Well run campaigns in opposition to a future development, particularly petitions, can cause considerable harm to reputation. But fortunately planning bodies acknowledge that consultation is not a vote and that decisions should not be based solely on numbers.
And the historic emphasis on the statistical analysis of responses has changed with the advent of various forms of participatory planning, with feedback from planning workshops – at which individuals have invested considerable hours, if not days – being regarded as of greater significance than some unidentifiable signatures on a scrap of paper.
At the very start of the consultation process the consultor should decide whether to collate responses per person or per issue. The latter is used most frequently because it creates a clear picture of the issues arising from the consultation. And although numbers should be attributed to comments made, analysis by issue ensures that a comment made repeatedly will only be listed once, thus giving a petition or automatically generated email as much prominence as a single individual response. Take the example of an online forum in which local residents are invited to put forward views about public art and design at a new shopping centre. The discussion is dominated by members of an anti-development pressure group who join the discussion stating that the developer is driven solely by profit and has no genuine interest in the local community. This single viewpoint would carry little weight in the final analysis: the issue is based on misinformation and potentially defamatory (and therefore could be removed for legal reasons), it does not respond to either the specific question or the remit of the consultation, and those responding may not be local residents. The only meaningful information that this produces for the purposes of the consultation report, and therefore the planning application, is that landscaping and public art at the new development are not of particular concern to local residents.
Negative views are often either individually motivated or promoted by an external group with a specific cause. Frequently their views do not represent those of the wider community and this must be reflected in the reporting. Similarly the consultation report need only include material planning considerations. ‘It will spoil my view’, ‘We don’t want more affordable housing’ and ‘The developer is just in it to make a profit’ are not material planning considerations.
The consultation report should also take into account representation. If only 20 people respond to a consultation and are 100% opposed to the proposals, is this a negative outcome? If 500 people were contacted and given ample opportunity to respond it may be concluded that the proposal is of little concern to the majority of the community. The consultation report should consider the view in the context of the wider community and determine whether the low response was due to lack of awareness or lack of concern. If the applicant can demonstrate that all residents were given substantial opportunity to comment it could be deduced that those who chose not to respond did so because they were accepting of the proposals.
Analysis can be carried out in such a way that opinion from national pressure groups is recognised as such and priority is given to views from local residents. Thus, the most harm caused by national groups is a negative impact on their reputation which may lead to negative comments from within the community.
Development teams should not be overly concerned about the odd negative comment, particularly those which are based on misunderstanding and can be explained in the consultation report. Decision-making bodies understand that negative sentiment is far more likely to reach their desks than positive sentiment. An important consideration as far as the applicant is concerned is the impact on reputation: the fact that a single negative statement, albeit inaccurate, can fuel fear and mistrust more widely. Monitoring, and responding where necessary with credible information and data, is vital to prevent rumour spreading. Meetings with groups and individuals is often the best course of action, and should groups refuse to meet, the consultation report should make this clear.
The purpose of a good public consultation is not to unearth positive attitudes towards a proposal, but to gain maximum local involvement and hear all points of view. Negative opinion is therefore inevitable: in fact a public consultation which reveals 100% in favour of a scheme is likely to be unconvincing.
Penny’s book Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide is published by Routledge. It is available online through Routledge, Amazon and other bookshops.