Community engagement is an integral part of good planning, so a key skill for the profession. Engagement activities should not be about ticking boxes, but about a genuinely participatory approach to planning. There are numerous opportunities and requirements for engagement and consultation, including planning policy, projects, enhancement schemes, infrastructure proposals, development schemes, master-planning, and local strategies, to name but a few. In the case of neighbourhood plans, the community can lead the planning process and the requirement to engage with the wider community falls to them.
For planners, the community is not just residents, but local businesses, organisations and other stakeholders. Neighbourhood planning in particular has highlighted the benefits of drawing on the expertise and knowledge of the wider community. Local networks and organisations may be useful in targeting different parts of the community, including business and different special interest or minority groups. So the emphasis is very much on being able to work with a wide range of people.
Skills and methods
A range of skills are required to engage with the community effectively. Good people skills are essential. Effective community engagement is about good communication, especially listening. Methods of engaging vary and depend on the size of community being targeted. Digital media should be considered an essential part of any engagement exercise, especially where larger communities are involved. Confrontational and intimidating methods like theatre-style public meetings should be avoided.
Planners must have a good understanding of the complexities of consultation law. Formal consultation is subject to statutory requirements under the planning acts. It is also important to understand legal principles established by consultation caselaw, such as legitimate expectation (the principle that people have a legitimate expectation of consultation if their lives could be affected by a decision, even if there is no statutory duty to consult). Thus it can be unlawful if a public body fails to consult, even though there is no specific statutory duty to do so. Consultation case law also sets out the expected requirements that consultation must meet, for example through the numerous cases relating to ‘Gunning principles’ (the set of principles including that there should be enough information provided to enable intelligent consideration, that sufficient time should be allowed to consider proposals, that consultation should take place at a formative stage and that public bodies should give conscientious consideration to every response.
Stages of engagement and consultation
Planners should understand the purpose of different stages of engagement and consultation. Although there is no standard format, early-stage engagement would normally be about gathering information and views. Mid-stage engagement can be about testing options, or problem solving and finding solutions. Later, formal consultation would subject the resulting project, document, plan or proposal to public scrutiny. It is important to communicate the outcomes of community engagement at each stage back to the community. Most importantly, community engagement must be undertaken so that outcomes can be influenced. Otherwise, it is a token exercise.
Dave Chetwyn is managing director/partner at consultancy Urban Vision Enterprises