Fyson on... How to achieve improved public participation

Speeding up the planning process while making it more accessible to the public are sometimes presented as incompatible goals. Certainly if participation is pursued in the usual ways, prolonged periods of consultation and spasms of protest are all that can be expected. Disillusion follows when official draft policies apparently remain unaffected by the public views revealed by the participation exercise. Yet there is little evidence that the public wants to take over the role of the professional planner in government. After all, people elect their representatives and expect them to employ competent people to run public services.

However, if the "new localism" is to be reflected in the planning of sustainable development, there has to be an opportunity for popular input somewhere between the publication of development documents and the specifics of a decision on an application. One such opportunity is afforded by the concept statement, a device developed over the past two years by the Countryside Agency with potential application in many forms and at many scales.

Essentially, a concept statement explains how a local authority's vision as expressed in its plans can be achieved through development on a site.

The typical statement is brief and non-technical, with text and a sketch map. It is less detailed than a development brief but more comprehensible to all parties. Although promoted initially by the local authority, the involvement of stakeholders is important. Workshops provide everyone with the chance to influence the site-specifics of a development in a way that no policy in a plan can ensure.

Such a procedure can enable the high-quality design that developments so often lack. Instead of being satisfied to eliminate the unacceptable characteristics that may cause a proposal to be rejected on the grounds that it is bad enough to refuse, a concept statement drafted by local collaboration with local knowledge is more likely to make a proposal good enough to approve.

By meeting the need for an aspirational vision for a site before the design stage, concept statements can raise standards above the minimum.

As September's Planning Summer School was told, they can analyse countryside or townscape character, environmental capital, sustainability indicators and development principles.

Concept statements start with the assets already possessed by the site before development, with the hope of using rather than obliterating them.

They are not a substitute for public involvement in preparing plans or development documents, but they are a useful adjunct to it. Neither do they supplant professional planning, although they could help to reorder its priorities.

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