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The public participation problem: Heaven knows we’re miserable now


If we invested more time and effort in 'involving' the public rather than merely 'consulting' them, we'd be all the better for it, says Chris Shepley

We’d just like your views on these questions to help us put together the scheme we absolutely haven’t already decided upon: 

  1. Which of the following options would you prefer – a) a lovely new park, or b) a festering, smelly tip?
  2. Do you consider the objectives of economic growth, environmental benefits, improved access ... and quality of life are right for this project?
  3. What will you miss most when we knock down your house?

One of these (the second) was a genuine question in a recent consultation exercise; the others are taken from the satirical Grotton oeuvre. But all of them leave something to be desired, and we should be thinking more deeply these days about the adequacy of 21st century public involvement in planning.

I was talking the other day to the late Arthur Skeffington, who died in 1971, only two years after the seminal report on public participation in planning which was produced by a committee that he chaired. The cloud on which Arthur now resides was passing overhead, and I hired an excellent medium to moderate the conversation (average mediums being useless in these situations).

Arthur was, I am pleased to say, very happy in himself, and the celestial beauty of his harp was admired heaven-wide. But he kept an eye on what was happening down here and pronounced himself disappointed with recent trends. He stressed that his report was about “participation”, and pointed to page 1,120 of my dictionary (there was a copy in the empyrean library), which refers to “becoming actively involved”. Consultation, however, according to page 337 is merely about “having regard for a person’s feelings, interests etc, in making decisions or plans”. This, in Arthur’s view, was a critical difference. But mere consultation was the preferred approach de nos jours. 

“The plonkees could do little other than to react to what they usually saw as a fait accompli”

He complained – in the first of three cosmic grumbles he was able to outline before he disappeared over the horizon – that the modern tendency was to produce a plan or scheme, plonk it in front of people, and ask them what they thought of it. Too late for ‘active involvement’, the ‘plonkees’ could do little other than to react to what they usually saw as a fait accompli and to hope that at least a few of their concerns would be taken on board. Regularly they were left disappointed.

Arthur acknowledged that some people do it properly, but few readers of this journal (which incidentally is widely circulated in the hereafter) will be lacking in experience of the lesser approach.

His second concern, and one with which we all wrestle with little success, is the obvious fact that most of those who actively engage are white, middle class, getting on a bit, educated at some majestic institution rather than the University of Life, and apt to object to things. We’ve heard about the hard-to-reach, but because they are hard to reach they are rarely reached in any meaningful way other than by questions such as No. 3 above. 

"Is it not time for another Skeffington? Should we not be renewing our efforts?"

And his third is that proper participation requires time and money, both of which are in short supply down here on Earth. Easy for Arthur to say, of course, because eternity is probably long enough for quite sophisticated exercises and apparently up there among the cherubs there is plenty of lengthy debate. Here, though, adequate resources are simply not allocated to this vital process and we are all the poorer for it. Nor is there the authentic political commitment that might enable this to be rectified.

As Arthur’s cloud drifted beyond the medium’s range, I thought, is it not time for another Skeffington? Should we not be renewing our efforts? It is probably true that, in planning, we are better than most other sectors in this matter. But we are definitely not good enough.

Chris Shepley is the principal of Chris Shepley Planning and former Chief Planning Inspector

Illustration | Oivind Hovland


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