Clare Jones reflects on the effectiveness of current community engagement mechanisms, and asks how communities can be more involved.
In 2020 Welsh Government committed to review the Senedd Cymru Public Accounts Committee Report on the effectiveness of local planning authorities. Recommendations include strengthening how developers consult with local communities before applying for larger or ‘major’ development, alongside evaluating engagement and developing new approaches that better reflect 21st century communication.
Very few communities have real, substantive input in the planning decisions that affect them.
As part of the Planning (Wales) Act 2015, developers proposing major development are required to show how they adhere to new consultation requirements as part of their planning application submissions. However, what has become apparent is that, despite the mandatory consultation requirements, very few communities have real, substantive input in the planning decisions that affect them. This means that they have little or no opportunity to help plan the future of the places where they live and work.
As the people that live and work in the places being shaped and developed, communities are a fundamental stakeholder in the planning process. When done well, engagement increases buy-in, improves the quality of the built environment, delivers better socio-economic benefits and creates confidence in the planning process.
As a Welsh consultancy that supports developers in undertaking pre-application consultation for planning with local communities, we wanted to explore how well the process was perceived to be working, in particular, among locally elected representatives: MPs, MSs, ward members and councillors. We wanted to find out about their first-hand experience of engagement and consultation across Wales and whether they agreed that the review by the Welsh Government was necessary. The research provided several insights and raised a number of questions about current engagement.
Despite significant levels of engagement at the pre-application stage, there was much less post submission, which means that people are left out in the cold.
Nearly half (43%) of those elected representatives questioned don’t feel that the engagement currently being delivered is effective, with nearly two-thirds (60%) saying that community engagement does not influence plans. These are pretty stark findings. The current system is clearly not working for Wales or the people it serves.
Despite significant levels of engagement at the pre-application stage, there was much less post submission, which means that people are left out in the cold, uncertain if their feedback has been taken into account or has helped to shape plans. This can often result in the kind of scepticism and negativity that is so often associated with consultation.
If community engagement is done well, it can really help to speed up the planning process. But developers need to go further – reflecting on the feedback they receive and showing communities how this has shaped their plans.
What’s more, our research found that more than half (55%) of elected representatives did not feel the Pre-Application Consultation (PAC process) was effective. This is a major problem. It is crucial therefore that the whole process is examined, so that communities have an opportunity to have their say.
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In terms of digital engagement, the pandemic has accelerated change here. Using digital tools such as websites and social media reaches a large number of the community and allows people to share and engage with information. Digital tools and content must be created by developers and considered as part of the consultation approach. However, it is important that they are not relied upon exclusively.
Face to face meetings, presentations, public exhibitions, drop-in events, workshops and advisory panels are still crucial for building dialogue and trust with the public. It can sometimes be difficult for people to understand an application based on the information provided on a website. They may have questions or find the information difficult to interpret without some direction. It is clear then that some of the traditional methods of communication are still the best in preventing confusion and aiding understanding.
Engagement is a two-way process. It is in everyone’s interest to raise awareness of the consultation to increase participation during the pre-application stage to help develop understanding, trust and consensus.
There are also challenges in moving all aspects of community engagement online, with digital exclusion representing a huge risk. We live in diverse communities and it’s crucial that any planned changes to the built environment are communicated in a way that is accessible to everyone.
Over half a million people in Wales speak Welsh (around 20% of the population) and in certain areas, there will be a higher expectation for developers to provide information in Welsh although this is not a statutory requirement. Respecting Welsh culture and language is a hugely important factor when planning and designing places in Wales, and equally this should be reflected when engaging and holding events with those communities impacted.
What we need then to focus on is broadening the range of communications channels – both online and offline – and in a way that is accessible to everyone so that every opinion counts.
Engagement is a two-way process. It is in everyone’s interest to raise awareness of the consultation to increase participation during the pre-application stage to help develop understanding, trust and consensus. Meaningful consultation, involvement and collaboration with communities and stakeholders can be difficult to achieve, but it is crucial.
Good engagement is more than ‘ticking a box’. Better places and positive socio-economic impacts can only be achieved with comprehensive and respectful engagement between community and developer.
To read Grasshopper’s full report in depth, click here.
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