Log in | Register
24/08/2020

Planning for the Future: Digitally emboldened community engagement – in promise or in practice?

Words:
Digital planning / Shutterstock

Planning for the Future envisages episodic consultation with communities with each new iteration of local plans. But, says, Peter Mason, continuous engagement about the built environment is more efffective at capturing regular changes in community make-up and public opinion

The balance between public accountability over sustainable growth, and the certainty offered by the  development management process to mitigate developer risk is one of the biggest challenges at the heart of the Government's Planning for the Future reforms.

As a digital company in the planning space, my employer Commonplace takes a particular interest in, and welcomes the proposed use of, digital tools to increase public engagement. On the surface, they look like a positive step towards connecting communities to the places around them, which are shaped by planners and developers alike.  

In our deployment of digital public engagement for our customers, we are very aware of the tension and lack of trust that surrounds planning decisions. This was captured dramatically in Grosvenor's Rebuilding Trust research that showed only eight per cent of residents trusted local authorities to manage regeneration in a way that benefited residents, whilst the score for developers was two per cent.

“These conversations, disjointed as many of them are, nevertheless suggest pent-up demand from people to participate in shaping their neighbourhoods”

We are optimistic, based on our experience, about the ability of digital tools to draw more people into positive conversations about planning. The often antagonistic debates that take place over planning applications are now an increasing feature of online debate via social media that engage many more.

These conversations, disjointed as many of them are, nevertheless suggest pent-up demand from people to participate in shaping their neighbourhoods. People care passionately about them, and are actively looking for the means to shape them for the better.

There is a huge opportunity, which the white paper encourages, to channel this pent-up demand to be part of the process into constructive dialogue. The Covid-19 pandemic that has limited face-to-face interactions has made digital platforms essential. The potential to increase transparency, which digital platforms offer, is also a vital building-block for trust. 

But there is a tension at the heart of the white paper. It lies between the desire to further open the creation of local plans, masterplans and design guides more widely to the public; and the proposition that once adopted, development management decisions will be left solely in the hands of planners, mostly under reserved matters with little or no scope for formal public participation in individual plans.

As communities change with people moving in and out of neighbourhoods, the once-in-several-years strategic planning process will be forgotten. New developments on their doorstep will continue to evoke strong feelings and passionate pleadings. If communities only get their say once every five to ten years (depending on the length of the local plan), expect many intervening expressions of incredulity and frustration. Only now it will be the planners, and not the politicians who will carry the ultimate responsibility and accountability.

“As communities change with people moving in and out of neighbourhoods, the once-in-several-years strategic planning process will be forgotten”

Ideally, certainty needs to cut both ways. The Government is proposing council-led masterplanning, supported by design codes brokered through more and deeper meaningful conversation, both online and off. The process should not just give developers certainty, but also certainty to the communities who are desperate to be involved and engaged in the decisions that will impact them.

There is a risk however, that front loading conversations to a particular moment in time, and only when a plan is created, will exacerbate the democratic deficit rather than restore trust and confidence.

We strongly believe that continuous engagement is a key to building trust in the planning system. The challenge for Government is to find its own balance between certainty and public accountability. The growth of digital engagement will amplify the success, or failure, of any new planning settlement.

Peter Mason leads on local government and public affairs for digital engagement specialists Commonplace

Image l Shutterstock

Tags

FEATURES
Email Newsletter Sign Up