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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.