Planning with public participation, by Cliff Hague

I was in Riyadh recently for the first time, as a guest speaker at the second Saudi Urban Forum. My brief was to speak about good practice in public participation.

The international headlines about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi provided a sobering backdrop. Given the political and cultural differences between Saudi Arabia and countries that generate most of the literature on participation, this was always going to be a challenge. I could have reeled off examples from different parts of the world, but would they be transferable to this kingdom?

The concept, and even more the practice, of participation varies widely between different countries. There is often a lazy Anglocentric assumption at home that it all began with the Skeffington Report in 1969.

However, a case can be made that the UK was at the very least influenced by earlier practices in the USA. In particular, the 1966 Model Cities Program had sought "maximum feasible participation". In turn, Model Cities had been influenced by ideas of "community action" that had been nurtured in a Presidential Committee on Juvenile Delinquency during the Kennedy administration.

The underlying premise for both Model Cities and the presidential committee was that community action agencies would be based in poor neighbourhoods, not in City Hall, and that their activities would be steered by what residents wanted, rather than by what city officials thought the residents wanted.

This was a more radical proposition than Skeffington was willing to endorse, but what is notable about participation in UK planning is how far it still falls short of even what Skeffington recommended.

The recent Commonwealth Association of Planners Awards for Outstanding Planning Achievement revealed several good examples of participatory planning, with entries from New Zealand and Australia particularly prominent.

Similarly, there are good practices in Canada, not least in listening to the voices of First Nations people – for example. Post-apartheid South Africa has also taken participation very seriously, with the negotiated solution to the complex multi-use Warwick Junction in Durban an oft-quoted example.

So what to say to the large audience at the Saudi Urban Forum, or indeed to anyone else seeking to involve the public in planning? Firstly, be clear why you are undertaking participation. What will success look like? It has long been recognised that information giving, consultation and co-production are different entities.

Then ask: who you are trying to reach? Is it everyone, or a plurality of identified stakeholders, or groups whose voice is seldom heard?

When do you want involvement? In the UK it is common to parrot the case for "early involvement" without recognising that the final say, through the appeals system, is dominated by developers, their lawyers and lobbyists, and ministers; this discrepancy fuels public mistrust. Unless we recognise that planning deals with contentious issues and elicits strong feelings, and know how to respond to conflict when it arises, it can all end in tears.

Finally, there is a need to consider "how?" What methods fit the aims and target groups? Participation needs planning, resourcing and skills.

Cliff Hague OBE is a freelance consultant and researcher

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