The first decade of the twenty-first century was a new era in which individuals were given the opportunity to become more active, with significantly more control whether as a purchaser, a customer or a commentator. This was largely due to increasingly interactive internet-based communications but also brought about through growing customer choice (for example in health and education). The advent of corporate social responsibility (CSR), which first became enshrined in law from the late 1990s, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1995 formally accepted the increased importance of dialogue with consumers and responsibility to both local communities and society at large. The result was a shift in the balance of power between consumers and companies or organisations.
But the multiple means by which to speak out and increased likelihood of being listened to does not necessarily translate into an increase in those contributing to discussions on matters such as planning. On the contrary, our busy lives now present so many opportunities to submit a review following a purchase, comment on a Facebook group or complete a council survey that we can be inundated with requests and suffer what has become known as ‘consultation fatigue’. Consultation fatigue can also be caused by a local authority running, or allowing, multiple consultations in a specific location, or seeking too much involvement on complex, nebulous planning questions such as in the formation of a Local Plan. When over-whelmed by multiple requests for feedback, most individuals choose to respond to an organisation with which they have a particular affinity, or an issue that they feel particularly strongly about. It follows therefore, that those people who have little affiliation to a company proposing a new development in their area and no particularly strong views as to whether it goes ahead or not, are less likely to engage with the developer than they might once have been. This group is sometimes, perhaps optimistically, referred to as the ‘silent majority’.
Individuals are also reluctant to become involved in planning discussions if they feel that their contribution is unlikely to change anything, perhaps because they have previously taken part in consultations on planning issues and feel that this has had little impact. Overcoming such perceptions requires the developer to select the topics to be discussed very carefully, to commit to genuine two-way consultation, to communicate in a manner that is clear and easy to comprehend (not only in terms of the vocabulary used but also the structure of the consultation), to select consultation tactics which motivate people, and to undertake to report on all consultation responses.
The ConsultOnline White Paper Tackling Apathy in Consultation addresses this issue from a practical point of view.