I have responded to this consultation on behalf of The Consultation Institute’s Planning Working Group. While we fully support diversity on the high street, along with provision of much needed housing, we strongly object to the assumption that this can be achieved successfully without public engagement.
The consultation suggests that new ‘temporary’ permitted development rights are granted; but also that previously ‘temporary’ rights are made permanent. It would not be unduly presumptuous to assume that (with or without a Government consultation to aid the decision) these new ‘temporary’ rights will themselves become permanent in time. Again, tCI is strongly opposed to this proposed change.
The consultation comes at a time when the importance of strengthening consultation has been correctly recognised by the TCPA in its recently published Raynsford Review (read my commentary on the Raynsford Review here). Both the TCPA and the RICS have opposed the extension of permitted development rights.
A sample of my responses to the consultation:
Do you agree that there should be a new permitted development right to allow shops (A1) financial and professional services (A2), hot food takeaways (A5), betting shops, pay day loan shop and launderettes to change to office use (B1)?
No. Change of use to this extent would substantially alter the face of the high street and should not go ahead without consultation with those most affected – ie, the local residents. PD Rights exclude consultation and therefore are an inappropriate tool for such a decision. Local people should be consulted on the future of their communities. Furthermore, it is to be benefit of the organisation providing / running the new facility to understand reactions to it from within the local community.
Do you agree that there should be a new permitted development right to allow hot food takeaways (A5) to change to residential use (C3)?
No. While tCI supports the introduction of more housing and the enlivenment of our high streets, we consider a change of use of this magnitude – one which would conflict with the Local Plan’s allocation as well as the original planning consent – should not be carried out without consultation. It could be argued that a Local Plan or Neighbourhood Plan is of little value if uses can be changed despite an original allocation, and changes to allocations which have previously been arrived at following planning consent could result in local residents becoming less inclined to respond to Local Plan consultations.
Do you agree that the permitted development right for the temporary change of use of the premises listed in paragraph 1.9 should allow change to a public library, exhibition hall, museum, clinic or health centre?
No. Any change to the built environment impacts on communities, and this is particularly true in the case of libraries, museums, health centres and other amenities. At the heart of our planning system is an understanding that those proposing change should involve local residents – not just as a courtesy but because developers also have much to benefit from involving local people in terms of how the new facility will be used. With local input, proposals can be enriched and finely tuned to a specific neighbourhood, creating a unique scheme well suited to its location. The local community, too, can benefit from consultation: community involvement can promote social cohesion, strengthen individual groups within it and create a shared legacy. This should not be overlooked, particularly in the case of providing public facilities.
We are also concerned about the use of the word ‘temporary’ is used in this context. Several of the previously temporary uses are now potentially becoming permanent and it is particularly concerning that permanent change should not occur without consultation.
Do you think there is a role for a permitted development right to provide additional self-contained homes by extending certain premises upwards?
No. The principle should be consulted upon because it could have a substantial impact on the local community. If regulations concerning upwards extensions are to change, we would expect this to be reflected in local policies. Therefore the local authority should consult (either as part of its Local Plan or separately) on the policy change? If the local policy does not change, tCI believes that consultation should take place on a case-by-case basis.
Do you agree that the existing time-limited permitted development right for change of use from storage or distribution to residential is made permanent?
No. Local people should be consulted on such substantial changes. Additionally serious concerns have been raised (by the RICS and the TCPA among others) about the quality of such accommodation and the risk it poses to those living there. It is not in the public interest to retain sub-standard accommodation and to give permanent consent to something which was only intended to be temporary. This is detrimental to both the residents and the wider community.
Do you agree that the time-limited permitted development right for larger extensions to dwellinghouses is made permanent?
No. Local people should be consulted on such changes. Furthermore the proposal to make permanent temporary rights is undemocratic because permission was not originally granted for a permanent change. Changes such as this reduce public confidence in the planning system. Ultimately the public could understandably be mistrustful of any temporary rights being granted in the future if it was felt that such rights could be made permanent in such a way.
Do you support a permitted development right for the high quality redevelopment of commercial sites, including demolition and replacement build as residential, which retained the existing developer contributions?
No. This would be a very significant change: currently commercial to residential change of use is only allowed under PD rights because the exterior of the building does not change. If an office building was to be demolished and housing developed in its place, we believe that consultation is required.
Many communities lack commercial space, which results in higher levels of unemployment, unsustainable outside of the area, and traffic congestion. Although we have a housing crisis, there should not be a general assumption that homes are needed in place of commercial use.
Change of use for an entire site – as opposed to a single unit – represents a substantial change to a local community and one which should not take place without consultation. Assuming the Local Plan had previously allocated the land for commercial use, it would also contradict the Local Plan. This both risks lowering the public’s faith in local democracy and will inevitably discourage local people from taking part in local authority-led consultation (or indeed any planning consultations) in the future.
What considerations would be important in framing any future right for the demolition of commercial buildings and their redevelopment as residential to ensure that it brings the most sites forward for redevelopment?
Consultation with local people. The advantages of developer consultation are numerous. Consultation can deliver a real insight into a local area, create enduring beneficial relationships and enable an early understanding of any issues or misunderstandings which may stand in the way of planning success, thus save time and money.
In 2011, the Department for Communities and Local Government’s Localism Bill stated that, ‘Pre-application consultation provides an opportunity to achieve early consensus on controversial issues before proposals are finalised. This should encourage greater community engagement in the process, and result in better quality applications submitted to local authorities, which are more in line with community aspirations, and much less controversial. Such an approach is considered to be inclusive and transparent, with development outcomes more in line with what the community desires.’ We would hope that the MHCLG still subscribes to this point of view but this consultation would suggest otherwise.
For any builder involved in development projects, communication with local residents usually starts during the planning process. But it doesn’t end there.
Once you’re on site, the immediate community, local groups and potential occupants will all want to understand what’s being built and the timescales involved. They’ll be the first to complain about bad parking, dust and noise. They’ll say that no one is telling them what’s going on. They could even affect your chances of getting planning permission next time.
So all builders will benefit from gaining the goodwill and support of local residents, and possibly the local media too, and this can only be achieved through good communication.
Traditionally, community relations during construction has largely been managed through newsletters and public meetings. But as our use of the internet increases, the old, often expensive and time-consuming methods of communication can be partially replaced by something much simpler and more effective: a community relations website.
A typical community relations website may include a timeline for the development, an interactive map, Q&As (to which users may contribute), the Construction Management Plan, regular updates on construction work and images. Time lapse photography is very popular, as are CGI fly-throughs of the future development.
Other useful information might include an introduction to the development team and all its corporate social responsibility initiatives such as apprenticeship schemes. External links, such as to the Considerate Constructors Scheme, are also popular.
Finally – but perhaps most importantly – a website offers the opportunity for users to register their interest so they can get the information they want, be it on property sales, lettings or employment opportunities.
Our research has shown that online community relations appeals particularly to the under 40s, to working parents and to commuters. Many so-called ‘hard-to-reach’ groups can also find what they are looking for best through a website thanks to the physical accessibility of the internet and the opportunity to use automatic translation, large text and text-to-speech technologies.
Online communication has the advantage of being available 24/7. Residents most frequently view our clients’ community relations websites late at night, and construction companies benefit from being able to communicate immediately with residents when required.
Of course online community relations will never replace the power of face-to-face communications. Knocking on doors and talking to neighbours is still the best thing to do, and a screen will never compensate for a human face.
But when the diggers arrive on site, most people will head straight to Google to get the information that they feel entitled to know. Rather than allow residents to become frustrated at that crucial first point of contact and resort to social media and chat rooms to speculate about the changes to their neighbourhood, the savvy builder will use this opportunity to provide a first impression that is welcoming and informative and establishes the new development in the very heart of the community.
Original first published in Master Builder Magazine, December 2018 following a presentation to the FMB annual conference by Liz Male of Liz Male Consulting and Penny Norton of PNPR in September 2018.
The final report is an incredibly comprehensive and significant assessment of the English planning system by former housing minister Nick Raynsford and the product of thousands of responses, including my response on behalf of the Consultation Institute (which can be viewed here)
The Review warns that planning has been reduced to a ‘chaotic patchwork’ of responsibilities which is not compatible with promoting the health, wellbeing and civil rights of communities.
It finds significant deficiencies in community involvement, which, it states, is ‘incompatible with the basic principles of democracy’ and in which ‘people’s involvement in planning is no longer characterised as due process but as delay’.
More specifically, it cites social media, ‘fake news’ and well-resourced campaign groups (the cause of ‘a toxic political environment’) as being barriers to sensible debate, along with ‘a lack of support services for communities on planning applications and Local Plans’, the power of developers to exploit and dominate the planning system, complex language and procedures, a lack of community engagement skills among planners, unequal legal rights which reinforce the perception of a system constructed to benefit applicants, anger that decisions seemed to ignore community concerns and anger at the perceived ‘purchase of planning permission’ through Section 106 agreements – among others.
It also states that blanket descriptions of the ‘public’ or ‘community’ can mask the diverse and sometimes competing needs and aspirations of complex social groups.
The Review calls for a more positive, ‘people-centred’ and ‘sociable’ planning system. It makes many recommendations which chime with PNPR and the Consultation Institute’s own thinking on consultation in planning. The recommendations include:
A renewed focus on planners’ skills
A policy statement on people and planning
A new covenant for community participation, based on:
clear citizen rights
a significant new approach to helping communities to engage in the planning process
a new professional culture and skills set directed at engaging communities.
A new commitment to meeting people’s basic needs and rights, including:
a duty on local authorities to provide genuinely affordable homes
a right to basic living conditions to support people’s health and wellbeing, secured through minimum national design standards which meet people’s needs throughout their lifetime
a legal obligation to plan for the needs of future generations, by, for example, the consideration of resource use.
Community powers to plan effectively – giving communities and local authorities the powers they need to shape developments which have a real impact on people’s safety, health and wellbeing
A new legal duty to promote the Aarhus Convention rights
Improved public awareness of planning, through harnessing the benefits of new technology, redirecting resources to general planning advisory services, establishing a community planning portal to act as a hub of community resources on planning, work with the Department of Education to embed planning skills in the national curriculum as a key part of citizenship, and harnessing the resources of the planning schools to support community understanding and empowerment.
On behalf of the Consultation Institute, I am working increasingly closely with the TCPA on strengthening community involvement in planning. I was recently asked to attend a roundtable discussion on Empowering Communities to Participate in Planning for New Communities and have been involved in the drafting of a new TCPA guide People, Planning and Power which is published in March 2019. Additionally I have offered its support to the TCPA in a variety of areas, including the drafting of new covenant for community participation and code for consultation in planning, advice on how to restore the disconnect between planning and people and in overcoming apathy. We hope that over time more developers and planning consultants will use tCI membership to raise standards in planning consultations.
Whether Nick Raynsford’s recommendations are taken on board very much depends on how political events play out over the next few very uncertain weeks. But there is certainty in that these are constructive recommendations which have the potential to transform both attitudes and outcomes people’s role in planning.
I am frequently asked whether consultation is a legal requirement in planning. The fact that it is impossible to answer in fewer than 100 words exemplifies just how complex community involvement in planning has become.
And so I, and other Associates of the Consultation Institute, very much welcome the Interim Report of the Raynsford Review and the very constructive steps that it recommends in bringing about greater clarity and consistency.
Members of the Consultation Institute’s Planning Working Group – all communications / planning professionals working in planning and development – have considered the Report’s recommendations and their potential implementation. Although there is no expectation that the nine propositions will result in immediate changes to planning law, much of what is recommended, along with our commentary on them, might be regarded as good practice and therefore is worthy of consideration by planners and developers.
A historic need
Despite growing concern about public disaffection in the planning system, there has been no comprehensive review of the relationship between planning and people since the 1969 Skeffington Report. The Report received a positive reception, but few of its recommendations were put into practice – apparently because they were too vague and intangible. And yet the Skeffington Report had an enduring influence on community involvement in planning – to the extent that Skeffington is said to have influenced the introduction of Localism over forty years later.
In 2011, embarking on the Localism agenda which was to set the scene for community involvement in planning today, the Government said:
‘Pre-application consultation provides an opportunity to achieve early consensus on controversial issues before proposals are finalised. This should encourage greater community engagement in the process, and result in better quality applications submitted to local authorities, which are more in line with community aspirations, and much less controversial. Such an approach is considered to be inclusive and transparent, with development outcomes more in line with what the community desires.’
The statement was based on research carried out by the then Department for Communities and Local Government which found that as a result of pre-application consultations there was a 10-15% fall in the number of appeals, hearings and enquiries. Additionally, a YouGov poll for the National Housing and Planning Advice Unit had demonstrated that 21% of respondents opposed new housing supply in their area, but that this number fell to 8% if homes were well-designed and in keeping with the local area.
Localism (which was itself instigated by the need to substantially increase the UK’s housing stock) was based on the belief that local involvement would deliver greater consensus. In an environment in which local comment on development proposals was generally negative, this was a bold approach and one which should have begun by communicating the benefits of consultation in bringing about appropriate development. Unfortunately the Government – unlike Raynsford – failed to do so.
The eventual Localism Act was significantly less bold on the requirement for consultation than it had originally intended: while the Bill set out to enshrine a requirement to consult in law, the Act omitted the requirement to consult on planning applications in England and Scotland with the exception of planning applications for wind turbines.
And so while there are considerable obligations for local authorities to consult on the formation of a Local Plan, for Neighbourhood Plans to be determined by referendum and for NSIP applications to follow a very prescriptive consultation strategy, there is little requirement on the average developer to consult, other than some vague wording in the NPPF (regrettably unchanged in the 2018 revisions) which states that, ‘Early engagement has significant potential to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the planning application system for all parties’ and that ‘Good quality pre-application discussion enables better coordination between public and private resources and improved outcomes for the community.’
In a further watering-down, the NPPF continues… ‘Local authorities… cannot require that a developer engages with them before submitting a planning application, but they should encourage take-up of any pre-application services they do offer,’ and ‘Where they think this would be beneficial, encourage applicants…to engage with the local community before submitting their applications.’
So the legal requirement for consultation in planning remains vague and widely misunderstood, and the work of the Raynsford Review in demystifying this is much welcomed.
Enriching planning through community involvement
While the legal requirement for developers to consult remains opaque, the notion that community involvement can benefit planning decisions is unequivocal.
Planning is ultimately about people: whether a local authority-run strategic plan or a private sector-led development proposal, change to the built environment impacts on communities. While it is generally believed that those proposing changes should involve local residents as a courtesy, additionally planners and developers have much to benefit from involving local people.
Consultation provides the opportunity to glean information and ideas from a local community. This might include knowledge of local history and which has the potential to enrich a scheme, otherwise unknown social issues which might have delayed the process, and the needs and aspirations of the community which may be met through the new development. With local input, proposals can be enriched and finely tuned to a specific neighbourhood, creating a unique scheme well suited to its location.
The local community, too, can benefit: community involvement can promote social cohesion, strengthen individual groups within it and create a shared legacy.
Following local dialogue at an early stage and having had proposals either challenged or welcomed, a developer has a greater chance of building local support for a proposed scheme. And a well-run consultation can build a trusting and mutually cooperative relationship between the developer and the community, which can minimise the potential for conflict and thereby remove risk in the process.
Clarification in a covenant
So it is without hesitation that the Consultation Institute supports the Raynsford Review’s call for greater clarification on the role of community engagement in planning.
Specifically, we welcome the proposed covenant for community participation which has the potential to formalise requirements for consultation in appropriate circumstances, rectify the uncertainty about when a developer is required to consult and clarify the expectations that local communities should have of the planning system.
Such a covenant would require clear definitions of consultation / participation / involvement / engagement and the circumstances in which each should be used. All too frequently the terms are used interchangeably at considerable risk to the developer or planning consultant. ‘Engagement’ and ‘participation’ refer to an ongoing, generally long-term dialogue and can vary significantly. ‘Consultation’, however, as a result of considerable case law mostly outside the development sector, has become very litigious. Specifically, the courts view consultation in the context of the Gunning Principles and where these are not upheld, decisions can be overturned by the courts.
Similarly, the ‘three pillars’ (Articles 4-9) of the Aarhus Convention (named after the location of 1998 United Nations’ Economic Commission) stipulate three public rights regarding access to information, public participation and access to justice in governmental decision-making and, like the Gunning Principles, have become an important benchmark in consultation, specifically in relation to dialogue between the public and public authorities.
The Consultation Institute hopes to work with the TCPA on a draft covenant for community participation and, as the Interim Review recommends, would use both the Gunning principles and those of the Aarhus Convention as its basis.
Raising standards and encouraging innovation
We also see the final report of the Raynsford Review as an opportunity to raise standards in consultation. Specifically, a renewed focus on consultation can put in place measures to ensure that dialogue is efficient and meaningful without being excessive, ensure that involvement of a wide range of groups in the local community, and put in place some guidance on how consultation results are used. The latter does not simply concern issues with evaluation, analysis and reporting (though there are certainly opportunities for improvement at this stage), but also the need, at the start of any local dialogue, to agree and clarify how feedback is to be used.
Confusion on this issue is unsurprising. In the case of a Neighbourhood Plan, a local referendum determines the final decision, yet community responses to a development application are generally only regarded as ‘advisory’ and secondary to that of the professional team. Consequently local communities remain confused about the intended use of their contributions and this is a primary reason for dissatisfaction in the current system.
Promoting community involvement as a central tenent of planning, one that is structured by guidelines and inspired by best practice, has the potential to tackle many of the issues that continually perplex planners and developers.
While the Consultation Institute is a strong advocate of good consultation, we do not prescribe consultation in all circumstances. Each development proposal is different: some benefit from community input from the very outset, while in other cases viability issues prevent community involvement in all but a handful of decisions. We believe that where consultation on a planning application is appropriate, it should be efficient and meaningful, without being excessive and a selection of means by which this might be achieved is summarised below (Efficient and meaningful consultations).
The proposal for ‘a new professional culture and skills set directed at engaging communities’ is long overdue. Planning consultants and developers are generally highly trained, their undergraduate and postgraduate degrees covering a wide spectrum of skills. With only a few exceptions, however, consultation has so far featured on very few syllabuses. In fact when I published my book Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide last year, it was the only book on consultation in planning to have been published since the Skeffington Report almost fifty years earlier.
Through other generally more litigious sectors, the Consultation Institute has contributed to a professionalisation of consultation through quality assurance, consultation industry standards of practice, professional accreditations and CPD and we see considerable benefit in these benefits applying to the development sector.
Similarly, the Consultation Institute is fully supportive of the Interim Review’s proposition for a new ‘creative and visionary’ planner. We see some excellent examples of creativity and innovation in consultation – both within the planning sector and elsewhere – which could be communicated more widely across the planning sector and inspire more positive community engagement.
We look forward to the publication of the Raynsford Review, and with it the development of the very many positive ideas that are contained within the Interim Report. As a next stage, we see significant benefit in guides on consultation in planning for both the development industry and for local residents; the creation of a ‘good’ consultation kitemark for the industry; training for planning consultants on consultation, and a formalised means of best practice across industry, specifically on subjects such as online consultation, evaluation and analysis, the use of co-production and participatory planning.
There is no doubt, as the Interim Report acknowledges, that it is, ‘a challenge to define how much power communities should have as compared to the development industry or national Government’. Striking a balance between achieving growth and giving existing communities a voice is a perpetual problem, but one which can be lessened and in many cases overcome through an appropriate and considered approach to community consultation.
The Gunning Principles
Consultation must be held at a formative stage, so that respondents have maximum opportunity to influence decision making.
Consultation must provide sufficient opportunities for ‘intelligent consideration’, so that respondents can come to informed opinions.
Consultation must provide adequate time for consideration and response, to ensure that respondents have sufficient time to come to and express a view, and that there is sufficient time to properly consider that view.
Consultation must ‘conscientiously consider’ feedback received.
Efficient and meaningful consultations
Gain a thorough understanding of the target consultees, especially any ‘hard to reach’ groups.
Determine how consultation responses will be used at the very start of the process. If community feedback is to advise, rather than determine the resulting decision, this should be clearly stated. It is also helpful to state how anonymous responses, petitions and comments from outside any defined geographical area should be used.
Where possible, meet with community support / neighbourhood involvement officers to discuss how to ensure effective access for hard to reach groups.
Carry out initial research including stakeholder and issues analysis.
Draft a consultation mandate, stating the target audience, the aims and objectives of the consultation, the subject for discussion, how the results will be used, the organisation initiating the change post-consultation and its timing. Ensure that the consultation mandate is communicated effectively, including on all consultation material.
Hold the consultation at a formative stage, so that respondents have maximum opportunity to influence decision making.
Provide adequate time for consideration and response (both in the consultation and the analysis of it).
Avoid a clash of consultations – for example, consulting on a development planning application during a Local Plan consultation.
Allow no fewer than six weeks for a standard consultation; more if a significant holiday period falls during this period.
Ensure a range of tactics to appeal to the range within the community.
Consider all tactics in terms of access – both physical and psychological.
Consider innovative tactics to make the consultation more engaging.
Use a variety of tactics to inspire involvement.
Consider tactics most likely to result in constructive responses.
Understand the specific groups that make up the neighbourhood and ensure that consultation tactics are targeted suitably, investing in translations if necessary.
Provide adequate information to enable consultees to make a fully informed response.
Combine both quantitative and qualitative research techniques as appropriate.
Ensure that questions and accompanying information are free from technical jargon.
Analysis, evaluation and feedback
Evaluate the consultation responses as set out at the start of the consultation.
While the property world is being transformed by PropTech, a comparison between most developer-led consultations with those of the late twentieth century would suggest that little has changed: today’s consultations appear to rely on newsletters, exhibitions and paper surveys, just as they did then.
And yet innovative and effective communications tools exist, and have the potential to revolutionise consultation.
It was the absence of accessible best practice in modern methods of communication that led me to write Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide. The book shows how consultation has moved with the times and the planning process is has benefitted as a result.
Changes in the world of communication
The communications revolution has brought about an explosion of data (from ‘big’ and extremely detailed), unparalleled access to information, opportunities to reach millions at the touch of a button, improved dialogue, non-hierarchical communications, more agile research tools, and significantly improved means of analysis.
Internet usage is increasing year on year. In 2016 no fewer than 99.2% of adults aged 16-24 were recent internet users and although the older population has some way to go before it reaches saturation point, it is the fastest growing group.
The way in which we use the internet also continues to grow and diversify. 61% adults use social media and 70% regularly access the internet using a mobile phone or smartphone – double the proportion five years previously. Technological changes have, without doubt, had the greatest impact on communication so far this century.
The American University Center for Social Media has identified five categories of internet usage: choice, conversation, curation, creation, collaboration. In a planning context, these behaviours might be described as follows:
Choice: seeking information on Local Plan formation, policies and planning applications though search engines, recommendations, news feeds and niche sites.
Conversation: discussing proposed schemes on forums, blogs and microblogs; taking conversations into new forums (such as those of special interest groups).
Curation: selecting and linking to content to form arguments targeted at specific groups; posting and reposting
Creation: developing new content such as a film to communicate a specific point of view
Collaboration: building support for a campaign.
As the capabilities of the internet grow, the opportunities for involvement within each of these categories will increase and individuals’ behaviour online will become increasingly powerful.
The communications revolution in planning
The internet has had a huge influence on planning, perhaps more so than any piece of legislation. And unlike legislation, the surge in online communication cannot be reversed.
Following the ‘digital by default’ transformation programme and the establishment of the Planning Portal, central Government communications on planning is primarily online; similarly all Local Plan and planning application consultations are hosted online by local authorities, and with the rise of ‘hyperlocal’ websites and online campaigning, stakeholder groups connected to planning decisions can communicate online very effectively.
Developers opting not to have an online presence, or those who install a website with no mechanism for dialogue, run the risk of their scheme being debated on closed blogs and Facebook groups and consequently will be unaware of any mounting objection until it becomes too late.
The benefits of online consultation
Access and engagement
Currently 12% planning applications fail to gain planning consent because of issues related to consultation and community engagement.
By targeting residents via their preferred means, the likelihood of widespread engagement and support is increased. Users can take part in an online consultation where they want – at home or on the move and when they want. 79% ConsultOnline users take part in consultations using smart phones or tablets and a large proportion respond late at night.
Online consultation has the power to reach new audiences – particularly the young and the time-poor. The average age of residents taking part in an online consultation is 35 – 44: typically young parents who work, perhaps commute, and have little time to attend evening meetings.
In a busy public meeting, attendees frequently defer to a dominating character or group leader; whereas online, individuals are more likely to voice their opinions without fear of repercussions.
A wide selection of dialogue methods
There is no single ‘right’ method of consultation and given the range of stakeholders in any one community, a variety is always beneficial.
The internet has enabled the toolbox of consultation techniques to be expanded considerably as these examples show.
The days of informing the public on a development proposal and collating results at the end of the process is over. Online communication is ongoing, fast and responsive, enabling the consultor to become aware of, to understand, and to correct any misconceptions immediately.
Proactive use of the internet by the development industry
Among those developers who understand the benefits of online consultation, usage generally falls into one of three categories:
Consultation via social media – most commonly Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
Consultation using ‘off the shelf’ consultation websites such as Citizen Space, E consult and Community Tools
Consultation using specially developed consultation websites put in place by the consulting organisation (sometimes as microsite attached to an existing website).
A comprehensive website and consultation service which combines the features of social media with additional functionality
Uses wide-ranging and innovative tactics to inform and consult
Updated regularly throughout the consultation
Enables access to polls and forums on the basis of a specific postcode area
Users develop hypothetical visions of a development area using popular games such as Minecraft and Second Life.
Research and analysis
The internet has brought about a research renaissance. It has enabled detailed research to inform consultation strategies, create an understanding of local communities and ensure that appropriate dialogue methods are selected. Stakeholder mapping literally ‘maps’ a community, assessing the power and influence of individuals and gauging their likely reaction to specific issues.
A more scientific approach has also been taken towards monitoring, analysis and evaluation. The ConsultOnline model allows all data collected, from comments in meetings or in writing to online polls, to be processed through a consultation website, facilitating up to date consultation reports as required, at the touch of a button. It is hard imagine that previously the developer would have had little knowledge of resident sentiment until the end of the consultation. Today, we have the tools to easily identify emerging themes, possible misapprehensions and potential ‘ambassadors’.
There is undoubtedly some every effective innovation in the planning world, but modern methods of communication are far from universal.
Of course online consultation cannot replace offline consultation entirely until 100% of any local community is able and willing to communicate online. To some, a screen will never compensate for a human and for that reason face-to-contact should remain. However, there are many advantages of online consultation: it is popular and accessible, time and cost effective, clear and uncomplicated; information can be immediately available and discussions open to all, and evaluation is substantially more sophisticated than previously.
It is important that the planning world doesn’t lag behind the communications abilities of the stakeholder groups with which it communicates. Today’s young adults have grown up with Facebook, Survey Monkey and 38 Degrees, and as such are effective online communicators. Inspiring them play a constructive role in planning, while also keeping up to speed with the various interest groups which have an ever-increasing role to play, requires the development industry to accept and adopt change enthusiastically.
From the first planning meeting to the last construction vehicle leaving site, building benefits from positive communication with local residents. And as the way in which people’s approach to communication changes, so too should the construction industry’s.
The internet is changing communication in every context. Today over 90% households have internet access, 73% adults own a smart-phone and online is increasingly the preferred method of communication for many community groups.
Planning authorities are now required to post applications online, local residents discuss and debate development proposals via social media and in blogs, and the media gathers these views to inform news stories. Once the diggers arrive on site, local residents will head online to get the information that they feel entitled to know.
So no new scheme is without an online presence – irrespective of the developer’s intentions. And rather than allow chat fuelled by speculation and misinformation to dominate the online presence, savvy developers and construction companies are finding that websites present a great opportunity to communicate efficiently and cost effectively.
Whether in consultation or community relations, online communication should not take the place of offline communication, but can complement and enrich it. It can also reduce offline communication, and therefore overall costs.
In using online consultation in planning, I have found that communicating with residents via their preferred means significantly increases support. And the same is true of community relations during construction: when targeted via their preferred means of communication, people are more supportive of a scheme and understanding of any disruption.
Local residents appreciate online communication because they can get involved when and where they want, while technology can assist in making communication physically accessible for those who might find other forms of communication difficult.
Construction websites can convey a substantial amount of information about the scheme and its timeline, and provide links to newsletters which would otherwise be expensive to deliver to a wide area. A database of local residents who wish to be kept informed of progress provides a means for the contractor to get in touch easily and quickly regarding any road closures and major work on site.
A community relations website may include a timeline, interactive maps, Q&As (to which users may contribute), regular updates on construction work and images. Time lapse photography is very popular, as are CGI fly-throughs. Other useful information might include an introduction to the team with hyperlinks to each organisation’s own website – a great opportunity to inform local residents of sustainable features, commitment to using local workers / suppliers and other corporate social responsibility initiatives such as apprenticeship schemes. External links, such as to the Considerate Constructors Scheme are also popular. Perhaps most importantly, a website offers the opportunity for users to register their interest under a range of subjects, be it in relation to construction updates, sales and lettings or employment opportunities.
I am increasingly working with construction companies to develop and administer community relations online, which takes the day-to-day responsibility for local resident communication off the shoulders of the contractor in a way that is time (and therefore cost) efficient but also reassures the local authority that they have a dedicated service.
As communication increasingly moves online, so too will our contact with local residents. To some, a screen will never compensate for a human face and for that reason face-to-contact should remain. However, there are many advantages of online communication: it increases accessibility, it is clear and uncomplicated, and information can be readily available and visible to all. And using a website and social media alongside traditional means can reduce cost and time expenditure by half. It is no surprise that the development industry is increasingly choosing to communicate online.
Try to envisage a world without Local Plans, the NPPF, Neighbourhood Planning, Localism and CIL and its clear quite how much planning has changed in the last ten years. And the same is true of communication: not only the means by which we communicate but also the manner in which we communicate.
The extent of this change led me to write Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide, which was published by Routledge in July. This article explores some of those changes and provides some practical advice on their implementation.
Collaboration in place of conflict
A decade ago, consultation was dominated by the dreaded public meeting. A development team would prepare a masterplan to support a planning application and, bearing down on them from a podium, tell a large group of local residents what was intended – ideally for long enough to minimise comment. But disgruntled locals were invariably present, quick to jump to their feet and oppose the scheme, and rally their neighbours into an angry frenzy. Generally residents would attend only if they objected – what was the point in venturing out to a draughty village hall if you were broadly in support of the proposals? And the local media would attend in anticipation of a dramatic evening, which often resulted in a harmful news story.
Not all public meetings took this form of course: many were constructive and they continue today in some circumstances. But generally, development teams now seek more engaging and constructive means of consultation.
Participatory planning – also referred to as community planning, community visioning or collaborative planning – is gaining increasing prominence, its engaging approach providing a welcome alternative to the adversarial public meeting.
The process of participatory planning varies, but typically it involves pre-engagement research and dialogue; a community planning day in which groups of residents, assisted but not directed by professionals, create visions and solutions which they then feed back to the larger group; development of a masterplan by professionals following local insight; followed by an exhibition at which the masterplan is formally consulted upon.
The benefits of this approach are substantial. Early engagement can create a sense of ownership among the community, build trust with the development team and result in positive sentiment towards change. Participatory planning, because of its variety of tactics and emphasis on facilitation, can involve a range of local voices including those who would not choose to comment otherwise. The process frequently accelerates the masterplanning process, partly because it involves not only local residents, but also politicians and planners too.
Participatory planning is only effective if a considerable amount of time is invested at an early stage, providing an opportunity for the community to be involved in developing a vision, and it requires considerable faith and an enlightened attitude on the part of the development team. But of those who have taken the plunge, the vast majority would take every opportunity to do so again. In fact that this form of consultation has flourished in every sector, from Neighbourhood Planning to large scale mixed use schemes.
As communication has become increasingly strategic, the importance of research in informing the choice of tactics has increased.
It is common for a consultation team to compile a consultation strategy internally, using research gathered informally from a variety of sources. However, in line with the increasingly collaborative approach to consultation, local residents are increasingly engaged in dialogue during the very early stages of consultation.
Then, as a consultation strategy is developed, the role of research switches to that of stakeholder information and analysis. Researching likely consultees enables the consultation strategy to take into account the appropriate number of residents to be targeted, the diversity within the community and an understanding of where power lies. Without it, a consultation runs the risk of being asymmetrical and failing to reach certain sections of the community, which often includes the ‘silent majority’ as well as the traditionally hard to reach.
A recent innovation, stakeholder mapping is proving extremely constructive. It provides the potential to depict a community as an eco-system, assess the power and influence of individuals and gauge their likely reaction to specific issues. It allows the development team to understand an individual’s likely view (be it positive or negative) and can assess the impact of that view on others being consulted.
Stakeholder engagement software enables the pin-pointing of individuals geographically and provides data distribution and analysis. This resource is most useful when maintained and continually expanded upon. However it should be used only for the purpose of the consultation and data protection rules adhered to, all the more so with the introduction of new General Data Protection Regulations in May 2018.
Developments in monitoring, analysis and evaluation
Monitoring, analysis and evaluation are important elements of strategic consultation. Monitoring occurs throughout; analysis, although it can be on-going, takes place (or is complete) at the end of the process; and this is followed by evaluation.
It goes without saying that electronic communication has enabled a more scientific approach to each. I recently ran a consultation in which all data collected, from comments in meetings to online polls, was fed through a consultation website, enabling me to present the client with an up to date consultation report as often as required, at the touch of a button. It is hard imagine that previously the developer would have had little knowledge of resident sentiment until the end of the consultation: today, issues management is a key strategic element of any consultation and we have created the tools to easily identify emerging themes, possible misapprehensions and potential ‘ambassadors’.
With the move towards participatory planning, consultation data has moved from being predominately quantitative to predominately qualitative. Qualitative data – observations and comments, usually expressed in words rather than in numbers both provides a context for quantitative data, and enables the consulting body to get to the heart of an issue. And again, recent technological developments have brought about a more effective means of measurement.
The online consultation revolution
The increased popularity, power and availability of the internet accounts for much of the change in public consultation over the past two decades. This increased significantly in 2004 when Web 2.0 enabled more effective two-way communication. The rise in individual and community use of the internet, combined with the requirement in 2005 that local authorities and other public bodies ‘e-enable’ all services including planning, public involvement and consultation, means that all development proposals have an online presence – whether intended by the developer or not.
There are many reasons why developers increasingly choose to use online consultation:
Research: The internet is by far the most powerful research resource. A substantial proportion of information that is required in researching stakeholder groups and necessary background information is freely and readily available.
Issues management: A constructive consultation is based on the community having access to reliable information, which can be easily sourced online. Monitoring of online consultation provide an immediate and effective means of understanding local sentiment and identifying any misapprehensions.
Immediacy: Online consultation has the advantage of being immediate: information can be posted and responded to in minutes. But consultation timelines should not be shortened as a result. On the contrary, immediate communication can only take place if the audience has been targeted and is in receipt of the message. Online communication can potentially spread quickly but only if the message is strong and compelling.
Ease of access: Online communication is a medium in which many people choose to communicate and by targeting residents via their preferred means, the likelihood of involvement is increased. Users can take part in an online consultation when and where they want – at home, on the move. Many chose to do so late at night. Because of its increased accessibility, online consultation has the power to reach new audiences – particularly the young and the time-poor. Local authorities welcome developers’ inclination to consult more widely; simultaneously this enables developers to unearth the support of the ‘silent majority’.
Dialogue: Online consultation allows for real-time dialogue and an exchange of ideas on a one-to-one, one-to-many and many-to-many basis.
Removing hierarchies: Online consultation has no regard for the limiting social stratas that we impose on ourselves. In a busy public meeting, for example, attendees may defer to a dominating character or group leader. Ultimately those members are not adequately represented, despite their presence. Online, and particularly behind the veil of a username, individuals are more likely to voice opinions without fear of repercussions, while personal details remain confidential but are accessible to the local authority as a confidential appendix to the consultation report.
Reaching ‘hard to reach’ groups: Many people – particularly commuters, families with young children, the elderly and disabled – are not easily able to attend consultation events. Online consultation provides an alternative, accessible means of engagement. Online consultation can be accessible in both its language and in the varied ways in which information is presented.
Promotion: Social media, blogs and the local media online can assist in communicating messages quickly.
Moderation: Both websites and social media can be monitored effectively. The way in which a consultation is to be moderated should be determined at the start and ideally communicated via a user guide to ensure consistency. For example, it should be decided in advance whether user generated content is to be vetted before appearing and if so, on what basis comment might be withdrawn.
Analysis: Online communication can be very effectively analysed: comprising day-by-day website usage; average session times and bounce rates; analysis of the most popular pages; demographic information in relation to location, gender, age and interest; analysis of how people are reaching the website; results per poll / forum / survey / blog comment; maps to depict the location of respondents. Likewise qualitative analysis which combines a technical and human approach can be more sophisticated than offline analysis.
Feedback: A consultation website, email and social media provide ideal means for communicating feedback.
Taking this into account, it is not surprising that most consultations are now both online and offline. This is also true of individual tactics: it would be inadvisable to host an offline event such as a public exhibition without announcing it online; likewise, a website or social media campaign would benefit from being promoted both online and offline.
But although it does much to benefit consultation, online consultation is not a panacea: this new selection of tactics presents a new set of risks. The fast dissemination of information online, although beneficial in many circumstances, can also be a disadvantage. In cyberspace information can fragment quickly and become used by pressure groups to reinforce their interests and prejudices.
Furthermore online consultation, particularly social media, can be seen as superficial and lacking the emotional power and empathy that face-to-face communication can bring. Online profiles can mask identities and if measures are not put in place, it can become impossible to monitor the geographical origin of comments. Standardised response mechanisms give online consultations a bad reputation, and should be avoided in most circumstances. And despite the increase in online communication, a digital divide still exists, particularly affecting BME and older groups.
Online consultation – addressing the risks
Online consultation is relatively new and a fear of the unknown persists despite many success stories. Common concerns are that the consultation will be hijacked by trolls, that the website will be open to corruption, and that registration will be off-putting.
Online, a ‘troll’ is an entity which takes part in discussions purely to disturb other users. Potentially a troll can anger people, disrupt the flow of debate/discussion and use abusive language. Anyone who has run a consultation will know that this behaviour operates both on and offline. Online, there can be effective means of dealing with trolls. It is extremely important to identify this either as anti-social behaviour or merely an impassioned and negative response to the consultation: unpalatable though it may be, the latter should not be dismissed, as everyone is entitled to put forward their views on the subject being discussed. However, activities which are clearly anti-social and thwart the objectives of the consultation should be stopped. Software can be used to identify bad language and ‘spam’ and is advised, in conjunction with monitoring. Where necessary, posts can be removed with immediate effect, IP addresses banned and usernames invalidated. Should a local issue have potential to escalate into a national issue and draw response from across the globe, mechanisms can be implemented to allow only those within a specific postcode area to register to take part in online forums, and the electoral register can be used to check the veracity of identities given. In online consultation, preventative action can be almost too easy: it should only be used when absolutely necessary.
With hacking, phishing and spam affecting our daily lives, it is unsurprising that issues of cyber security concern those running consultations. Certainly an unprotected website can leave itself open to abuse and if user details are being collated via an online database the legal and reputational impact can be considerable. However, all websites can benefit from EV (Extended Validation) SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) certificates which ensure that all communications – including user names and passwords – between the browser and the website are encrypted and can only be accessed by the website owner.
Registration can be extremely beneficial in restricting consultation responses to a specific locality and understanding more about those taking part. However, those running the consultation should also consider the downsides of registration: potential users may be reluctant to pass on email addresses, passwords and other personal data, and may be put off by the amount of time (perceived or otherwise) that registration demands. Consultation websites should seek to make the process simple and reassuring, explaining the need for registration, referring as appropriate to the security measures in place and making the process as smooth and simple as possible. Typically a consultation website will require a name, postcode, username and password. Any other information, such as a full postal address or demographic data (age, employment or marital status) should be given voluntarily and it is advisable to request this data at a later stage, allowing the user to have built up trust and respect for the consultation and appreciate the benefits in supplying such data.
Understandably tactics as new and as powerful as online consultation can raise concerns. But by far the greatest risk in online consultation is not connected to the consultation website itself but the absence of it: failure to provide a platform by which local residents can discuss a proposed development online can result in the developer being unaware of other online discussions, which can then gather momentum and perhaps only come to light when it is too late to address concerns or misapprehensions.
With the potential pitfalls effectively addressed, online consultation can lead to more efficient and more effective consultation. This will continue to benefit research and evaluation and will also assist and complement participatory planning. I have no doubt that over the next ten years and beyond, consultation will continue be transformed by technological change.
How can be online consultation be made to work effectively?
Have a content plan in place – but be flexible.
Watch and listen – determine what works best for the particular consultation, when to post and lengths of posts. Google Analytics is a very helpful tool for understanding user patterns.
Use stakeholder research and analysis to gain an understanding of the likely take-up.
Use a consultation mandate to establish aims and objectives and guidance on usage
Ensure that a consultation mandate (a statement on behalf of the developer on how the consultation is to be run) is displayed prominently – or that its content is expressed clearly.
Put rules for engagement in place via a user guide.
Communicate the purpose and process of the consultation. Make the timeline clear and adhere to it where possible; where this is not possible, ensure that the audience is fully informed.
Be realistic about how quickly you can respond to questions raised online and communicate your commitment to respond at the start of the consultation.
Make access a priority
Avoid making the online consultation too complicated: always consider the less digitally aware when drafting web content and functionality.
Consider the benefits of making all (or specific) polls and forums available only to local residents by requiring that they register using a postal address.
Bear in mind that registration can deter involvement. If using a registration process, ensure that this is quick and simple, and doesn’t demand so much information as to be off-putting.
Let people register and get started quickly. Only those with a strong objection to a proposal will persist with an onerous registration process.
Select tactics with careful consideration
Use a variety of online tactics, providing the tactics are in line with the consultation objectives and deliver meaningful results.
Aim to use a combination of qualitative and quantitative tactics online.
Ensure that all tactics, where possible, include an opportunity to respond.
Create compelling and useful content
Create an enticing home page. Consider the use of video as an icebreaker.
Bear mind that people have shorter attention spans online. Write content specifically for the website: do not be tempted to simply install the content of a document or leaflet online.
Ensure that text is crisp and clear at all times.
Break substantial information into manageable chunks.
Ensure that information is presented in a variety of different ways.
Provide enough information to enable people to make an informed response.
Create content that is suitably compelling for people to engage with and share.
Use images, illustrations, maps, videos and slideshows to bring the content to life.
Link surveys and forums to background information to ensure that those responding are adequately informed.
Provide ample visual material. Mapping can enable residents to zoom in on an areas in detail and add text, video and comment.
Consider the use of slider bars. This is a visual and effective means of determining relative levels. It works well in budget setting but could also be an engaging and useful tool for community input in landscape design or other decisions.
Blog: a powerful way to provide regular updates and invite responses
Post regularly and on behalf of various members of the development team but determine how comment on blogs will be fed into the analysis prior to permitting comment.
Consider allowing members of the community, such as representatives of a stakeholder engagement group, to blog.
Ensure that those who blog on behalf of the development team understand the key messages and the scope of the consultation.
Use information to demonstrate transparency
Document libraries can be used to hold complex planning documents such as relevant local planning policies, or at the end of the process, the documents which make up the planning application.
Use hyperlinks to enable consultees to access extensive information if they choose to do so (ensuring that the hyperlink opens a new window rather than taking the residents’ attention away from the consultation website).
Involve via online forums
Use online forums to invite comment and discussion on a range of issues.
Prior to launching an online consultation, determine to what extent the development team will interact and if so, whether to do so in a corporate character or an individual’s name.
If taking part in online forums aim to facilitate, but avoid arguing at all costs.
Use issues ranking to gain statistical results
Put in place a mechanism whereby residents can select a preferred option from a list of choices, and second and subsequent lists are selected by routing software in relation to the initial choice.
Use social media with care
Don’t be tempted to use social media just because it’s there: consider its function and whether it can meet the aims and objectives of your consultation. Facebook, for example, was designed as a means to communicate with friends, share photographs and videos and to arrange social activities. It has the means of addressing some consultation objectives, but due to the inability to gain user data and therefore meaningful analysis, Facebook’s role as a consultation tactic is limited.
Likewise, Twitter is a useful means of promoting a consultation but its 140 character limit restricts meaningful dialogue.
Bear in mind that many people choose not to use social media, and those that do may not choose to use it to comment on a development proposal. It should not be the sole means of online consultation.
If you set up a social media profile, keep it active: nothing communicates a reluctance to communicate more effectively than a dormant Twitter feed or Facebook page with unread Friend requests and posts. Maintaining a social media presence is a time consuming process but can be helped by scheduling posts and setting up automatic monitoring, with results directed to a designated email account.
Promoting an online consultation
Bear in mind that consultations are never solely online or offline: successful consultations use online to promote offline tactics, and offline to promote online tactics.
Use Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) to ensure that the website can be found easily.
Consider a range of other tactics such as links on other relevant websites, local press and broadcast media, blogs, social media, links on email sign-offs, signage, posters and newsletters.
Be as responsive as is feasible
Provide a means for respondents to contact a person if necessary – ideally both by email and phone.
Determine in advance whether you’ll interact on public forums – and if so, ensure that the role is one of facilitation, not refereeing.
Ensure that all those posting / responding on behalf of the consultation do so with the same understanding.
Keep registered users updated – via email, RSS, SMS or social media.
Remember that communication online is immediate and 24/7
Commit to regular posting. Social media posts can be scheduled via a range of dashboard applications such as TweetDeck and Hootsuite.
Keep the website fresh and up to date.
Check links regularly.
Update the website regularly.
Ensure consistency throughout the consultation
Ensure that the online content is in keeping with offline content – this is particularly appropriate if the two parts of the project are being run by different teams.
Ensure that messages are consistent throughout the website and the wider consultation.
Set up monitoring from Day One. This may be both automatic (for bad language / spam) but should not be exclusively so.
If you have to remove a post, let its author know and give them an opportunity to replace it.
Avoid vetting comments as this can lead users to question the transparency of the consultation more generally.
Provide links to offline consultation, allowing respondents to take part both online and offline.
Encourage sharing on social networks to help spread the message.
Focus on results
Avoid the temptation to ask open questions the results of which may be difficult to monitor and analyse.
Ensure that the consultation website provides a means of quickly extracting information for reporting and evaluation.
Leave a Comment The law surrounding statutory consultation is extensive.
And yet when developers consult on planning applications, there is a stark absence of official guidance, regulation and case law. Why, in a discipline led by professionals – chartered surveyors, planning consultants and lawyers – is the approach to consultation so lacking in professional rigour? Because in most cases, there is no statutory requirement for consultation and therefore no legal framework.
True, there is law relating to consultation on Local Plans, Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPS), Neighbourhood Planning and on that carried out by local authorities prior to determining planning consent. But for many new schemes there is no duty to consult under English law.
The situation might have been very different. The 2010 Localism Bill introduced a requirement for developers to consult communities before submitting planning applications. But this was omitted from the resulting Localism Act except in the case of wind turbines. Developer engagement is instead determined by the relevant planning authority, and local authorities’ inclination towards consultation varies considerably.
The advantages of developer consultation are numerous. Consultation can deliver a real insight into a local area, create enduring beneficial relationships and enable an early understanding of any issues or misunderstandings which may stand in the way of planning success, thus save time and money.
I recently attended tCI’s The Law of Consultation conference. As a consultation consultant working with developers and planners, I was immediately struck by the extent to which regulations and case law impacts on so many consultations, but not on mine. Rather than feel relieved to be free of such restraints, I saw how guidelines and past cases drive up standards in consultation in a way which is lacking in my industry.
There are some excellent examples of best practice consultation in planning, but a lack of consistency: enlightened developers devise consultations which are open, transparent, accessible and engaging, but too much engagement is minimal. While enough to qualify for planning consent, ‘consultations’ are invariably rife with leading questions, lacking in information and used solely to justify a foregone decision. Sadly it is this which is reported in the local media, tarnishing the reputation of both planning and consultation.
The Government has recently consulted on changes to the National Planning Policy Framework. The Consultation Institute, of which I am an Associate, responding requesting a tightening up of legislation surrounding planning and development. I see this as necessary to reduce the current confusion over obligations, to put in place some consistency and in doing so, to drive up standards in consultation.
Prior to any legislative changes taking place, for anyone responsible for community engagement on behalf of developers, I would thoroughly recommend The Consultation Institute’s Consultation Law training: far from being irrelevant it is an excellent means of gaining understanding best practice across a variety of sectors which can have enormous benefit on pre-planning consultations.
First published on the Consultation Institute website March 2019Penny’s bookPublic Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guideis published by Routledge. It is available online through Routledge, Amazonand other bookshops.
Consultation can deliver a real insight into a local area, create enduring beneficial relationships and of course provide the information necessary for a comprehensive Statement of Community Involvement (SCI) and ultimately achieve planning success.
Yet frequently developers view consultation as a risk – more often than not because of concern that vocal locals may ambush events or insist on unviable changes.
But there is good news for those who view consultation as acrimonious shouting matches in draughty village halls: public consultation has moved on. This article describes ten ways in which today’s consultations can engage effectively while minimising risk.
Understand the audience and its motivations
The phrase ‘know thy enemy’ is inappropriate in the spirt of cooperative consultation but it certainly encapsulates the benefits of initial research. This includes understanding the number of residents to be targeted, the diversity within the community, its influencers, informal groups and patterns of interest, and opportunities to reach certain sections of the community – the ‘hard to reach’ but also importantly the ‘silent majority’.
Information about stakeholders and their contact details, relevant influences and opinions can be collated in a simple database or on stakeholder engagement software. This enables individuals to be pin-pointed geographically, can reveal which sections of society are likely to respond to the planning application and how, and can enable excellent analysis. Databases should be continually maintained and expanded but used only for the purpose of the consultation and data protection rules must be adhered to – including GDPR legislation which takes effect in May 2018.
The next stage is to consider the specific issues likely to influence the consultation. Knowledge of wider concerns (whether real and perceived), such as housing need and pressure on existing infrastructure, can provide a context for consultation responses and, importantly, enables the development team to address any misapprehensions. An issues database can set out the issues alongside an agreed response. As issues change during the course of a project and themes emerge or develop, the document should be updated.
Usually such documents are not public but are shared within the development team to ensure that responses to difficult subjects are communicated with consistency. That said, an issues document (or elements of it) is frequently the basis for Frequently Asked Questions which may be displayed on the consultation website to show that the developer is aware of residents’ concerns.
Communicate the purpose of the consultation – the consultation mandate
Many years of experience have taught me that the most effective way of keep a consultation on track and mitigating any criticism is to begin with a consultation mandate. Essentially this is promise to local residents which sets out the consultation purpose and objectives, the subject for discussion, the proposed programme and the application of the results.
The consultation mandate is the best opportunity to put in place rules which then govern the consultation. For example, if it specifically disallows irrelevant comment or bad language from the consultation website discussion boards, the consultation mandate is justification for removing such comment.
At the end of the process, the consultation mandate provides the ideal opportunity to evaluate the success of the consultation, demonstrating that it set out what it intended to do.
Ask the right questions
Within reason, well-drafted questions have considerable potential to reduce negativity. In the case of an outline planning application, the consultation will focus on the content of the masterplan, rather than principle of development. The questions can then reiterate this – for example, ‘The Local Plan has identified a need for 30,000 new homes in the area to the period to 2035. This scheme provides for 4,000 homes. Given that a significant amount of new development is already agreed, are you in favour of our approach of providing family homes and apartments in five connected village settings?’. This approach avoids discussion on the housing figures within the Local Plan and concentrates the discussion on the features of the masterplan.
Don’t leave a vacuum for gossip to spread
Many developers are wary of consultation stirring up negative sentiment and providing an impetus for opposition groups. But a reluctant consultation is a risk in itself.
This is particularly seen online, where failure to provide a means by which local residents can comment on a proposed development can result in those discussions taking place elsewhere online. In these situations, the developer may be unaware of escalating issues, which may only come to light when it is too late to address concerns or misapprehensions.
Mitigate risk online
Consequently, consultation websites are increasingly common but online consultation is relatively new and its take-up is often limited by a fear of the unknown. Common concerns are that a consultation will be hijacked by trolls, that a website will be open to corruption, and that registration will be off-putting. While each of these are genuine concerns, they need not stand in the way of a good online consultation, which can have numerous benefits – engaging tactics, increased accessibility and thorough reporting to name but a few.
Online, a ‘troll’ is an entity which takes part in discussions purely to annoy and disturb other users. Anyone who has run a consultation will know that this behaviour can operate both on and offline. Online, there can be effective means of dealing with trolls. Disruptive behaviour can be stopped on the basis of the consultation mandate, as described earlier. Additionally, rules and regulations in relation to harassment, bullying and bad language can be contained within a website user guide. Software can be used to identify bad language and ‘spam’. Where necessary, posts can be removed with immediate effect, IP addresses banned and usernames invalidated.
Consultation websites should be run with utmost security, not only to prevent hacking, phishing and spam but also because where user details are being collated, the legal and reputational impact of this falling into the wrong hands can be considerable. All websites can benefit from EV (Extended Validation) SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) certificates. Websites with this functionality display a padlock icon and https (Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure), rather than simply http (Hyper Text Transfer Protocol) in the URL. This means that all communications – including user names and passwords – between the browser and the website are encrypted and only accessible by the website owner.
Registration can be extremely beneficial to a development team – for example, in restricting consultation responses to a specific locality and understanding more about those taking part. However, the need to register can be a deterrent. Potential users may be reluctant to pass on email addresses, passwords and other personal data, and may be put off by the amount of time (perceived or otherwise) that registration demands. Consultation websites should seek to make the process simple and reassuring, explaining the need for registration, referring to the security measures in place and making the process as smooth and simple as possible.
There is an assumption that the media is naturally anti-development, that a local newspaper will always champion the voice of the resident over that of a corporate entity, and that bad news is more likely to make the headlines than good news. Admittedly this is sometimes true, but what better justification is needed for developers to engage with journalists?
Few developers communicate with the local media in the early stages of consultation, entering into dialogue only (and often reluctantly) when a negative issue has been brought to the attention of the media. Frequently a negative, unbalanced and perhaps inaccurate story will have been published by this stage, causing substantial damage both to the consultation and the reputation of its partners.
As with local residents, positive relationships with the media are based on provision of information and a positive, open and transparent approach.
My recommended approach is to contact the local newspaper at the early stages of a consultation: use the consultation mandate to explain the process and remit of the consultation, ensure that the local media is fully furnished with facts and positive messages and has contact details in the case of future questions. The result is typically a positive story in the first instance, and a more balanced story should local residents approach the newspaper with concerns about the consultation or development proposals.
Tackle issues head-on
Perhaps one of the greatest fears of those running a public consultation is negativity voiced by local interest groups, national activists and so-called NIMBYs.
Earlier I mentioned the importance of researching issues at an early stage and creating an issues database. Technically there is little need to respond to points made until the end of the process; however, where contentious issues are raised and misapprehensions spread, it is often beneficial to respond to emerging issues in a public forum and at the very least will put misapprehensions into context for the purpose of the SCI. An issues database, whether publicly accessible or kept for reference purposes, can include figures relating to statistics (increased traffic figures in the case of a new road, housing allocations in the case of a detail development), and financial data (employment opportunities and the value of new scheme in monetary terms).
It can be hard to change feelings with facts, but facts can certainly help.
Unearth positive responses
It is commonly known that those living closest to a development are most likely to object to it: perhaps because of the impact on their view, the pressure on local infrastructure, or merely the disruption of the construction process. Consequently there is considerable benefit in extending the geographical reach of a consultation in such a way that it includes those who will enjoy the benefits of the proposed scheme but aren’t swayed by these more subjective factors. Online consultation provides an ideal means for doing this: specific interest groups in the region might be contacted in relation to a new facility, and the users of large scale organisations targeted through social media.
The promise of a substantial new amenity and a commitment by its developers to consult widely can raise expectations among local residents. But the higher the expectations, the greater the criticism – both of the proposals and of the process – if they are not met.
Pre-consultation can enable a developer to discuss the remit and nature of the consultation with the local authority, special interest groups and in some cases, residents, at an early stage. Where a gulf exists between expectations and reality, this should become apparent and can be addressed. Often the solution need not be to offer more by way of consultation, but to consult in a way which is more suitable to the specific community.
A consultation will disappoint if the consultation itself is at fault (it has failed to engage) or if its results are unwelcome (either failing to respect resident sentiment or perceived to be inaccurate). Either way, disappointment can fuel negativity – sometimes online, sometimes in the local media – and in the case of a developer’s planning application, may coincide with the point at which the planning application is being consulted upon by the local authority or considered at planning committee. At this stage it is generally too late for developers to change the consultation process or adapt proposals, and faced with possible criticism at a planning committee, the options are to withdraw and amend the application or risk it being refused.
Evaluation is helpful in justifying the outcome: where a specific consultation framework has been put in place using pre-consultation dialogue and research, agreed with the local authority planning department and run accordingly, local authorities will understand that the consultation has met its objectives, despite opposing voices. Negative comment can be viewed in relation to the consultation remit, misapprehensions corrected and concerns addressed. Often overlooked on the basis that the consultation is complete, a diligent response as the final stage of the consultation process benefits both the SCI and ongoing communication with local residents during the construction phase.
There is no prescription for a risk-free consultation, because no such thing exists. But a consultation which is open, transparent, accessible and engaging will encourage comment. In the eyes of the local planning authority, a good consultation is not one which is free of negative comment, but one which produces informed responses capable of shaping future plans and are accordingly.
Invariably a strategic approach to a consultation, starting with a consultation mandate, is the best way to mitigate risk. And a consultation which uses this through approach avoids the risk of failing to produce an adequate SCI.