Consultation results are likely to disappoint local residents if the consultation has not been publicised adequately, opportunities for involvement are limited, consultation tactics are half-hearted and comments are not listened to.
Disappointment can fuel negativity – sometimes online, sometimes in the local media – and may well coincide with the point at which the planning application is being consulted upon by the local authority or considered by the planning committee. At this stage it is generally too late for developers to adapt proposals in the light of constructive comment, and faced with possible criticism at a planning committee, the options are to withdraw and amend the application or risk it being refused.
Appropriate research and planning provides a good basis for consultation and when this is done well local residents should not have grounds to object to the form of consultation. Importantly, (as described in my earlier blog) reference to the consultation mandate will enable the development team to negate criticisms of the process.
When effectively monitored, concerns about specific development proposals will be identified at an early stage, enabling responses to be addressed while the consultation is still live.
It is important to manage expectations. The potential for a substantial new facility impacting on their lives and a commitment on behalf of its sponsor to consult widely can raise expectations among local residents. If not met, high expectations can lead to criticism of the process and negativity towards the proposal.
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 immediately 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.
The process of consultation should be clarified in the consultation mandate and this document made widely available to ensure that those participating understand the remit of the consultation.
A keen interest – and particularly a positive one – can be welcome news but the development team should be conscious of over-promising and ultimately disappointing. Tactics should balance the need to motivate residents to secure their involvement, with tactics which will produce an appropriate level of feedback and a deliverable scheme. Sometimes the involvement of a ‘middle-man’, whether in the form of a local authority officer, consultation manager or community arts worker, can help manage expectations.
Evaluation of the consultation will be helpful in justifying the applicant’s actions and can make all the difference to the outcome: where a specific consultation framework has been put in place using pre-consultation dialogue and research, accepted by planners and run according to the consultation mandate, local authorities will understand that the consultation has met its objectives, despite local voices to the contrary.
Penny Norton’s third book Communicating Construction: insight, experience and best practice contains some of the most recent thinking on consultation and will be published in early 2021.