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Planning matters

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Innovation in planning consultation - mobilising the silent majority
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.


Great Western Cities - Fraternising with the Competition?
In February 2016, Metro Dynamics published the long awaited ‘Britain’s Western Powerhouse’ report, commissioned to develop the economic case for the Great Western Cities Powerhouse (GWCP) following the launch of the concept a year earlier.The GWCP proposes economic partnership between Cardiff, Newport and Bristol and specifically seeks to maximise the benefits of ‘constructed agglomeration’. Buzz words aside, this essentially means that collaboration between the multiple core cities will achieve greater economic prosperity or more simply, three heads are better than one.The document focuses primarily on economic potential, connectivity and renewable energy and includes some impressive statistics on how direct improvements could achieve the identified agglomeration benefits. However, my initial reading of the document is that it shies away from the subject of delivery, simply pushing these issues towards the City Regions.For example, as someone who frequently travels between Cardiff and Bristol, I immediately turned to the Connectivity section where I was greeted with impressive statistics that a 20 minute reduction in train journey time between Cardiff and Bristol would amount to annual benefits of £32.5m (and possibly even, a seat on the train!). However, beyond reference to the planned electrification works and planned improvements within each City Region, there is very limited reference as to how and if such a reduction could be achieved or if the GWCP is even necessary to realise it. Turning to the City Regions themselves, it is unclear as to how the GWCP will sit alongside the Cardiff Capital City Deal (signed on 15 March 2016) and the Bristol and West of England City Region Deal (signed in 2012). In the case of Bristol this has arguably become even more of an issue given the Chancellor’s budget announcement that the West of England Devolution Agreement had been signed on 16 March 2016.This Devolution Agreement marks the next step in a progressive process of devolution of funding, building on the 2012 City Deal and the Growth Deals (agreed in July 2014 and January 2015) and a "metro mayor" will oversee the new combined authority, a detail which has also been the cause of significant debate in recent weeks with some quarters labelling it as yet another unwanted bureaucratic tier while others view it as a positive stride towards greater economic prosperity.As noted in the press, many of those involved in the devolution agreement have spoken out against the GWCP, seeing it as a threat to the West of England. In particular, the authorities neighbouring Bristol have spoken out, stating that they have been left out of the process and are now caught in the middle.Whilst I do not wish to discuss the politics of the situation, it does beg the question as to how these various layers will sit together over the coming years. George Ferguson has called the GWCP complementary to the devolution process and considers that it will not cut across the devolution plans. However, it is clear that there are tensions building and the potential for Bristol to be pulled in two different directions. I will not even get started on what could happen following the Bristol Mayoral Elections in May.The Metro Dynamics Report is very effective at highlighting the clear potential of the Great Western Cities although it needs to go further regarding how the different City Region objectives can be married.Looking to the north, the Northern Powerhouse which also encompasses several City Deals is portrayed as a real positive and the Liverpool devolution announcement in March has been embraced as a significant boost for the Powerhouse overall. It seems that despite various competing factors (i.e. airports, universities and football teams), there is a real drive to work collaboratively for the greater good.It is acknowledged that the western situation is slightly different, given the overlap between the GWCP and the City Deals and it is understandable that those sitting outside of the GWCP might be wondering what it will mean moving forwards. However, all parties do at least agree that the west deserves similar levels of investment and it must be recognised that there is more influence in numbers.Personally, I hope that the GWCP and the City Regions can work collaboratively to achieve the aspirations which have the potential to significantly benefit the region overall and will watch with interest over the coming months. Source: Metro Dynamics – Britain’s Western Powerhouse February 2016