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09/10/2020

The white paper promises better public engagement – but we must learn from existing practice

A consultation / iStock

Public engagement underpins effective planning, say Dr Tessa Lynn, Dr Mark Dobson and Prof Gavin Parker FRTPI. Planning for the Future offers few clues as to how this will happen in a reformed planning system


The reforms proposed in the recent Planning for the Future white paper for England claim a desire “to support local authorities to radically rethink how they produce their Local Plans, and profoundly re-invent the ambition, depth and breadth with which they engage with communities”.

Here an emphasis on engagement at the local plan-making stage is outlined, along with greater use of digital technology to achieve this. However, there is little about how such participation will be designed into the system, what forms this will take and what requirements will be imposed on local authorities. 

As such this is an opportune moment to reflect on the lessons learned from recent research into both pre-application discussions and neighbourhood planning as actually existing spaces for community participation, and where interested parties already discuss development proposals and plan policy. Our contention is that existing innovative practices that improve the quality of and trust in decisions about development outcomes must be retained and extended.

The first case in point is pre-application discussions (‘pre-apps’) which have offered an opportunity for developers to discuss their emerging proposals with local planning authorities – although there are also examples where three-way discussions are being fostered: some local planning authorities include communities in pre-apps alongside developers, even within the context of a commercialised service. 

“We are unclear about whether neighbourhood planning in its current form will make it into the new system, or whether there will be ‘pre-apps’ at all”

Those that have created specific public spaces for engagement merit our attention. For example, Cornwall holds Pre-Application Community Engagement (PACE) Forums and East Hampshire District hosts ‘Developer Forums’ which offer opportunities for multi-partite engagement on specific developments. 

Despite this, the proposed reforms do not offer any suggestions as to how such multi-partite arenas will be retained or used as learning sources to sharpen the quality of engagement. As it stands, such localised ‘good practice’ examples may be lost if pre-apps are removed from the system without lessons being learned and then drawn across into the new “deep, broad and ambitious participation envisaged system”.

This brings us neatly to a second source of learning – how at least some neighbourhood planning activity highlights successful co-production of plans. Such experience has facilitated high quality development, innovation in policy, greater community acceptance of development and improvement in trust relations (a factor highlighted as critical in the white paper). 

Indeed, place-making and fixing parameters of local liveability is a key factor in why people engage and start such plans. Thus the process, techniques and meeting grounds for such practices refined through neighbourhood planning should be wired into future arrangements and not only rely on technological fixes.  

As we go forwards we are unclear about whether neighbourhood planning in its current form will make it into the new system, or whether there will be ‘pre-apps’ at all. 

“All planning systems require effective and meaningful community engagement if trust is to be fostered and conflict minimised”

So what we highlight is that all planning systems require effective and meaningful community engagement if trust is to be fostered and conflict minimised. The assertions that technology will achieve this and that 30 months is enough to create a local plan from start to finish seems an heroic challenge that runs the risk of baking-in poor quality processes and outcomes. 

It is essential that experiences of the past, coupled with appropriate time, the spaces to convene and application of technology to assist must all come together. What we have learned is that tools and spaces for multi-partite negotiation between communities, local planning authorities and developers is crucial at the earliest stages of a plan or a development proposal. 

Now is the time for targeted research to be undertaken to bring out lessons learned from current practice – including other tools such as citizen juries. The best of what we do now must find a place in the system of the future. 

Dr Tessa Lynn is founder of Kingfisher Commons and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Reading; Dr Mark Dobson is a teaching fellow and Prof Gavin Parker is chair of planning studies at Henley Business School, University of Reading

Photo | iStock

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