Planning Assistant Bethan Frazer-Denham, is in her third year of a Geography and Planning degree at Newcastle University, and is currently considering topics for her final year dissertation. Here she gives her thoughts on the process and tells us why collaborative planning and public participation is of particular interest. She also needs your help…
Public participation and engagement in planning processes is of particular interest to me. I’m hoping to explore the topic of collaborative planning and the problems which can occur due to the lack of public participation and engagement in a proposed development which can ultimately lead to a project failing.
Public participation and collaborative opportunities within planning.
Public involvement within planning processes isn’t a new concept, schemes often involve a range of stakeholders, local plans require consultation stages and an Examination in Public (EiP) and planning applications include public consultation stage which enable the public to contribute towards planning decisions by either supporting or objecting to the proposed development.
Currently public participation in planning decisions is often limited to the end stages of the planning process once the plans are drawn which doesn’t allow for full inclusion within the timeline of a proposed development. This highlights the difference between being involved and having the opportunity to collaborate on a development.
With public participation being an individual’s or a group’s choice to take part in and influence public assessment and decision-making processes, there needs to be more effort made to find the right balance between allowing the public to contribute more which would generate trust, credibility and commitment to people and places. There is no point in public consultation unless it’s meaningful – surely!
The need for better collaboration
Better opportunities for collaboration or participation can generate trust, credibility and commitment regarding the implementation proposed developments, with participatory planning there can also be the use of third parties to pre-mediate conflicts between stakeholders before and during the process of an open consultation, as opposed to seeking public opinions after the plans have been drawn. Implementing these sorts of processes more can allow for suggestions or objections to be considered to try and meet as many needs as possible.
Introducing these methods of better collaboration could also help contribute to tackling relevant issues more effectively. As for topics like the climate crisis which has been a key focus of many councils, better public engagement could allow better understanding of why and how councils are now striving to meet climate targets, create action plans and introduce green infrastructure and transport. As with grants being given to help with green recovery it is vital for proposed developments or schemes to be viable for grants to be used effectively.
A recent local project to me that may have benefited from more engagement was the change of a flyover to a double lane cycle route, the Council in question recently proposed this to help cut air pollution, however the scheme received backlash causing a complete U-turn reverting the road back. The expense of starting a project then having to change it back takes up valuable time and resources, if there had been more engagement with the public it could’ve led to greater understanding and acceptance of the project. Pushing a project or development without properly engaging can have a significant impact.
Overall, improving public collaboration could lead to more understanding and better explanation of why a certain development or scheme goes ahead. Trying to introduce better methods or more opportunities could also encourage more children in schools to take an earlier interest in planning, where they live, the environment etc especially if linked to current issues like climate change which already has a key place in school learning.
The past year has forced councils alongside schools and businesses to rethink how they provide services online as lockdowns have caused a digital switch. This has brought new ways of working into the mix, which could possibly provide more manageable ways for public participation, as increased online usage allows for there to be the option of public engagement as well as the increased choice of digital public engagement.
This year I was able to observe an online EiP which was delivered over zoom this seemed a better option for some of the public members who attended. It allowed the option to join the meeting just when they had their slot to talk, rather than having to travel all the way to and from the meeting, allowing them to attend around other commitments. Not only does this allow for better engagement opportunities for the public but also more flexible working options for planning professionals.
There has been growing research on the relationship between Urban planning, public participation, and digital technology, with more resources online this could further encourage this positive relationship. This could be another positive in attracting younger students to planning as online learning has become very common and will give more options for a wide range of people. An interesting report on the relationship between digital technologies and planning practices was brought out by the RTPI in collaboration with grayling engage in December 2020 (The Future of Engagement). Their research looked specifically at the future of public engagement, through how pandemic ways of working have created a digital shift and how ‘digital engagement might just be the key to unlocking participation from a larger, younger and more diverse cohort’.
Overall, the increased use of public engagement strategies, especially digital methods, in planning processes now compared to in previous years, paired with the acceleration of new ways of working due to Covid 19, which has been one of the few upsides, allows for many more pathways in allowing professionals and the public to collaborate.
Please get in touch with me with any examples of projects which have been affected by public participation. I’m looking for good/bad and any views people have on the public participation and the planning process. My contact details are: Bethan@planninghouse.co.uk