The recently-published white paper – Planning for the Future – sets out the government’s plans to overhaul town planning and the way local people take part, with implications for how local councils and property developers will need to consult communities.

Consultation on Local Plans

In the white paper, there’s a strong emphasis on the need for local authorities “radically and profoundly to re-invent the ambition, depth and breadth with which they engage communities as they consult on Local Plans,” giving them “an earlier and more meaningful voice in the future of their area as plans are made.”

Of course, engagement in the development of Local Plans is hardly new: it should – and generally does – happen already. The message here is to do it more and do it better.

The focus on ensuring community engagement is inclusive, meaningful and user-friendly makes good sense. Again, that’s nothing new in principle – although, in reality, engagement often isn’t nearly as accessible as it should be.

The government says Local Plan consultations must avoid giving a disproportionately loud voice to the usual suspects – typically older, white, middle class people with time on their hands. Yet again, this already shouldn’t happen; but doubtless it does. It’s right to insist on working hard to engage young people and those who don’t usually get involved.

The fact is, it’s not easy for local authorities to whip people up into a state of enthusiasm about Local Plans. Right now, people see them as huge, tedious documents full of impenetrable council jargon and having little bearing on their lives. Why would they spend their time even reading such things, let alone raising queries and giving views? If they do get excited, it’s often negatively – reacting with hostility to policies they dislike or by which they feel threatened (new housing in green areas being a frequent target).

This all needs to change, and it calls for an imaginative approach by local authorities to overhaul how they approach it.

The white paper suggests part of the answer, encouraging good use of digital technology – including social media – to:

“… improve the user experience of the planning system, to make planning information easier to find and understand and make it appear in the places discussions are happening, for example in digital neighbourhood groups and social networks … [with] new digital engagement processes that make it radically easier to raise views about and visualise emerging proposals whilst on-the-go on a smartphone.”

Naturally, this is all easier said than done. And many councils would be the first to admit that they need outside help to pull it off.

Consultation on specific developments

The other vital area that stands out from the white paper – this time by almost being absent – is community consultation at the other end of the planning process: when specific property developments are brought forward.

Pretty much all it does say is that consultation at the planning application stage should be “streamlined … because it adds delay to the process and allows a small minority of voices to shape outcomes.”

If ‘streamlined’ means done more efficiently, who could argue? But if, as I suspect, it’s code for “less of it should be done”, that raises concerns.

I see the gist of a theory that goes … if people have had meaningful input into an area’s overall Local Plan, do they really need to have a say in proposals for specific schemes?

From the point of view of local people, surely the answer is a big, fat YES? There’s a world of difference between high-level principles for an area’s long-term development and the particular aspects of a development coming to a street corner near you. Local people should have a say on both.

From a developer’s point of view, if they’re off the hook in having to consult the public, isn’t that good news for them – saving them time and money?

I expect some may take that view. But I know the more professional developers recognise it’s entirely in their interests to listen to local people and take their views on board.

It’s key to being a good neighbour and to smoothing the path of the construction process, minimising the complaints they’ll have to fend off.

It’s also important for their corporate reputation – and for gaining the goodwill of the local community. And, in most cases, this will help ensure their schemes are commercially successful – by increasing the likelihood local people will buy/rent/use/recommend the buildings being developed.

Modernised approach

So, on the matter of community engagement by councils on Local Plans, the white paper’s concepts aren’t new; but the words are bold and make sense. If they herald a modernised, humanised approach, that can only be a good thing.

On consultation about specific schemes, the government’s intent remains unclear. It might be that they will relax requirements on the extent of consultation for major property schemes to get planning consent. But, for major schemes, I can’t see an end any time soon to the desirability – for both the community and the developers – to engage local people and get them on board.


See more on our public consultation & community engagement services.