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Community engagement – a tale of two London boroughs

The London Forum welcomed two experienced planning professionals last month to present how community engagement is going in their respective London boroughs.

Michael Bach, trustee of the London Forum and Chair of its Planning & Transport Committee, presented his experience in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea where he is currently trustee of the Kensington Society.

Deirdra Armsby, Director of Place Shaping and Town Planning at City of Westminster presented research and insights from local communities there, and outlined guidance that she and her team have developed to support early community engagement.

The experiences in these neighbouring boroughs could not be more different.

In Kensington, there has been tension between local communities, planning officers and developers around what happens in the pre-application stage of a proposed development. Michael described how applicants were increasingly negotiating pre-application advice under “confidential” terms with local planning officers.

Eventually, after numerous FOI requests and resistance, community groups pressured RBKC planning officers to see what pre-application advice had been given to applicants, and

secured an agreement that all pre-app advice, including design review, would be made public at the point of planning application in the interest of transparency.

A succession of major schemes followed, where officer support was at odds with the community, and this incensed local residents and amenity societies, says Michael. “it felt like we were not only fighting the developers, but the Council as well’, he added. On about half a dozen major cases, Michael described how officers “committed themselves” to development proposals without any input from the local community, citing a pattern in which all applications were recommended for approval but with varied outcomes – which included mayoral and Secretary of State call-ins.

His conclusion: this has been extremely stressful for communities, with high costs to all parties involved. “There has to be a better way”, he pointed out, “and that starts with early engagement”.

Having made that case clear to RBKC, local communities continue to feel let down. Grenfell is a tragic example, Michael said, as “despite pressure for early engagement, and promises made, change has been slow – it’s now 5 ½ years and we’re still nowhere near there”. Overall, he stated, “pre-apps are usually ‘completed’ before ‘early engagement’ with the community, which provides “certainty” of officer support; and whilst strong encouragement is given to developers to engage “early” it is still often too late to influence the final application.” As for the developers’ role in this process, Michael laments that “whilst strong encouragement given to developers to engage early, it is still often too late to influence the final application” and public presentations to the local community have mostly been about proposals that are quite advanced.

What to do? Michael points to The City of Westminster for some inspiration.

Deirdra Armsby, Westminster’s Director of Place Shaping and Town Planning, is leading a programme of reform in community engagement, aimed at addressing six issues identified as obstacles to full community participation in planning decisions:

1. Inconsistency: approaches to the format and timing of engagement between development organisations between different development teams at larger land owners have not been consistent, undermining trust and reliability

2. Loudest voices: engagement has too often focused on easy to reach groups and individuals within communities

3. Disjointed processes: engagement between developers and communities and developers and the Council were often not joined up

4. Response and followup: engagement was frequently unresponsive with a lack of follow up activity to explain how previously expressed views had been considered in design development

5. Advocacy skills: residents and community groups had limited understanding of planning application process and how to navigate it

6. Planning literacy: local communities would benefit from knowledge of wider planning system to ensure that the importance of engagement at the planmaking stage is better understood.

Her team at Westminster have drafted guidance to address these challenges based on the following principles:

· Promote engagement that occurs earlier in the pre-application phase

· Encourage all participants to have a more transparent and open approach to pre-application engagement

· Support developers to enable them to carry out more inclusive engagement

· Establish a multi-step process for engagement that ensures it is more responsive to those that have been engaged with

· Ensure engagement is more accessible by establishing wider and more consistent use of best practice methods

They plan to deliver on this by

· Establishing a Community Charter of Engagement Principles – encourage frequent developers in Westminster to develop their own community charter or set of principles for engagement

· Extending the reach of engagement – support developers to ensure their engagement reaches groups that are less often heard from as well as those with a strong track record of response to engagement

· Tailoring engagement to specific communities – recognising that communities are dynamic and can change over time. Methods used to engage with communities should be tailored to their current needs and should be reassessed in relation to each new proposal.

· Improving the responsiveness of engagement – engagement should be a conversation and be multi-phased. It should occur sufficiently early to enable the design team to respond positively to community views

· Increase collaboration between participants – encourage a more open and collaborative approach between all participants. Officer involvement in engagement events on larger developments; Encourage community groups to share their views with the Council at pre-app stage

· Create Community Champions – developers are encouraged to provide a ‘Community Champion’ on large scale schemes to support communities with their response to engagement

· Request Early Engagement Strategies – developers expected to be more open and explain what engagement activity they have undertaken prior to seeking pre-app advice from the Council

· Increase transparency of community engagement activity – provide moore detail of developer community engagement in committee reports.

The guidance was launched last year, and development schemes across the borough are being monitored to identify consistency with the guidance. Findings and recommendations will be reported to the Planning & City Development Committee in March this year.

Following this, in April, a Design Review Panel will be established to provide an independent expert opinion on design issues for development. This panel will eventually liaise directly with local community groups. In the autumn, the Council will adopt an updated Statement of Community Involvement for Planning "that embeds the core principles of the guidance and underpins the Council’s commitment to make the planning process fairer and more transparent, accessible and responsive for residents”

As part of this process the Planning team is developing a Community Planning Advice Service “to provide support for local communities where they are engaged by developers on major development proposals”.

Will this approach be successful? Can it serve as a template for other local areas, and even be adopted by London boroughs like RBKC? We’re watching closely how the City of Westminster approach to community engagement develops. And wishing them every success along the way.

Clare Delmar

Listen to Locals

9 February 2023


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