This long-read essay gives more detail on the arguments in our manifesto on public involvement in planning. It focuses on why involving people in decision making is a good thing, what happens when it goes wrong, and gives some ideas on how we can approach diversity and representation in planning.
Most people agree —at least if they are asked directly — that local people being involved in planning decisions is a good thing. National polling by Commonplace shows that three quarters of British people think that ‘people need to be given a greater say over new developments in their local area’, but that most don’t feel engaged in what’s happening and don’t think their voice will make much difference. Polling for the developer Grosvenor found that only two per cent of respondents trusted developers to act in an honest way in large scale development. Our own research found that people who try to get involved often feel ignored, marginalised or patronised by local authorities and developers – that consultation was at best a tick-box exercise.
Many — although by no means all — developers, architects and local authorities genuinely do want local people to be involved in decision making about where they live. Some are deeply committed to transferring real power to the people who will be living in new developments or regeneration schemes. London has some excellent examples of genuine, diverse and honest public involvement, and there are further good examples from other parts of the UK and other countries — you can find out more about these in our resources list for this project or by listening back to our project launch webinar. But engagement is still too often tokenistic and at worst essentially meaningless. The people involved can usually tell when this is the case. It is easy to spot when the person you are speaking too is bored, or when the only meaningful question being asked in a consultation is a minor aspect of planting or paint. Quite reasonably, when this happens people often decide not to waste their time trying to make a difference again.
The trouble is that a lot of people who work in or around the planning system think of public involvement as a block to getting things done. They might be overly motivated by profit, or they might genuinely think that building new homes is so much of a social priority that it can’t be disrupted. There’s often some truth in fears about plans being blocked: if people like where they live they often don’t want to see their area change. There is a broad political consensus that we need more homes in this country, as well as other vital, but sometimes controversial, infrastructure like prisons, wind turbines and waste disposal facilities. We just tend not to want them where we live. Sometimes these debates can get nasty and vindictive: neighbourhood disputes being played out through fights over planning permission for a home extension are a staple of online neighbourhood forums. Sometimes it seems that the rich and powerful are more able to get their way, and additional homes, prisons and incinerators are built in poorer areas where people are less likely to be heard when they complain.
These problems are very real, but they should not convince us that involving people in the planning process is a bad idea. Part of the issue is about the timing of involvement: if you ask people to look at a fully developed plan 11 months into a year-long process they may not feel it reflects their priorities and needs, and if it’s then too late to change anything except the cosmetic details they will quite reasonably be cross. If you ask them two months in, there’s much more of a chance to respond meaningfully to their feedback, and to have ongoing, balanced conversations about trade-offs and constrained choices. Most of the best examples of public involvement nationally and internationally use engagement which is both early and ongoing — a process rather than an event. Doing this well might actually help develop more housing faster as it helps to avoid protracted and costly battles at the point that projects are — from the point of view of the developer at least — otherwise ready to go.
There’s some evidence that involving people in the planning process improves the quality of what gets built: not surprising, since living in an area or using a particular facility for a long time tends to mean you know rather a lot about it. This is particularly important for planning interventions which aim for behaviour change, most commonly healthier behaviours and/or reduced energy use. For example, there’s no point putting bike lanes in a new development if people don’t feel safe using them, but the particular concerns and fears people have will vary for different groups and in different places, and so the design changes made as a result will need to be different everywhere.
The dangers of not involving people in decisions about where they want to live are evident in the problems which emerged with the UK’s housebuilding programme after World War Two. Many thousands of people, many of whose homes had been bomb damaged or who had been living in temporary, cold and cramped prefab homes were moved to new, modernist tower blocks, and a good proportion of them really didn’t like them. In time, people who could afford it often moved out, and the people remaining were those who didn’t have a choice: the developers’ vision of communities with a mix of ages, incomes and household types didn’t happen, and many of the blocks ended up being demolished. This isn’t an argument against brutalism or modernism: plenty of people love the Barbican and hate Prince Charles’s Poundbury. Neither is it an argument about uncaring elites: the architects and developers of the early ‘streets in the sky’ genuinely believed they had found a better way of living, and many lived in their own estates. But it is an argument that if you are going to make huge changes to people’s environment, you shouldn’t do it without involving them.
People sometimes argue that we don’t need public engagement on specific projects because we have a representative democracy. Or conversely, that vigorous debates about specific projects show that representative democracy has failed and we should move to a Swiss-style system of referendums or US-style ballot propositions. I think this misses the point: our local democratic system can’t do everything but this doesn’t mean it isn’t doing anything, and agreeing with my chosen council candidate on policy questions doesn’t mean I expect them to agree with me on everything that happens in my area. Good public engagement — which of course often benefits hugely from casework by elected councillors — allows for a much more sensitive and nuanced conversation, and recognises that decisions can’t just wait until the next round of elections.
Good public engagement is different to representative democracy in that it is not one-person-one-vote. Other things being equal, the people who would be most affected by a change should normally have a stronger voice. Importantly, this doesn’t just mean the people who live near a potential development: the views of the people who might live in it matter too, especially if they are currently experiencing poor housing conditions. Local businesses and charities are often the lifeblood of communities and the views of people who work or volunteer for them are important. Young people’s voices are often ignored or marginalised but they are hugely important; after all they are the people who are likely to be living with new development the longest.
It’s easier to get your voice heard if you have power and money: in London, this usually means wealthier, older homeowners who have or have had professional jobs, and who are predominantly White. It should go without saying that good quality public engagement seeks to involve everyone in a community and makes an active effort to reach a diverse range of people. Some of the ways to do this are practical: holding events at a range of times so people with different jobs and caring responsibilities can attend, thinking about accessibility in physical spaces, in document design and in online forums, paying travel and childcare costs, and in some situations paying for people’s time. Some ways are about building trust, especially where it starts from a low base, and using language that is clear, inclusive and jargon free. And some are about making connections with groups and communities who are heard less often in the context of the particular plan or application.
It is this last point which poses the biggest challenge for public engagement specialists; both in the planning system and in other fields, such as health research. When we make connections into new groups we often meet people who say they represent a particular group or community. These might be people of a particular faith, age group or living on a certain street. In some cases this is verifiable. For example some boroughs run youth assembly elections where all secondary students get a vote. But it’s mostly not. Assuming that these claims to represent are always true poses real dangers: community ‘representatives’ in these cases are often older men, so younger and female (and, in the case of faith communities, less observant) voices don’t get heard. But going too far the other way and dismissing all such people as ‘the usual suspects’ risks missing out on a lot of expertise, time and enthusiasm. The best examples of public engagement in the planning system don’t ask people to be representatives of a particular community or group, but support people who are interested to connect with others and act as conduits for information, recognising and valuing their time and expertise.
In the last 10 years or so, discussions about representation in public engagement have often been about whether the internet works as a tool, and whether people will want to use it. These can be rather binary: adherents insist that everyone wants to use the internet, and opponents that no one does. The representative problem can be an issue here as well. Before the pandemic I was occasionally told that no-one in an area or a community used the internet, and wondered whether it was just that they preferred not to talk about it to their older relatives or the professionals in their lives. The pandemic has shown that more people can function well online than some thought, but digital exclusion remains a real problem. In time, age may become a less important predictor of someone being offline, and poverty, immigration status and disability more important, but there will be variation within every community, every family, and every street. Online engagement can do a lot — and even outside lockdown it’s often preferable for people because it’s more flexible — but for the foreseeable future, good public engagement in planning is likely to involve a significant offline element as well.
Getting public engagement in planning right is rarely easy, but it is always worthwhile. Questions about planning are, at their heart, questions about the places that we live, work and learn, and form families, friendships and communities. The right approach is different in different places and for different types of plan, and it changes over time. Applying the principles for good involvement in our manifesto will be a good starting point, and the Mayor of London can be an important and influential leader, supporting and showcasing what works. It will take real effort to make change and build trust, but it’s worth it: because involvement is a good thing in itself, and because it will help us build a better city.