Despite it being August the planning wars are heating up as recent events in London have revealed strength in community voices and changes in planning law come into effect. Expect the Nimby and Yimby labels to be applied in force as we approach Parliamentary debate on the Planning Reform Bill.
Nimbys, whose starting position is “No”, often get to a “yes” if and when locals are engaged and involved meaningfully in planning decisions impacting their community. And Yimbys often concede their demands if and when proposed developments do not reflect the desires of a local community – and seek to bring community members on board by engaging them meaningfully and inclusively.
So if involving locals is the mechanism for consentual and sustainable development, why is it so divisive and contentious in practice?
Everyone has an answer: the planning system lets us down; the LPA favours the developer (or worse, is in the developer’s pocket); the community consultation was a sham; one loud voice crowds out all the others; the media is biased; residents are lazy and apathetic. And dozens more.
Our mission at Listen to Locals is to cut through the labels and noise around them and to seek out and promote organisations that are driving the engagement that leads to good planning outcomes. We want to promote and support constructive and positive contributions from all participants in the planning process – communities, LPAs and developers alike.
We’re currently exploring three channels to improve community involvement, and building an understanding of how they can be adapted and implemented to improve the planning process.
1. Impact Assessments
It is frustratingly ironic that the term “impact assessment” is at the core of what locals care about in any proposed development, but are excluded from the “official” process of measuring it – no wonder they challenge planning officers’ recommendations so vehemently.
These reports are usually produced by external consultants, undertaken remotely and, once delivered, are maddeningly hard to locate and digest.
The regeneration of the Stag Brewery in Mortlake was a case in point – the transport, environment and health impact assessments presented a locality and context almost unrecognisable to local residents.
2. Citizens assemblies
Citizens Assemblies are growing in popularity across the UK, and tackling a wide range of social, economic and environmental issues facing their local communities. Researchers at New Local describe their potential:
“What makes citizens assemblies different from traditional consultations – and their outcomes more interesting, is that participants aren’t selected on the basis of who is most keen to share their views. Great pains are taken to move beyond the ‘usual suspects’ who voluntarily attend council meetings and achieve a mix of participants on race, age, occupation, type of housing, political stance, and other factors”.
Establishing a local structure for community involvement is one positive of citizens assemblies but in addition to this is the knowledge and experience shared and outcomes delivered by these groups that can be referenced in local planning discussions. They can provide valuable data and input to inform impact assessments, for example.
3. Digital apps and platforms
Planning in the UK is increasingly digital, and building datasets and access to them will enable informed and evidenced dialogue between all concerned in planning decisions.
Earlier this year, the Mayor of London established the Planning London Data Hub which is a positive start to making data available and accessible to everyone. The skills and tools to make sense of this data is only just beginning to emerge. These three “plantech” organisations are showing how planning data and tools can be used to empower community groups in impacting local planning debates and decisions:
VuCity has developed planning visualisation tools that can help community groups understand what proposed development looks like and enable them tto communicate this to build support for their position. It was used effectively by local community group MBCG to demonstrate the changes that the proposed regeneration of the Stag Brewery had undergone after the Mayor of London had called in the application from LBRuT.
Drawing on site context data and input from residents, the tool is building an evidence base on linkages between the built environment and public health, and aims to provide crucial feedback on health outcomes that will help to support designs that respond to local contexts.
Wild Streets is building a digital platform to improve understanding, discussion and decisions around trees and green spaces in local communities. It’s pulled together data on local microclimate, ecological integration, pollution levels, flood risk, underground utilities and vehicle access to help communities preserve and improve their local areas. They have adopted a “citizen scientist” approach to growing the app:
“to give the best possible accuracy to the app, and to enable citizens worldwide to participate as quickly and pragmatically as is possible, Wild Streets is looking to create a network of Data Ambassadors as citizen scientists. This way it will be possible to gather data as widely as possible and keep continually improving it through the same public power that Wild Streets will give a voice to”.
We welcome these new approaches to community engagement – they can bring valuable data and generate constructive and inclusive debate in the forthcoming planning reform bill and beyond. Far better to expand the knowledge base on planning amongst community groups than to restrict access or assign privileged status to a few groups, as we are seeing debated in some circles.
Listen to Locals advocates for all voices to be heard in the planning and development of local communities. Our mission is to continually seek out the most effective and inclusive ways to do this.
24 August 2021