Planning matters

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If you’ve ever been to a planning consultation event, you’ll know who to expect. The ‘usual suspects’ dominate the routines of consultation practice. Typically retirees, with high disposable incomes and a good education, this group of home-owners have the most to lose from new housing on the edge of their villages and towns. The younger ‘silent majority’, by contrast, have the most to gain from opportunities to get on the housing ladder, and yet are the least likely to take part. What if new, more relevant methods could be adopted; those which would encourage younger generations to offer their support? Innovation in consultation techniques presents the opportunity to hear more pro-development voices and shift local political opinion, while in turn addressing the pressing need for housing. Speaking as a young person looking to get on the housing ladder soon, I am very much in favour of new housing in my area. Since beginning to work in planning I have gained some insight into how to influence the local planning process in favour of new schemes. Yet it’s certainly not something I would have known how to do at the beginning of my career. With the advent of new digital technologies, and by going directly to targeted groups, these are some examples of how developers can overcome time and knowledge barriers which prevent engagement, and facilitate the voices of the ‘silent majority’.   Social Media In a survey of 1,400 councillors undertaken by Remarkable Group and the pollster YouGov, 75 per cent considered social media an important or very important engagement tool. Furthermore, 60 per cent believed developers should be engaging with local communities through social media. Facebook has over 44m active users in the UK; Twitter, 14m. With many of these users of a younger demographic, there is significant potential to garner the opinions of a wider cross-section of the community than could be traditionally reached. Short, targeted adverts or posts in relevant groups can be used to illustrate the key features of a development scheme and receive feedback in the way of comments or ‘likes’. This helps to build an overall picture of attitudes to development. Users can ask questions of developers and facilitate debate. Short questionnaires can be used to establish preferred options, be that in housing design, location or layout. It takes just seconds to read and like a social media post, making it an open platform to young working families, students and young professionals, who might not take the time to attend a traditional exhibition in their village hall. A recent Lichfields blog considered this topic in more detail. Targeting Community Groups It is not uncommon to encounter support for new housing in communities, but individuals may not feel confident submitting a public representation in direct conflict with well-connected local individuals and vocal action groups. Pre-application discussions in an informal context offer a more approachable format, and take developers directly to the ‘silent majority’. Attending a parent and toddler group or a teenagers’ dance class to discuss a development proposal might seem unorthodox, but it can provide direct feedback and may increase support. This helps to balance the wave of local opposition often encountered at open-access events, where the ‘usual suspects’ tend to dominate. At targeted events, more innovative consultation techniques can be used. Rather than a standard presentation or exhibition boards, children could contribute pieces of art or write postcards to their future selves of how they envisage their communities. Stereotypically difficult to engage, teenagers at a dance class could be offered the chance to win a prize if they contribute a written opinion on the future of the development site. It is not that these smarter strategies aren’t being used by planners and developers, but that their adoption is rare. Lichfields uses expert knowledge of planning and consultation to tackle exactly these issues through our own Smarter Engagement approach. Our Public Engagement toolkit (PE Kit) uses mosaic modelling, based on Office for National Statistics data, to help us understand the demographics of an area and identify those who have most to gain from a development. Consultation methods are then designed to target these groups, based on the budget and time period available. Drawing on our project experience, we aim to identify in advance the potential concerns that the community may have, and allow these to be addressed where appropriate at the pre-application stage, when it is easier and more cost-effective to respond to legitimate concerns. The pressing need for new housing is a well-rehearsed argument amongst planners and those struggling to get on the ladder. However, my experience shows that in the areas where demand is highest, support is the least heard. Adopting new consultation techniques could address this imbalance, hoping to draw out the support of those who have the most to gain from new development. Article originally featured in Insider South West.

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Consultation and engagement are key requirements in the UK’s planning system and, crucially, a vital part of development proposals. In this respect, transport infrastructure delivery is not an exception: rather, given the way it impacts – economically, socially and environmentally – on those directly affected and on local communities in general, it represents an even more challenging endeavour. In these circumstances, public consultation becomes crucial at the early stages of the planning process. Pre-application consultation with the public has become a statutory requirement for a wide range of projects in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and for ‘Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects’ in England and Wales. Rightly so then, Lichfields’ five point plan for smarter engagement with local stakeholders and communities provides an effective strategy whereby developers can tailor and carry out effective consultation and engagement strategies. To stress the importance of effective engagement I can provide a case study insight into the side-effects of a poor consultation process. My experience is based on research that I recently conducted for my MA dissertation on the Pedemontana Veneta (‘PVM’), a 100 km motorway being constructed in the north east of Italy. To provide some context, it is probably worth stating at the outset that the project – defined by the public authorities as ‘the most important infrastructure project currently undertaken in the North East’ – is a financially-troubled one with 30 years of debate, 20 of design and 15 of call for tenders. The motorway aims at delivering a strategic objective, that of linking the region’s industrial districts, which for three decades have represented the backbone of the region’s economy. The project is a highly contested one too, particularly by local residents. What I found out when interviewing them is that opposition is linked, critically, to a lack of effective pre-application consultation. By profiting from a legal void in Italian statutory requirements, the PVM developers had not properly engaged with communities. Even when they did, they had shown a tendency to ‘talk down’ to them. From the public authorities’ and the developers’ perspective, it may be argued that this lack of public engagement was not cost-effective either. In particular, both had to face costly and time-consuming appeals (a recurring issue in local opposition to new facilities that is usually related to concerns over the decline in property values). In the context of the inevitable mutual mistrust arising between local residents on the one side and developers on the other, neither the former nor the latter have come out on the winning side. Indeed, local protesters have highlighted a ‘plansplaining’ attitude by the public-private consortium whereas the latter are representing their counterpart’s activism as uncompromising and individualistic NIMBY opposition. There is also a positive lesson that can be learnt out of the troubled PVM construction story. The lesson deals with the potential benefits resulting from effective public engagement with protest groups. Indeed, one of the most interesting insights unraveled by this case study deals with the contribution that local residents could provide – if properly engaged – to improve the development scheme. Thanks to their understanding of the local area and its socio-economic dynamics (some of the protesters I talked to were also planners, engineers and environmental scientists), residents have the potential to make a real contribution to achieving a successful planning outcome. Far from being radical ecologists campaigning for an uncompromising no, the local communities of the Pedemontana area actually managed to formulate an alternative proposal. Specifically, at the core of their opposition to the existing motorway layout is a project review aiming at completing a financially sustainable infrastructure that should be permeable to the community’s needs. Everything considered, the central message of the PVM experience is that smarter engagement does matter and, if delivered properly, it can assist in delivering a successful planning outcome and can neutralize potential objections.

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