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Complete engagement is the key to restoring trust in planning

The planning white paper makes much of the potential of digital engagement. But we mustn't abandon face-to-face consultation, says Silvia Lazzerini

Digital innovation is a pillar of the government’s planning white paper, calling for better use of interactive services to modernise the process and encourage public engagement.

It’s a laudable goal that could inspire and allow a wider demographic to have their say, particularly younger people and those who might be unable or less likely to attend consultations. As we navigate the social restrictions brought by the pandemic, developers are starting to use a suite of digital tools to consult more broadly and in an interesting way.

But we shouldn’t underestimate the value of face-to-face engagement and the importance stakeholders attach to it. If the objective is to increase transparency and public trust in the system, then technology should complement, not replace, in-person consultation. It is also a clear indication of developers’ commitment to shape plans with communities. We need to be visible and to give people the right forum to be heard, not hiding behind screens and one-way presentations, if we want to restore the public’s faith in developers and show that we are accountable.

“Technology should complement, not replace, in-person consultation”

Without a blended model of engagement, we risk trading the exclusion of one set of groups for another: according to digital inclusion charity Good Things Foundation, 1.9 million households have no internet access and millions more have to rely on pay-as-you-go services.

We should also maximise the value of each approach. Simply putting consultation boards online won’t cut it – we need to harness the power of technology to allow real-time feedback, whether through online heat maps, interactive masterplans or chat functions.

The white paper tackles not just the format of engagement but also when it should happen, proposing a revamped local plan process that shifts the responsibility for consultation on to councils. The problem is this risks divorcing developers from the process and storing up issues down the line when people actively want to engage over individual sites.

Engagement needs to be multi-faceted, led by both councils and developers, and ongoing, starting well before the local plan process, during detailed design work through to build-out. This helps map national policy ambitions – including delivering social value and achieving climate change goals – into local contexts, so we understand what they mean to specific communities and how they can be achieved throughout the development phases, as well as long-term site management.

Silvia Lazzerini is project director for strategic land at Grosvenor Britain & Ireland

Image credit | iStock


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