For consultation practitioners, there is some very valuable information to glean yesterday’s House of Commons’ Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee report on The future of the Planning System in England.
VIEWS OF THE HCLG COMMITTEE
There are strong arguments in favour of consulting at an early stage (ie, on Local Plans):
- Arguments advanced in favour of the changes were that they would reduce public disappointment at applications being overridden on appeal because of existing Local Plans, cause the system to work more efficiently by reducing political interventions that prioritise local resistance to development, and enable proper discussion of the trade-offs “rather than playing whack-a-mole with residents’ objections.”
But consultation should continue at a planning application level:
- We support enhancing public involvement with Local Plans. However, figures cited by the Minister suggest that far more people are involved at the point when individual planning applications are considered than at the Local Plan stage, and this was backed up by the evidence. We also fear that people will resort to legal measures if they cannot comment upon and therefore influence an individual planning proposal. Therefore, all individuals must still be able to comment and influence upon all individual planning proposals.
This is because people are more likely to engage on planning applications than on strategic planning:
- North Northamptonshire District Council stated that: Typically, on our plans, you will get in the low hundreds of people involved in the plan-making process who make formal representations, whereas, when it comes to the planning application, you can easily have thousands of representations on a controversial application. That is notwithstanding that those same sites—I have some in mind—were part of the local plans that have been subject to a process, but people really only engage when there is the immediacy of a planning application.
- Numerous submissions argued that individuals mainly became involved in individual planning decisions rather than at the Local Plan stage. We were told that people’s interest in planning issues results from nearby development. This was because it is inevitable people are often more motivated to give up their time to engage on individual schemes where they can see a direct impact upon them [rather] than on plans which may influence development in years to come.
The proposals within the Planning White Paper (ie, to introduce zoning) threaten people’s involvement in planning:
- The Government’s proposals could potentially impact on public involvement in a significant way.
- The majority of our evidence thought that the proposals were likely to reduce public involvement. This would chiefly be through abolishing the ability of people to comment on individual planning applications in growth areas and other extensions to permission in principle.
- The scale of the change being proposed was laid out by the RTPI: It is still an enormous challenge to overturn 70 years of people’s expectations that they can be involved in individual planning decisions. At the very least, it will require a national campaign of education plus significant extra resources for community engagement at local level.
The problem with consultation on planning applications is that people will always want to debate the principle of development – despite this having already been agreed through the Local Plan process:
- Community engagement at the local plan stage should be a basis to move plans forward, with local consent. However, further community engagement when more detailed plans are brought forward can confuse a process when they fall back on the fundamental principle of a development. Instead, community engagement at the design stage should identify and address specific issues around homes that will be delivered for local communities.
It is important not to relinquish the role of people in planning:
- A crucial element of the planning system is the involvement of members of the public. Whether that is putting in a planning application, responding positively or negatively to another’s application, or contributing to a Local Plan, this has been a mainstay of the system since 1947.
That’s despite the fact that many sections of society are disenfranchised by the current system:
- The Government’s view that participation was skewed towards particular groups, with younger people less likely to participate, also had some support.
- Priced Out argued that young people were failed and local campaign groups, disproportionately made up of older and homeowning residents, dominated the system.
- Save Greater Manchester Green Belt complained that: Participation in planning currently doesn’t feel like it is accessible to all. The systems are complex, and the language and systems seem to be from a bygone age. The White Paper is just adding to this inequality by not including the community at an early stage of participation. People with money, education, access, and time can navigate the system making it inequitable.
But this isn’t necessary a reason to change the current system:
- The Department of Urban Studies and Planning, University of Sheffield stated that: There are significant dangers in justifying reductions in opportunities to participate on this basis. The dominance of unrepresentative minorities in public and democratic life is certainly not restricted to the planning process and would not be accepted as a reason to abandon democracy in other spheres. Rather it should be understood as a reason to deepen and extend engagement amongst under-represented groups.
A problem with the current system is that planning decisions frequently ignore consultation:
- The sense that planning proposals are agreed to despite local objections was frequently voiced in our survey.
Ironically, if the changes proposed in the Planning White Paper were put in place, planning applications may continue as before anyway:
- Claire Dutch, a planning lawyer, emphasised that planning appeals would continue, as developers would proceed through the standard planning process when they thought the Local Plan’s requirements would not permit them the necessary “density, height, scale, massing, et cetera” in their proposals.
THE COMMITTEE’S VIEW ON THE USE OF DIGITAL TECHNOLOGIES
Generally, methodologies used need updating:
- The overwhelming majority of our evidence voiced criticisms of the current state of technology in the planning system. The Home Builders Federation described the current situation as “antiquated processes to engage the public.”
- The Institute of Historic Building Conservation stated: “There is scope to utilise more digital technology in planning.”
In some circumstances electronic mapping is already being used effectively:
- We were informed that parts of the current system do already make use of electronic and digital tools in plan-making, decision-making, and in sharing information about applications. There was praise for email notifications about applications on a street-level basis, and the use of virtual planning committee meetings introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was noted those with care responsibilities and mobility problem had been able to participate.
There is a need for more digital mapping:
- It was thought likely to increase the involvement of younger people in the process, addressing their lower engagement at present, alongside retailers and prospective homeowners.
- It was also thought likely to increase the pace and efficiency of the system.
- There was support for the better collection of data with a creation of national data standards and templates; and for 3D maps.
- We were told information gathered through the planning system could help with building safety through fostering a golden thread of building information, and that digital technology could facilitate planning across local authorities.
- London was cited as an example of good practice that others aspired to. There social media has helped to bolster engagement, there is more open data available in a public format and on a single website, different 3D models are available, and data on strategic house land available can be collected live rather than through a rolling programme.
- We propose the use of virtual participation in planning meetings continue alongside in-person meetings after the COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted.
But there remains a need for traditional, offline, consultation methods:
- However the CPRE did note that even more people would have been engaged had meetings been recorded; and that the virtual format removed the opportunity for informal conversations with participants, leading to a rather stale format rather than constructive conversation.
- We welcome the greater use of digital technology in the planning system. But we recognise the need to ensure those lacking access can know about and participate in the planning process.
- The general support for enhanced technology was coupled with wanting a continuation of existing, non-digital methods of communication.
- We were told that surveys had found 5.3 million people adults in the UK had not accessed the internet in the preceding three months, that 9 million people in the UK struggle to use the internet independently, and that 11.9 million people lack the digital skills needed to go online. The changes might adversely affect people living in rural areas (because of a less reliable connection to broadband), the elderly, the poor, those in manual occupations, those without English as a first language, disabled people, and Gypsy and Traveller communities.
- It was suggested, drawing on experience from neighbourhood plans, that IT was often the less successful way of engaging local people.
- The poor record of central government in delivering IT solutions was also emphasised.
- There were calls for the preservation of existing methods of advertising planning applications and Local Plan consultations through signs on lampposts, walk in ‘town hall’ events, face to face engagement (e.g. through workshops), hard copy documentation, and notices in local newspapers. We were told that this helped to ‘push’ information to the public.
- The Minister suggested that the existing statutory notices on local newspapers and on lampposts would become a matter of discretion for local authorities. We do not agree with this approach. It risks creating a postcode lottery as to whether such notices continue. This would disadvantage those residing in financially stretched councils and those moving into local authorities where such practices have been discontinued. The existing statutory notices should be retained for all local authorities, to be used alongside technology.
Citizens’ assemblies provide an opportunity for better consultation:
- Several submissions suggested that citizens assemblies might have a role to play in planning.
- They were particularly recommended as a means to draw in hitherto under-represented members of a community.
- The CPRE saw it as a way to reduce the adversarial culture of planning.
THE LEGAL IMPLICATIONS
All consultation, if part of a Local Plan, will be potentially subject to judicial review in a way that is not currently the case with non-statutory consultations on developer planning applications:
- Claire Dutch, a planning lawyer, told us that there was likely to be an initial flurry of judicial reviews. She expected once the system was established there would be fewer judicial reviews, but they would be directed against Local Plans. This, she warned, would be “more debilitating” because a successful review “can stop it [the Local Plan] in its tracks and stymie development generally in that area … The JRs [judicial reviews] against plans does worry me.”
FINALLY, SOME STATISTICS ON ENGAGEMENT IN PLANNING
- 26% of people claim to have responded to a Local Plan (YouGov)
- 8% 16–18 year olds stated that they had been involved in a survey about the future of their neighbourhood run by their local council or a property developer (Grosvenor)
- 44% of people surveyed had engaged with the planning system – eg, searched the council register for permissions in their local area, submitted, objected to or supported a planning application, campaigned to stop a development, or spoke at a committee or meeting about planning applications. (Opinium for Demos)
- Those over 55 were most likely to have engaged in a planning consultation (50% said they had), whilst 34–54-year olds had the lowest rate of involvement (43%). (Opinium for Demos)
- Homeowners, residents in London were more likely than renters and residents outside of London to have been involved (Opinium for Demos)
- These figures contrast strongly to information given to the Committee by the Minister, that 3% and 1% of the public were involved in individual planning proposals and in Local Plan formation respectively (Figures originated from an article published by the RTPI)