Careers Advice: Effective community engagement
Planning is about shaping the environment for all. As planners, we are tasked with coming up with the proposals to develop, or protect, the environment. This is not done in isolation, as the community has an increasing involvement in decision making. As a “marmite” profession, we all know that there are groups for and against most planning proposals. In this age of social media, knowledge and information are shared instantaneously. Objections can mushroom into protest movements.
Community engagement should not be seen as a tiresome tick box exercise that may hold up a proposal. It should be seen as an integral part of planning, and the value of effective community engagement should be recognised.
The local authority should know the active community groups in an area, and already have a relationship with them. They will have a Statement of Community Involvement, and that should mean exactly that.
At an early stage of proposals, find out who the active community groups are. The local authority can advise on the groups that they know, but there are also many community websites and forums to be found where public opinions are expressed, and members are active in the area.
Seek the views of the community on proposals before you become too entrenched in one particular proposal. Many groups will appreciate being asked – they know the area, they know the history, and they know what they want to see. This will save time and money in the long run. And frequently will result in suggestions that will improve the scheme.
Talk openly and honestly with the community. Whilst initial views may well be “not in my back yard”, most people accept that there has to be development to support a growing nation, and they want to feel that they have had an input into proposals that will shape their neighbourhood. They can also input pertinent local information which can assist in the development of a scheme.
Build a relationship with local people. Show that you are truly interested in the area. There is often a feeling that developers come in, impose a scheme and walk away, leaving the community with problem developments. Don’t let that be you!
Be open with interested groups, have regular engagement. Huge protests can result in schemes being refused at Planning Committee, even if officers recommend approval. Even if the scheme does get planning permission, a judicial review can result in substantial uncertainty and delay. So often, this could have been avoided if a meaningful working relationship was established at the beginning of the process
Once a scheme has been approved, it is important that engagement is ongoing. Endless complaints by residents to the local authority during construction can substantially delay a project. Give locals a point of contact so that these disputes can be handled locally, and that they don’t escalate.
On a smaller scale, objections to minor applications, and disputes between neighbours, can also engender delay and bad feelings. Again, talking to people at an early stage can prevent this. Encourage applicants to talk to the neighbours, to let them know what they are wanting to do. Talk to objectors, and see if common ground can be found. An amendment to a scheme won’t necessarily affect its overall viability or success, but may prevent lengthy objections.
As a profession, we know that planners get a bad press. It really is worth the effort, for both large and smaller schemes, to engage with people, and challenge this myth. Show people that planners are human and dispel those beliefs that anonymous bureaucrats are destroying the country with ill thought schemes.
Marilyn Smith is planning decisions manager at Barking and Dagenham Council.