Research and case studies tell us that the most effective engagement is informed, early, sustained, diverse, transparent and supported. These principles should be at the core of the Mayor’s work to promote a fairer and more participatory system.
All public engagement should start with a thorough understanding of what has already happened in that area, and who is already involved. This avoids the risk of circular and repetitive discussions, which are frustrating for residents and slow down decision making. People working on public engagement should also be well informed about what has worked in other areas, so this can guide their work. Fulfilling the London Plan’s policy to build strong and inclusive communities requires a commitment to ongoing ‘place-based audits’ so that all involved in building and regeneration can access open-sourced data regularly to catalyse ideas, and not just respond to already proposed projects. Scorecards will help councillors on planning committees to make better decisions about the proposals put to them.
The sooner engagement in planning begins the better. This should start with extensive public participation in the development of the London Plan, Borough Local Plans, neighbourhood plans and planning of major developments. This should include engaging with people face to face, through established forums and online, depending on the needs and preferences of different groups.
Engagement doesn’t work if it’s regarded as a one-off event rather than a continuing process, and not keeping people informed erodes trust. This is particularly important where plans need to be revised, or where individual cases arise that can’t easily be determined by agreed planning frameworks and principles, or that deviate from them for one reason or another. It’s also important that local authorities and local residents get the chance to assess developments when they have been built, to see what could be done better next time.
There is no such thing as a “typical” Londoner and there can be no one-size-fits-all approach to engagement. Politicians, planners and developers need to understand the communities who will be affected by a new development (not just those who live there) and actively engage with all the key groups. Engagement should involve a range of ways to be involved, both face to face and online. Face to face meetings should be held at different times to suit people of all ages, with childcare provided or paid for. Engaging young people should be a particular priority. When citizens dedicate significant time to a particular process they should be paid and offered training if they want it.
People will only trust a process and be happy with its outcome where it is fair and transparent. Yet our planning system is highly complex and often technical and opaque. Local authorities and developers must be open about funding and business models underpinning development (as well as the costs and benefits of development). They should also ensure that technical planning documents use accessible language or are summarised in accessible language, so that they can be understood by citizens as well as qualified professionals. Viability reports, which set out the basis on which developers and local authorities agree affordable housing and other contributions to local amenities, must be made publicly available early in the process. An accreditation scheme could reward developers who do engagement well.
Effective engagement requires time and money, to cover local authority staff time, citizens’ involvement time, the costs of online and face to face engagement as well as supporting and facilitating community groups, and training and capacity building. This has been a particular challenge for neighbourhood planning processes in less wealthy areas, which often struggle to receive the support they need. Delivering a London-specific multidisciplinary training and support programme – alongside improved skills training for developers, architects and other built environment professionals – will help make engagement as effective and consistent as it should be.