What’s the best way to sustain community engagement under proposed planning reforms?
The Planning Bill that will go before Parliament later this summer has generated substantive debate around multiple issues including the zoning of developable land and the relaxation of permitted development rights, but what appears to be the removal of channels for community engagement has led to much confusion and outrage, voiced in part by Government backbenchers and the Select Committee on Housing, Communities. And Local Government. It also appears to be launching a race amongst those representing local voices to cement existing and reestablish new channels for community engagement before they disappear.
As Community Activist Eileen Conn of Peckham Vision commented, “I have been following the winding but relentless path in the Government's plans to reform the planning system, and along the way removing many of the ways in which local communities can attempt to contribute. We know the current system is flawed and difficult and needs to be improved, but at least it gives us ways we can take real action. Many, maybe most, of those would go under the reforms.”
So last week’s announcement by the APPG for Civic Societies to campaign for Civic Societies to have formal status in creating local design guides and codes met with mixed reaction.
Civic Voice, representing civic societies across the country, asked via twitter if they should work with the APPG for Civic Societies on this campaign.
Just Space, representing a wide network of local community groups, says no. “It’s profoundly anti-democratic of them to seek formal consultation status just for them, not for the rest of us. They may not have thought of that. Groups should be able to self-nominate.”
Eileen Conn has concerns also. “I have concerns and questions about how all these changes would impact on other community groups.”
Adds Community Consultant Andy Perkin “It would also force a responsibility on civic societies which they may not be prepared or willing to take up - or even stimulate new societies to be set up with spurious intentions.” He adds, “the planning system should allow for representations to be made at various levels - from individuals and households, through to businesses, specialists & community organisations. Civic societies, with their focus on amenities and the built environment, have a unique role to play.”
The Listen to Locals campaign supports these views. We want to create ways to unify and amplify local voices, and move away from establishing or reinforcing hierarchies of community influence which will only divide and fragment local voices.
So how do we go about this?
Statements of Community involvement (SCIs) are an important starting point to clarify and codify engagement principles, approaches and actions within a local planning authority. While guidelines and model templates exist, in practice SCIs often lack teeth and are unenforced, as evidenced in Prof Gavin Parker’s recent research at the University of Reading. So there is an opportunity to revisit the SCI to build a robust and uniform approach that protects and enhances the voices of local communities.
We can also look at certain elements of the planning process where community groups can meaningfully contribute and have an impact on planning decisions, but are at present excluded.
Impact Assessments are a starting point.
These often highly technical documents, which support major planning applications in measuring how proposed developments will impact local transport, environment, health, and community, are usually produced by specialist consultants with little or no local knowledge. Increasingly this lack of local knowledge and input exposes considerable weaknesses in the development proposals, as demonstrated by the transport and Health Impact Assessments for the Stag Brewery application,currently under consideration by the Mayor of London.
Access to these reports is even more problematic, as they are often buried within hundreds of documents making up a planning application. If located, local residents are more often than not presented with data that fits a chosen narrative, and challenging this via direct communication with planning officers or indeed FOI requests is beyond the scope of most people.
Listen to Locals is committed to bringing community voices into the impact Assessment process, and we welcome ideas and support from all communities to make this happen.