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Seven steps from ‘consultation’ to participation

David Farnsworth

Development & Planning Consultant

Tired of planning ‘consultation’ events that start with a proposal that is already decided and end with little or nothing changed?

As a group of community organisations in Bristol, we used the Local Planning Authority Statement of Community Involvement (SCI) in its early days, to move from being consulted about planning towards being a participant in planning.

I will highlight two key aspects of our experience and then add on my own suggestions on where a search for greater community participation in planning might go next.

The meaning of words

We began our dialogue with the City Planning Department when a first draft of the SCI appeared back in 2005. Government Planning Policy at the time was clear: Planning Departments were directed to publish an SCI to say exactly how they proposed to achieve effective community involvement in plan-making and planning applications.

For us, effective meant our participation in a process of collective debate and informed choice, leading to making some kind of difference in the decisions that were taken. For the Planning Department effective seemed to mean simply increasing the number, times and amount of information we were given about what they already intended to do.

There was a world of difference between us. It took us a while to realise that it was not just a difference in the use and meaning of words. The city planners were thinking that it was their job, not ours, to decide what made community involvement effective. We would have no say in it. We had no input to the first couple of drafts of the SCI.

What made a difference?

What enabled us to move from being a recipient of information to being a participant in the drafting of the document? What made the difference? A combination of several things.

One, a number of community groups who were willing to stand up to be counted. Two, clear Government Guidance at the time that we could quote to the Planning Department and remind the Inspector. Three, a Planning Inspector who recognised our case with the power to direct the Council.

But four, what made the most difference, was our proposal to use a set of practical tests or ground rules that, taken together, define what effective participation meant to us as a community and enabled us to say whether it was happening or not. Not in terms of one word replacing another, but in terms of peoples’ real lived experience.

In a rare event in Planning Inspectorate history, the Inspector directed the Council to totally re-draft the SCI so as to include our ground rules. The key rules are:

1. Including the whole impacted population: Make reasonable attempts to involve a majority of the whole population impacted by the proposal, if necessary taking a statistically valid sample of the same population. It is not sufficient to say: “well, we put a notice on the web site” or only to count those people who just happen to drop-in to an exhibition or fill out a yes/no questionnaire or log-on to a one hour webinar.

2. Involved in a process over time: Is it more than a one-off event? Treat the participation as a continuous process. Understanding issues deliberation over options, finding solutions and coming to a consensus view on action, can only happen over a period of time. One-off events with long time gaps between, just don’t cut it.

3. Being in on the first idea: Is it the beginning of a proposal and not half way through? Ensure that the scheme or plan has not already been chosen but is open to new thinking with the potential to make a difference. It should not be: “this is what we’ve decided to do, do you have any comments?”

4. Being able to deliberate on all options: Are all feasible options on the table and given equal consideration? Have options already been rejected? Do they include options proposed by the community?

5. Using community values: In many ways, it seems to me, planning is a process of deciding the relative value of things. Are community values and the criteria that the community would use for choosing between options, recognised as being just as valid and given just as much weight as those of planners or developers or politicians?

6. Being able to verify the record: is an accurate record of the options and choices being made? Can a majority of the community sign it off?

7. Feedback on the community effect on the decision: Finally, participation is meant to make an identifiable difference. An opaque “all views will be taken into account” is not participation. There may be reason not to adopt a community view but if it is not adopted, specific reason must be given. If not, why not?

A culture of participation?

So, did having these tests for recognising what effective participation actually is and whether it was taking place, take us beyond consultation and towards deliberative participation?

Up to a point.

The rules have motivated developers and their agents to involve groups in pre-app discussion. That was partly because, in the aftermath of the Examination, the Planning Authority decided to make it a condition of the validation of a planning application that developers organise and report pre-application community participation. The participation ground rules have also mobilised Development Management case officers to connect with community groups as part of the pre-app enquiry service offered to developers.

Our work at the Examination also led to the founding of a community-driven network of groups across the city, with volunteer administrators to organise contacts with developers and act as an information exchange for planning advice and best practice.

Meanwhile, at national level in England, power has been given direct to communities through the Localism Act and neighbourhood planning, with the freedom to decide the boundaries, scope, level of detail and methods of participation in plans, all endorsed by a referendum. But even this community power is, in the end, limited by having to conform to Local Plan strategic policy and rely on Planning Authority management for implementation.

So there are limits. A community wish for deliberative participation still faces a culture within Government and within most Local Authorities that sees plan-making as an exclusive Planning Authority job, not as a co-design job with the community. To adopt the words of Handforth Parish Council: “you have no authority here, Jackie Weaver”

Community deliberative participation may only really happen if there is a radical change in the structure of governance at the local level.

What next?

Short of that, community groups can continue to do several things to promote deliberative participation, including:

  • Use the seven ground rules to have a very clear view of what effective participation consists of, how it is achieved and how it differs fundamentally from consultation. Challenge the

Local Authority or City Mayor with that difference and demand participation whenever merely consultation is offered.

© Copyright David Farnsworth Aug 2021

David Farnsworth has a background of senior management in a County Council, New Town Development Corporation, London-based property development PLC, Government Regional Development Agency, city regeneration private consultancy and as a pro bono adviser to neighbourhood planning and community campaign groups. He also co-founded the Neighbourhood Planning Network in Bristol.


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