Who could disagree that it is essential to listen to locals? It is certainly one of the three focus areas of the new Community Planning Alliance, which has mapped over 480 campaign groups fighting environmental battles all over the UK.
It is shocking that so many communities are having to give up their free time and raise money to fight inappropriate proposals by councils, developers and government. It shouldn’t need to happen.
Too many of us are familiar with consultations where decisions have already been made or where responses are ignored. Too many councils take an approach known as ‘DAD’, which means Decide, Announce, Defend. That often leads to protracted and expensive battles in the defend stage and sometimes to a fourth phase, ‘Abandon’.
My personal experience bears this out. Our councils decided that building three new towns at certain sites was a good idea, announced it and then proceeded to defend. Over several years of council consultations residents made their feelings clear, pointed out the obvious flaws to the proposals and attempted to suggest alternatives. Time and time again we were ignored. The end result was that a planning inspector found the proposals unsound - not just once but twice. Then, sure as eggs is eggs, the abandon phase followed. Millions of pounds of tax-payers’ money were wasted on a futile vanity project which all but the councillors involved knew was doomed to fail.
I was invited to ‘engagement events’ about the unpopular new towns. At one, we were told to ‘set aside dislike of the new town and put 20,000 houses on a map’. At another we were subjected to what amounted to brainwashing videos about utopian life in said new town. The video, shown to an audience already upset that 6,000 acres of lovely north Essex countryside was to be concreted over, included statements such as, ‘Those who like nature can buy a planter’.
What would work better? Here are five suggestions:
1. Engage, Deliberate, Decide (EDD) instead of ‘DAD’. That means talk to people about an issue and seek ideas and input; discuss proposals and only then decide on what approach to take. This will reduce the adversarial nature of the planning system and lead to better outcomes for councils and residents.
2. Referendum. To ensure that government’s promises last summer, in ‘Planning for the Future’, that it wishes to see greater community involvement in the making of local plans actually result in participation ‘on the ground’, councils will need to be forced to change. A mandatory local plan referendum prior to submission would be a simple tick-box solution. Fail to create a popular plan, planning inspectorate will not accept your draft plan.
3. Mandatory minimum standards. There should be minimum standards of community engagement in the National Planning Policy Framework. The Gunning principles are already well known. They were proposed during the Gunning v LB of Brent case and accepted by the Judge. Local plans should be tested at examination to check that councils have met the standards:
· consultation must be at a time when proposals are still at a formative stage;
· the proposer must give sufficient reasons for any proposal to permit of intelligent consideration and response;
· adequate time is given for consideration and response; and
· the product of consultation is conscientiously taken into account when finalising the decision.
4. Localism Act. Communities should make use of the Localism Act 2011 to change a local council from the Strong Leader to the Committee model or even to take control of council services. This is likely to be a topic of a Community Planning Alliance webinar in the near future.
5. Keep planning applications. Government should not, on any account, remove the ability of communities to comment on planning applications under the zoning ideas proposed in Planning for the Future. That would be a disaster for democracy, preventing people from holding developers and councils to account.
Government has an excellent opportunity to put community participation into practice in the Oxford-Cambridge Arc where its spatial framework consultation has been launched today. It will be a canary in the mine for whether words in Planning for the Future about meaningful community participation were just hot air
Views my own