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Consultation hit by legislative update
Planning – 19 January 2007

Consultation techniques are under scrutiny again amid moves to recast the role of local government, reports Mark Smulian.

Politicians often face criticism for failing to consult the public. However much ministers might be guilty in this respect, they are very keen that everyone else in the public sector fulfils their duties.

In the planning sphere, consultation and notification are required on everything from individual applications through to local and regional strategies and appraisals. This has been the thrust of the government's approach for some years, but last autumn's local government white paper (Planning, 3 November 2006, p4) has given it added impetus.

"The best councils and councillors already work closely with citizens and communities. We want this to be the case everywhere - for people to be given more control over their lives, consulted and involved in running services," the document explains. For planners, this means that in addition to the usual consultation on applications and local development frameworks (LDFs), they must also get involved in wider corporate decisions.

Even the government has recognised that you can have too much of a good thing. The white paper promises to "simplify procedures to enable co-ordination of consultation on sustainable community strategies, local area agreements and LDFs". It recognises that even the most ardent local community activist can become "consulted out" by being expected to respond to the myriad plans and strategies that councils must publish.

When ideas were first floated for a white paper in 2005, the government hinted that it wanted neighbourhood committees to take control of decisions over planning and public services. Less radical counsels eventually prevailed.

The document plays down the full extent of "double devolution" of powers from Whitehall to town hall and then neighbourhood level, a concept championed by former communities minister David Miliband.

Another idea that has been severely watered down in the white paper is to allow community groups to require councils to take action on the basis of a petition. The prospect of planners or any other council officers being at the beck and call of potentially unrepresentative interest groups generated considerable concern. In its final form, the white paper merely allows community groups to call on councillors to pursue particular issues.

"We are trying to work out the implications of the white paper, but I see it more as an opportunity than a threat because it means that the public can be involved more closely," says Planning Officers Society vice-president Steve Quartermain. "Statements of community involvement (SCIs) should be not just a planning document but part of everything the council does. I see that wider involvement of the public as the direction of travel."

This has proved a facet of the paper that could make planners' lives easier, because there is a commitment to rescind the requirement for SCIs to pass a soundness test. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 gave the public a right to appeal the content of statements to a planning inspector, who could then make binding recommendations on the council.

This provision has proved to be of limited value. According to Rynd Smith, head of policy and practice at the RTPI, experience has shown that the public is far more interested in the subjects about which it is consulted than about the mechanics of the consultation itself. Like Quartermain, he sees SCIs mutating from purely planning documents into corporate ones that influence the way in which a council engages on all issues with its community.

"The statutory requirement given to SCIs is being weakened," Smith reflects.

"The 2004 legislation was specific about consulting formally on them as part of the LDF at an early stage. Objectors could go right up to an independent examination. There were practical problems with that, not least that the Planning Inspectorate was unsure whether it had the expertise to assess consultation methods."

More generally, he sees more emphasis on planners and officers in other professions working together to consult the public, taking some pressure off communities suffering from consultation fatigue. "Any planner will tell you of times when they went to talk to the community and got complaints that people felt they had been consulted to death," he observes.

Smith qualifies his optimism over the integration of planning into council strategies with a fear that it might become sidelined. "There is a risk that planning requirements and needs get diluted or forgotten in wider consultation exercises delivered by other departments that may not have the same tradition of deep community engagement as planners," he warns.

"I am not saying that will happen but there is a need to take care. In our continuing professional development, we say that planning and other professionals need to make sure that they work together to enable the community to be consulted in a way that ensures that planning does not get forgotten. It is bloody difficult to get this right. If you consult in detail on everything you lose people, but if you do not consult on enough they will complain too."

Smith admits that it is not easy to predict the extent to which the public will wish to be consulted on any issue. "While there is nothing like not being given the chance to be consulted to generate resentment, you can also find that the happier the public is with the way the council acts the less people get involved. Good practice can breed apathy," he points out.

One approach is to discover the topics accorded the highest priority by the public, whether they relate to mainstream planning or areas linked to other departments. Consultation can then be tailored to those areas to avoid questions on subjects that taxpayers consider unimportant. "There is no hard and fast rule because what works in one community may not work in another," Smith acknowledges.

It is becoming increasingly important to establish what consultation methods work best in rapidly changing and diverse communities. In some places and in other times, it may have been sufficient for planners to hold a consultation in a public hall on a weekday evening. This will rarely be fruitful nowadays.

Special efforts are needed to reach some ethnic minority communities, whose members may be lacking in English or reluctant to engage with those seen as representing officialdom. A less obvious hard to reach group is affluent younger professionals. This issue has been highlighted in research carried out by the RTPI with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and think-tank Demos.

The research explored the attitudes of well-off people whose work is not tied to the area where they live and whose sense of community is based more around colleagues and friends in the workplace. "One of the most interesting trends to emerge from this work so far is the breakdown of the concept of geographical communities and the weakening of the idea that because you live in a place you must necessarily feel part of it," says Smith.

People who rise early, commute a long distance, socialise with colleagues, commute back, shop online and never read the local paper will be particularly difficult to reach through traditional consultation. They would not attend a 6pm public meeting and are unlikely to enter a public library where they might chance upon a leaflet on a planning issue. On the other hand, they will have the skills and resources to make a fuss if something in their locality really does annoy them.

This issue has become apparent to Roger Hayes, associate director of Four Communications, one of the growing number of public affairs companies that consult the public on behalf of developers over even relatively small planning applications. "There are always hard to reach groups and the mistake is to just go to local organisations and councillors and then assume that you have done your consultation," Hayes argues.

Solutions may include the use of personalised letters, material published in other languages and offers of briefings at times and places that those concerned find convenient. "If you are a commuter you cannot get to an exhibition open in working hours and you probably throw leaflets away with the junk mail. We also have to try to reach non-English speakers and transient residents," insists Hayes.

Tom Curtin, managing director of Green Issues, which also handles planning consultations, says: "Each time the government adds another layer of guidance and legislation, such as the white paper, it complicates the issue more.

Reputable developers will consult fully, if not because they want to be good corporate citizens then because it is good business practice. If you consult well, the time you take in getting your development built is cut because you reduce resistance."

Curtin welcomes the lack of prescription in the white paper. Laying down detailed consultation methods would only be a charter for lawyers, he warns. "It is very easy to think about how to steamroller people but that does not work. You have to consult them at an early stage," he advises. "We would go to a council and ask how it wants to be consulted, rather than turn up with a show saying 'this is what we have decided to tell you'."

Hayes believes the white paper's effect will be to make a statutory requirement out of something that is a good idea anyway. "Good consultation can lead to better results for everyone - planners, residents and developers. The local government white paper reinforces that direction," he maintains.

"It is a benefit to planning officers if they can expect that an application will already have been tested on the public."

It is clear that the government is serious about increasing the opportunities for the public to be consulted on planning and the requirements on councils to demonstrate that consultation has happened. "This white paper sets out new responsibilities for local authorities to give local citizens and communities a greater say over their lives," says communities secretary Ruth Kelly in her preface to the document.

Whether citizens wish to be so involved is a matter for speculation. But with a local government bill only just starting its journey through parliament, an imminent change of prime minister and possible restructuring of central government, there can be no certainty about what will be required of planners until new legislation is on the statute book.

WHITE PAPER PROPOSALS

- Changes to the Best Value performance system to encourage councils to ensure the participation of local people.

- Sufficient flexibility to allow local arrangements that work well to be preserved.

- Requirements for councils to provide good, accessible information on services and performance.

- Local authorities to decide how best to inform, consult, involve and devolve, taking into account cost effectiveness and the needs and requirements of different sections of the community.

PUBLIC VIEWS: responding to the range of challenges thrown up by the consultation process

One trick of the consultation trade is to know how to separate genuine objections from nimbyism. There is a distinction between cases where a developer can amend a project to win over both planners and the public and those situations where objections to development would be entrenched no matter what is proposed.

"Dissatisfied people will always shout louder than happy ones," says Roger Hayes, associate director at Four Communications. "Some civic societies and residents' groups see it as a point of honour to oppose any change.

Councillors are important because they can say 'what about if we do such and such' and suggest changes they think their constituents would accept."

Hayes claims that it is obvious early on which views are representative and which are just nimbyism. This allows planners and developers to distinguish between objections based on alleged threats to property values and those that have merit. "You do not just do the fluffy PR stuff of making a developer look more user friendly, you explain the project and understand local problems," he explains.

Hayes says he often gets calls from planning officers or councillors who have a relatively small patch of disused land in their area and want to know what the public would find an acceptable use. Good consultation will give the public the opportunity to propose changes to anything they find objectionable in an application at an early stage, he notes.

He admits that some planners look askance at the role of public affairs consultants. In general, however, he finds that their involvement is becoming increasingly widely accepted. "Consultation should improve your development proposal so that you can go back to people again and again until satisfied," he argues. "I know developers who will say that they have got a better project as a result of going to consultation."

Planning Officers Society vice-president Steve Quartermain agrees that there is always a risk in any consultation that partial views will be put forward most vehemently because some group supports them. "But you should be able to allow for that and not let it unduly influence a consultation," he reasons.