To more cynical members of the public, planning consultation simply means a notice on a lamp post or an announcement of a meeting in a community hall before the proposal is approved.
But neighbourhood planning, introduced in England in the 2011 Localism Act, has raised the bar for public participation. It allows members of the community to draw up a spatial plan for their area and gives residents the final say over whether or not the document is approved.
The draft neighbourhood plan goes through several stages of statutory consultation before examination. But at the end of examination, the document has to be approved in a local referendum by a majority of the voting public.
The council is responsible for most of the statutory consultation processes. This includes publicising when a parish council or community group applies to designate a proposed neighbourhood planning area (see panel, p19). The local authority must also advertise the existence of the draft plan for six weeks before it is examined. The neighbourhood planning body has just one statutory consultation requirement, as it too has to alert residents and businesses to the emerging plan in the six weeks before examination.
But this may change as a result of government proposals, unveiled in July, to speed up and simplify the process, which include removing the pre-submission consultation stage. The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) document states that the statutory requirement is "no longer considered necessary" because neighbourhood planning bodies have such a good record of "effective, extensive and continuous consultation".
The neighbourhood planning group, rather than the planning authority, is in the driving seat with community engagement, say experts. But the council "may well advise the group going forward" and share best practice, says Steve Barker, principal consultant at the Local Government Association's Planning Advisory Service.
Community engagement initiative
One council that has shown initiative in community engagement in neighbourhood planning is Northampton Borough Council. Eleanor Gingell, now a senior planner at consultancy Pegasus Planning Group, was the borough's senior planning officer who supported the emerging neighbourhood forum in the deprived Spring Boroughs area of the town. Gingell, who received a British Empire Medal for her work there, said the council, after receiving a neighbourhood forum application, realised that the group was not speaking for all sections of the community. She says: "The council had to change its approach to get the neighbourhood forum designated. This took a year, but the forum was far more representative in the end than it was during the original application."
The community initially lacked the skills and contacts to move forward without council support, says Gingell. The council enlisted charity Planning Aid to provide support in raising awareness and building trust. Drop-in sessions were held for members of the public to ask questions about the neighbourhood plan. Residents provided food at events and the issues at stake were represented visually.
Similar methods were used in Winslow, Buckinghamshire. The town's neighbourhood plan was approved by 98 per cent of voters in July in the highest turnout of any referendum so far, at 60 per cent. Llew Monger, chairman of Winslow Town Council's neighbourhood plan steering group, says there was a big focus on hard-to-reach groups. Young families were targeted at mother-and-toddler groups and young people via social networking sites. Monger says constant and positive engagement with the community was key.
Securing genuinely representative local involvement frequently proves less than straightfoward. Liane Hartley, director of consultancy Mend, says neighbourhood groups can find it hard to get beyond the "usual suspects" making up the neighbourhood planning body. A DCLG spokesman says: "Groups tell us that engaging some sections of the community, such as young people or working couples with young children, presents challenges." Neighbourhood planning consultant Tony Burton says that business groups, particularly retailers, have also been hard for neighbourhood groups to reach.
Hartley says the number of people turning out for referendums has also been a concern for neighbourhood groups, with one attracting only eight per cent of locals to vote.
But the DCLG spokesman says results suggest that those preparing neighbourhood plans "have done a very good job of community consultation". He says the average 'yes' vote in the 28 referendums so far has been 88 per cent, with a turnout of almost 60 per cent in some places.
Dave Chetwyn, managing director of Urban Vision Enterprise and planning adviser to Locality, which represents community-led groups, says it is best for neighbourhood planners to engage with stakeholders at the start of the process. He says this should involve open and general questions, asking residents and businesses what they like and what needs to change. He says: "By the time you get to the later, statutory stages, you've already done the leg work. The later you leave it to engage with the public, the riskier it is."
Gingell and Monger point out that neighbourhood plan groups are not allowed to campaign at referendum for a 'yes' vote, which means that gaining early support for the plan is even more vital.
Burton advocates going beyond the standard leaflets and meetings, including use of digital tools such as consultation software program Sticky World. He says: "Make it fun. Make it as little like a traditional local authority consultation as possible." He cites Tattenhall Parish Council in Cheshire, which held a rave to which entry was limited to those residents who had completed a questionnaire on the emerging neighbourhood plan.
Unlike plan-making bodies and councils, there is no special requirement for developers or landowners promoting sites in neighbourhood plan areas to consult, although large applications are subject to the same pre-application consultation requirements that apply everywhere else.
But developers say that as much community engagement as possible is beneficial. Jon Kenny is development director of Commercial Estates Group (CEG), which is promoting two housing sites in the Thame neighbourhood plan area in Oxfordshire, one of which received planning permission last November. He says promoting sites for a neighbourhood plan requires the same high standards of engagement as for local plans. He says in Thame, CEG held consultations just after the council's that "echoed their message".
Lack of engagement, Kenny says, can make the pursuit of site allocation a "hostile process". But no amount of consultation can redeem a site that is not deliverable. "It pays to engage well and early," he says. "But that can't save a site that's poorly located, poorly accessible and unsustainable." Matt Harmer, chief commercial officer at communications consultancy Indigo Public Affairs, emphasises the importance of early engagement by developers. He says: "For the site allocation process, local people are going to feel easier about the outcomes if they've been involved in the process all the way through, regardless of the planning framework. Developers should also be open with information from the start. Otherwise, other voices come forward and developers are battling against the tide of potential opposition."
Striking a balance
Gingell advises developers to strike a careful balance between being assertive and confrontational. "Making legal threats if the site is not allocated doesn't help and gets people's backs up," she warns.
Overall, Chetwyn says neighbourhood planners have often outdone higher-level plans when it comes to community consultation. He says: "Some are exceptional in the way they've engaged the public."
Gingell agrees there are some fantastic examples of good practice, but says that other neighbourhood planners have tried to get by with doing the minimum. "The only test is time," she says. "Plans that have gone out of their way to pro-actively engage will probably last longer, in terms of robustness, than those that haven't."
Five strategies for successful Engagement
1. The neighbourhood planning body should start consulting early. It has a statutory requirement to publicise its draft plan for six weeks before it is submitted for examination, although the government is consulting on removing this. But experts say groups must start to engage with the community from the outset. They also point out that neighbourhood planning bodies are unable to campaign in the run-up to the referendum. Dave Chetwyn, planning adviser at community group representatives Locality, says: "If you get in a closed room, write the plan and then consult, that's when you get into trouble."
2. Neighbourhood planning groups should be pro-active and target all sections of the community, including hard-to-reach groups. Young people and working couples with children are particular challenges, says the Department of Communities and Local Government. "Go to them, don't wait for them to come to you," says neighbourhood planning consultant Tony Burton. It is important for groups to listen to everyone, says Eleanor Gingell, senior planner at Pegasus Planning Group, including businesses, landowners, and ward councillors. "A meeting in a draughty hall on a Monday night doesn't cut it," she adds.
3. Local authorities have statutory responsibility for several formal consultation stages. These include publicising when a parish council or community group applies to designate a proposed neighbourhood planning area, and advertising the draft plan for six weeks after it is submitted by the neighbourhood planning body and before examination.
4. Councils should help neighbourhood groups when it comes to community engagement. Steve Barker of the Local Government Association's Planning Advisory Service says: "Good councils should work hand in glove with communities in (neighbourhood planning) areas to see good plans produced." But others say that resources to offer support are scarce.
5. Developers seeking site allocations through neighbourhood plans have no statutory requirements to consult but should engage with the process early, which allows communities to feel they have an influence, says Matt Harmer of communications consultancy Indigo Public Affairs. They should also be open with information from the start, he adds.