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14 September 2020

280: Where is the local consultation? The planning white paper

Communities should be at the heart of new developments. The recently published planning white paper suggests some radical changes to the planning system. But engagement and consultation looks likely to change as well and local authorities could well find themselves in the firing line.

The paper sets out the government’s aims for a new planning system which is easier for the public to access, transforms the way communities are shaped and builds the homes that the country needs. The paper states that the current system is complicated, favours larger developers and often means that much needed new homes are delayed.

There is no doubt that the government has had planning in its sights for some time. The current system is considered to be a block on progress, holding back development and so is part of the productivity challenge that successive governments have failed to deal with.

The reforms cover everything from the introduction of a rules based system, to a new, simpler national levy, the creation of a fast-track system for beautiful buildings, and the establishment of local design guidance.

But of most interest to public affairs are the consultation and engagement aspects. Despite the importance of working with communities, consultation features very little in the white paper. This is a cause of concern.

Under the proposals, local areas will have to develop plans for land to be designated into one of three categories: growth areas, renewal areas or protected areas.

Communities will be consulted ‘from the beginning of the planning process’ and will help shape the design codes to guide what development can happen in their local area.

This shift in focus for community engagement to earlier into the planning process and, along with the greater use of digital technology, could transform the relationship between development and communities.

So the emphasis is on engagement at the local plan phase but that should already happen.

But that means that onus for consultation rests much more heavily with local authorities. As the white paper states:

‘Local councils should radically and profoundly re-invent the ambition, depth and breadth with which they engage with communities as they consult on Local Plans’.

The existing reality is that trying to get a community excited and engaged about local plans is difficult to say the least. It also means that local authorities are going to have to invest a lot more time, effort, and resources. That is to say nothing of the legal challenges which could come their way as well from, for instance, those unhappy with the conduct of the consultation and whether it delivers on the gunning principles (the legal expectations around consultation).

It is also not clear from the white paper what consultation would be needed for the developments themselves. After all, if the local plan has been developed with extensive local engagement, is much really needed? There will always be reasons, not least ones of reputation, about why engagement should happen. But if it isn’t really needed for the permission, will it happen? Will developers spend money on it?

The white paper says that consultation at the planning application stage will the ‘streamlined’:

‘because this adds delay to the process and allows a small minority of voices, some from the local area and often some not, to shape outcomes’.

As far as the white paper is concerned the onus for consultation seems to have shifted firmly to local authorities. But there are implications. Everyone needs to consider:

  • how to motivate local communities to get involved in local plans? The same ‘small minority’ issue could easily remain especially when, for most people, such plans are exercises in technical theory not about what we will actually be built in their area. They lack the immediacy and relevance of a real development;
  • resourcing the local authorities to engage on the local plans;
  • preparing local authorities for the prospect of legal challenges;
  • what role developers should adopt during these early development; and
  • how much consultation developers should do on their own projects.

Planning reform is never straightforward but if we do not consider engagement and consultation matters then it will never secure the backing of local communities.

With special thanks to Francesca Blackham in the drafting of this blog.

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