This next post in my Top 10 Consultation Tips series deals with the importance of being clear from the outset about the boundaries of your consultation.

Few are limitless

Few, if any, consultations are limitless in scope – but too often this isn’t made apparent.

It might be, for example, that an area of land is already allocated for commercial development. So your consultation is on the types of commercial development possible – or on the details of a particular proposal.

Certain elements of a public initiative may already be decided by elected authorities, with other elements open for debate.

As a private developer, you might be open to certain kinds of scheme while it’s simply not in your commercial interests to pursue others. If you’re an office developer, there’s no reason why you should invite ideas for a playground.

There will almost always be financial constraints which mean some options are viable and others aren’t.

There will also be limits on the scope of your consultation itself. You can’t engage everyone on every issue, as I discussed here.

Whatever your limits, you need to set them out clearly at the start and explain why.



Instead, however, many exercises fall into the trap of making everything appear up for debate – either out of carelessness or an over-eagerness to please.

This sets expectations too high: consultees will be all the more unhappy when they find their views and requests aren’t acted upon.

Sometimes exercises go the other way and allow nothing to be open for input. In reality, there’s usually scope for listening to views and taking points on board – and this will go a long way to gaining support. But if there really isn’t, be clear upfront that you’re informing and not consulting.


Country matters

A while back we ran a consultation for the development of a country park. It was a wide-ranging exercise for a genuinely open-minded client – a partnership between three local authorities.

They wanted to hear what kind of country park the community wanted. What kinds of sports and leisure activities did people want accommodated? How could it support the local economy? How could it be made fully accessible? What were people’s concerns?

Most people were in favour of the project, but some were against it. And a group of opponents thought they’d discovered a fatal flaw in the consultation as we hadn’t asked if people wanted a country park in the first place.

They raised this accusation triumphantly in a public meeting – but were disarmed when we freely agreed with them. A country park had long been earmarked in the Local Plan. So we’d designed our consultation to get input on the form it should take, rather than to debate alternatives.

This admission wasn’t what they were expecting. It took the wind out of the sails of their objection. But, in retrospect, we should have been much clearer about that point right at the beginning.


More consultation tips to follow soon. Meanwhile, you can find out more here about our public consultation & community engagement services.

And click here to register for our blog posts and news.