. It [community planning] is about getting that local knowledge involved in the decision-making process.”
Consultation also has tangible benefits from a developer’s point of view, says Pauline Roberts, planning director at Nathaniel Lichfield and Partners (NLP). “The attitude of clients is changing and many are appreciating there’s a value in an effective consultation because it speeds up the process and helps to resolve issues early in the pre-application stage,” she says. “It can result in a better scheme.”
What skills do you need?
- Stakeholder profiling and mapping;
- Stakeholder relationship management;
- Consensus building;
- Mediation; 
 - Conflict resolution; and
- Negotiation.
Many planners – whether private or public – will outsource some or all of a consultation exercise to a specialist. Larger firms may have developed their own consultation methodology, often backed up by bespoke software.
Wates says the consultation skills of planners are improving. “There’s increasing knowledge about methods, and an increasing amount of good practice guidance,” he observes. “But it’s like anything – if you want to get your car fixed it’s a good idea to go a garage where they have fixed cars similar to yours before.
“But one of the difficulties of going to a consultant is that they will tend to use a particular method they have used before. I run a place-planning workshop where they think through the processes they want to use. It’s always fascinating to see how people develop the process. There’s no magic to it – you just have to think it through.”

2. How to consult

The key to a good consultation is a rigorous process that identifies the people who should be consulted and the best way to speak with them. As Roberts notes, “The better and more complete the consultation, the less likely a challenge later on.”
Key steps:
1. What is the aim of the consultation? How clearly can you express this?
2. Who MUST you consult with, as a statutory requirement? Who specifically within those organisations do you need to speak to?
3. Who SHOULD you consult with?
4. Who else CAN you consult with who might be affected by the proposal?
5. What is the best way to consult with each of these groups?
6. Has any of this information already been recorded as the result of previous consultations?
The answers will enable you to design the consultation process itself, says Wates, and this is likely to be different for different stakeholders. 
“It’s about finding out what methods people find easiest to engage with. For example, the hallmark of early community planning was the Post-it note, because it’s a brilliant way of recording information and very simple and transparent.”

3. Reach a wider community

Nowadays, technology is more likely to play a role – especially when it comes to reaching groups of people who have traditionally not pushed themselves forward to take part in consultations.
Wates cites the example of teenage skateboarders who used a park that was to be redesigned. Working with the local authority’s youth officer, he devised a postcard for the skaters to pass on to each other that highlighted a texting-based survey. It worked.
Other organisations are using social media to reach hitherto untouched segments of the community. The Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Authority, for example, is running a local plan consultation, Our Live Park, through Twitter and a website.
Pauline Roberts sees electronic consultation as the future. “That’s where the industry as a whole needs to be more – using Twitter and Facebook is relatively new. It’s about reducing the reliance on documentary (i.e. written) consultation and placing increasing emphasis on participative methods where literacy standards are less of a barrier to participation.”

4. Set expectations

“The important thing is to be honest and straightforward with what’s up for grabs,” says Wates. “This is particularly true with neighbourhood planning – people will accept constraints as long as it’s dealt with honestly. What’s really difficult is when you almost imply they can do whatever they want and what they say will happen.”
The RTPI recommends that planners take every opportunity to explain that public consultation findings and individual objections are only part of the evidence base upon which decisions are taken.
The rebirth of the charrette
A charrette is a period of intense face-to-face collaboration between different stakeholders to arrive at a solution to a planning problem that everyone can live with. Typically, different groups of people affected by a scheme will work with experts and each other over several hours or even days.
At their best, charrettes are creative, collaborative, multi-disciplinary and result in solutions that reduce time, cost and conflict – and this 19th century design process is making a comeback.
For example, the Scottish government local authorities hold charrettes to create local development plans. 

5. Rank responses

Wates recommends ranking stakeholders according to the weight their views merit. Key stakeholders might be landowners, local authorities and residents’ groups. Less key might be utilities companies and community members only tangentially affected by a development.
Reaching stakeholders can be a particular challenge for developments that don’t involve fixed physical structures – transport networks, for example. 
“You might start involving passenger groups,” says Wates. “The ways in which we have to involve these people is quite sophisticated. But there’s no magic formula for working out who to speak to.”
It’s a question of rigour, thoroughness and accepting your own limitations. “If you are searching for the perfect process, it can become elaborate, unmanageable and costly. You need to develop a process that’s suitable for your budget and manpower.”

Resources – learn about consultation in detail


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