People, planning and the role of communications

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People and planning are inseparable: planning exists to create well-functioning spaces for people, to enable social, economic and environmental priorities to shape places and to protect the natural and cultural heritage for future generations. As such planning is intrinsically linked to individuals’ homes, sense of place and local identity – and consultation, as the means by which we communicate with people on planning issues, is imperative in maintaining good public relations.

Because people are intrinsic to planning, the profession involves people at every stage. Yet planning is essentially about delivering change, and change is rarely popular. There is also a need to balance complex social and political concerns, and to facilitate mutually beneficial coalitions between stakeholders. Communications in planning, therefore, is challenging.

There are a variety of ways in which people can be involved in the planning process. Community involvement or community engagement are the terms most commonly used to describe ongoing, informal communication between a developer and a community, while consultation refers to the more specific process of involving a community in shaping proposals or seeking feedback on specific proposals.

Consultation – which takes place at several stages throughout the planning process, from national government level in forming Planning Policy Statements and strategic planning, through to neighbourhood planning and development control – is described by The Consultation Institute as, ‘The dynamic process of dialogue between individuals or groups, based upon a genuine exchange of views, with the objective of influencing decisions policies or programmes of action’.

As a people-orientated process, planning (and consultation specifically) is not immune from the human characteristics of influence, bias, self-interest and political interference.

The notion that community involvement can benefit planning decisions is unequivocal.

Communication regarding a proposed planning application is usually the first point of contact that a developer has with the local residents likely to be impacted by its proposals. As such it is a very important first step in public relations – both in terms of reputation management and community relations. Run well, a consultation can establish lasting relationships with a local community that will reap wide-ranging benefits throughout the construction and marketing stages and beyond. But if done half-heartedly, consultation will attract criticisms of ‘tokensim’ and ‘sham’: a significant blow to an otherwise untarnished reputation.

Extract from Chapter 2 Planning: effective communication through consultation by Penny Norton in Communicating Construction: insight, experience and best practice, published by Routledge in March 2021.

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