Thoughts on “Public participation in planning in the UK A review of the literature”(1)
By David Janner-Klausner, PhD – Co-founder, Commonplace Digital Ltd.
In British planning, public participation has been seen as a positive contributor to the civic realm since the 1966 Skeffingdon Report. Yet, as this important literature review shows us, many remain confused about purpose and scope, along with a deficit of inclusion – despite a proliferation of new and different methods:
While there may be a procedural right to participation, there is nothing in place to ensure that the experience is a good one or that it reaps results in terms of representative democracy (p.23)
The arrival of social media and online engagement complicate matters further. While very popular and vocal to the point of screech, the online channels used for social engagement are mostly lacking in scope; are unreliable carriers of opinion, and can be very unevenly accessible.
The literature review delivers a comprehensive and up-to-date “state of play” report. It traces historic origins but is very much focused on recent trends and current challenges. It also reviews innovative engagement methods and, more importantly, provides some typologies for assessing engagement methods and motivations that will serve the field well even as it evolves further. Notably, the Review includes an assessment of engagement issues and methods specific to the Devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The first part of the review focuses on the opportunities for public engagement and their evolution since The Skeffingdon Report. These culminate in Neighbourhood Plans, which are described as a relatively radical attempt to marry top-down, pro-growth development planning, with a bottom-up approach to expressing community preferences. Reviewed articles observe that neighbourhood planning has in effect become a collaborative effort, with local authority planners and expert consultants assisting community groups. Authors link this development with other examples of collaborative planning, such as community budget planning.
The authors identify a continuum in the approach to public engagement. At one pole is a centralising tendency with strong institutional dominance of the planning system. Arcing from this pole is a contested, fragmented reality with more opportunities for public engagement. The engagement opportunities can at times be endorsed by statutory requirements – for example, for Statements of Community Involvement.
The next part of the Review focuses on people’s reasons for getting – or not getting – involved. It proposes a typology with nine elements to explain why people are motivated to try influencing local plans. These include, Hope, place attachment; Place Protection (also “bad NIMBYism”) and also a less-obvious “Honeypot effect” – where public participation exercises are so attractive, people just want to engage with the activity.
Next, the authors deliver a useful catalogue of contemporary methods with a brief assessment of each. The overall assessment is positive: some practices that are focused and face-to-face can deepen community understanding of planning and lead to pressure to co-design localities. E-engagement can reach wider audiences – although issues of digital exclusion need to be addressed. The best engagement should be a mix of digital and face-to-face.
All community engagement efforts, platforms and expressions of engagement operate in a planning system dominated by processes that are antagonistic to the community voice. The pro-development assumptions are fanned by the financial constraints on local authorities, forcing them into often unwanted and unpopular compromises. These are exacerbated by the lack of time and immediate accountability for planning decisions. A study quoted that 70-95% of planning decisions are delegated to officers. This, combined with tighter time-targets for planning decisions, reduces the opportunities for the public to be involved and for planners to negotiate changes. The public still has the opportunity to object – but the council has less time in which to take the objects on board and negotiate a better outcome with the proposer / developer.
The Planning for the Future White Paper (2011) would have further constrained the public’s voice, had it been implemented. The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill – published shortly after this Review – offers new opportunities for local engagement, down to street level.
Ultimately, the best we might be able to achieve is to have a community that is aware of how it can engage, is aware of the limitations of engagement – and that engagement can be more transparent and involve many more people in the future.
I highly recommend this Review – it is as interesting and comprehensive a work of reference as a busy practitioner could hope for!
(1) “Public participation in planning in the UK – A review of the literature” Dr Victoria Lawson, Dr Ruchit Purohit, Prof Flora Samuel, John Brennan, Prof Lorraine Farrelly, Dr Saul Golden, and Prof Mhairi McVicar. Published by UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence, April 2022.