The recommendations of a report launched last week in Brussels look set to spark a debate over what constitutes the correct level of community involvement in developments in the UK and may well affect the forthcoming planning reform bill.
The final report of the Advocacy, Participation and Non-Governmental Organisations in Planning (APaNGO) project records results of a partnership between Dutch, Belgian and UK local government and non-governmental bodies. The Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) led the group and Planning Aid for London was one of the participants.
The project, part-funded by the EU's INTERREG IIIB programme and supported by the DCLG, covered seven EU member states, including the UK and Republic of Ireland. As well as examining community involvement techniques in north-west Europe, the partnership set up a series of demonstrations to explore successful participation practices.
Focusing on community engagement in north-western Europe, the report highlights the need for appropriate support and techniques, a cultural shift in decision-making bodies, legal recognition of agreements, fair and transparent processes and representation for all groups. It recommends that statutory rights in planning for those most affected by schemes should be maintained and community agreements on developments should be legally recognised.
Creative techniques for involving hard-to-reach groups, including community media, branding, street-based and cultural activities are suggested. "These pioneering techniques can make use of the rich reservoirs of knowledge found locally and greatly improve development and planning decisions," argues TCPA chief executive Gideon Amos.
At the launch of the report, former housing and planning minister Keith Hill pledged to urge the government to consider the recommendations when it takes forward its white paper proposals. The government has invested £3 million in Planning Aid but needs to do more, he insists. "The UK house building agenda is vital and the public understands that development needs to happen," he says. "But processes by which people can engage are essential to achieving the government's targets."
Planning lawyer and TCPA vice-chairwoman Pat Thomas says it is in developers' interests to consult the community at an early stage. Drivers Jonas associate partner Euan Kellie adds: "The most important part of public consultation is to ensure that all parties are fully briefed on an emerging project."
However, the APaNGO report goes much further than providing staged opportunities for people to offer their input. It encourages video workshops to promote communal activities that cut across divisions of age, ethnicity and religion.
Planning Aid chairwoman Pat Castledine claims that the problem with UK consultation practice is due to the fear that involving the public will cause delay and reduce flexibility. She believes that proponents should devise participation plans.
These would outline who will be consulted and how, with a timetable and a list of resources required by all groups. It should be subject to agreement by the planning authority. "Frontloading consultation will reduce the amount of time required to obtain consent for a development," Castledine maintains.
Planning Aid community planner Michael Parkes says the aim should be to equip communities to take charge of participation on an ongoing basis. "That is the purpose of regeneration. You cannot just consult people periodically," he insists.
TCPA vice-chairman Anthony Fyson suggests that consultation sometimes needs to be done on a regional, national and pan-European basis: "What about consulting people on their views on Brussels as the capital for Europe?" This international dialogue is echoed by Milton Keynes Partnership head of planning and transport David Hackforth: "There needs to be a balance between the locality and the wider area."
Whether the APaNGO recommendations are taken seriously will not become apparent until the planning reform bill. But a DCLG spokesman stresses that the government has always said community consultation will be improved, in accordance with the planning white paper.
- Community Engagement in Planning - Exploring the Way Forward is available at PlanningResource.co.uk/doc.