The idea that communities have a right to shape the future of their neighbourhoods has taken root in recent years.
Since 2011 people have had greater powers over the planning process, thanks to the Localism Act, which introduced a host of new initiatives to give residents a meaningful role in local development. Neighbourhood Plans were introduced to allow local residents to set the framework for how their area changes. Community Right to Build Orders were created to allow local people to develop without planning permission.
On the surface, these are radical policy reforms, but there have been relatively low levels of uptake. Why? These initiatives quite rightly include hurdles, in terms of local referendums, to ensure accountability, and also require long-term and dedicated resource. Planning and development are complex, particularly in a city like London.
These barriers and layers of complexity mean that most residents still experience the planning system through more traditional mechanisms, such as formal consultation on planning applications. Consultations tend to come at the end of the planning process and focus on giving residents a thumbs-up or -down to a specific proposal, rather than an ongoing discussion about how the neighbourhood may change.
This is why, despite the renewed emphasis on community engagement in planning policy, many people feel outside of the process and perceive that there is little scope for influencing new developments. And, on the side of the developer, too often community engagement is viewed as a planning risk to be mitigated, rather than as part of a genuine effort to involve locals in decision making.
How can developers and local authorities better engage local people in the planning process? Here are seven ideas. This list is not intended to be comprehensive. It summarises the discussion from a recent roundtable and identifies areas of consensus.
1. Be strategic
Currently, public debate and larger-scale engagement in strategic plans has been limited, including for opportunity areas planning frameworks and the London Plan itself. Creating a shared vision for a city of nearly 10 million people is clearly a huge undertaking, but the big debates about London’s future should inform the next London Plan, not simply respond to it.
2. Start early
Residents must be involved from the outset so that plans can be tailored in response to feedback, or even co-produced, with regular communication over the course of a project. Early and prolonged relationship building with local people can build a coalition of support, help convey the potential benefits, and also bring local knowledge to bear in scheme design.
3. Modernise methods
Traditional approaches to public engagement are often perceived as a tick box exercise. Other alternatives to the yes-no vote on specific proposals include welcome events, resident days, design exhibitions and exploring opportunities for local people to try new visualisation technologies.
4. Talk about money
Planning and development involves choices – between density and open space, between social rented and share ownership housing, between internal space standards and gardens, between parking spaces and bus stops. All these choices ultimately boil down to money – what a developer can afford to spend, based on the price they paid for land, the values they hope to achieve, and the profits they seek to make. Talking more openly about how these factors interact can result in a conversation that is more pragmatic, more open and ultimately more capable of reaching agreement.
5. Do what you say
Features of a development might be promised but then not delivered on, which can be toxic to existing relationships with the community. Expectations need to be better managed; some feel that the development industry can be reluctant to say ‘no’, and to explain the financial and other constraints that are at play. Local people are pragmatic and perceptive enough to understand the potential trade-offs, so there is certainly the capacity for greater honesty in the system.
6. Focus on the benefits
Successful developers have changed the narrative from simply ‘changing the built form’, to revitalising a community, through providing training, employment opportunities, community assets and facilities. Undoubtedly, communities want to see a lasting benefit from developments. Arrangements could be more formalised as a ‘deal’ between local residents and developers, where the community negotiates on their own behalf the benefits to be delivered from new building.
7. Embrace the ballot
In 2018, the Mayor of London introduced mandatory ballots for estate regeneration schemes seeking mayoral funding and including the demolition of affordable homes or homes which were previously social homes. Early experiences of the ballots have been positive. If there is a good turnout and a strong, positive response to the plans, ballots give architects and developers a mandate with local authorities. Balloting also makes developers ‘do more’; it can take more time and energy to get people on side (with numerous one-to-one discussions), but ultimately this will provide people with more detail and a greater incentive to put forward a more considered approach to design.