Get the proposal right and a community may well support it; get it wrong and a developer can find itself caught in the middle of a fiery debate.
However, community engagement is often easier said than done, making it difficult for developers to design schemes that are in tune with what a local population wants.
Speaking at the Academy of Urbanism’s (AOU’s) annual congress in Cambridge earlier this year, Flora Samuel, professor of architecture at the University of Cambridge, noted that in many cases as few as 3% of a local population respond to consultations on new schemes.
“The majority of people who respond to planning consultations are over 55 years old, and 3% is the best possible response rate,” she said. “Generally, response rates [for a community] are 1%.
“So, developers can say they’ve consulted, but we can be doing so much better.”
With apathy seemingly widespread across communities, and given the questionable reliability of small survey samples, many in the sector have pondered how best to get a wider cross-section of the public to engage.
“When public consultations have a low number of respondents, the feedback can often be skewed and unrepresentative,” says Tom Byrne, communications and engagement associate director at design consultancy Stantec.
“There is a risk that a small and vocal group of individuals with a specific agenda can influence the decision-making process. Members of the community often do and should feel passionate about the places they care about. Nothing motivates people more than concern about change.
“It’s the job of all professionals, from planners to stakeholders and community engagement specialists, to ensure that consultations are accessible.”
Byrne’s views are shared by Louis Duffield, partner at Fabrix, which specialises in working with under-utilised and overlooked urban spaces for development.
Duffield says developers need to meet with communities themselves and not contract-out the engagement process.
“The industry has always struggled with engaging the silent majority in consultations, and is too often guilty of ‘going through the motions’ by presenting a scheme that is already highly resolved, without room to respond to comments,” he adds. “This is damaging to the relationship between all developers and the wider community and leads to poorer-quality engagement on new schemes.”
What people want
According to Duffield, aggregated data on people’s views, which may look representative at first glance, does not necessarily get “under the skin” of what people want from their local area.
“Communities need to know that a local plan is in place to represent them, and see how projects fit into these plans to make their neighbourhood a better place,” he adds.
In 2012, the Cabinet Office published a set of consultation principles, which were updated in 2018 to govern how public bodies should structure their consultation processes.
These principles state that consultations should have a purpose, be clear and concise and be targeted at specific groups who may be disproportionately affected by changes to services.
May Molteno, head of ethics, sustainability and stakeholder engagement at developer Trilogy Real Estate, believes the onus is firmly on the private sector to take the lead when it comes to engaging a community.
“Developers need to do the leg work,” she says. “We need to go out to where people are, and we need to make consultation quick, fun and accessible.
“Not all communities or community members are well organised, nor do they find it easy to input into engagement processes. Indeed, most people are too busy juggling bigger life priorities – like paying the mortgage and picking the kids up from school.”
In 2016, Trilogy Real Estate worked with architect Studio RHE to overhaul the former East India Dock in east London, turning it into a 1.2m sq ft multi-disciplinary campus known as Republic London. The scheme includes education facilities, student accommodation and a data centre.
Around 15,000 students now call Republic London home and the scheme has won several awards. According to Molteno, the consultation process was a vital aspect of the development’s early evolution.
“We were able to turn consultation at Republic London into part of our commitment to develop the skills of young people in our local area by partnering with our tenant City Gateway,” she says.
“By recruiting in our backyard, we were able to target our spending to support the local economy in Tower Hamlets. We were also able to access the hugely valuable local knowledge and social networks of young people with genuine roots in the local area, which hugely enhanced the depth and breadth of insights we were able to draw from the consultation.”
According to AOU chair Jas Atwal, a small number of responses to community consultations does not necessarily mean a community’s views are not represented.
“Public consultations aren’t always a numbers game,” she says. “Small numbers don’t necessarily mean a ‘vocal minority’ of extreme views. A small group of respondents who are well informed and who have access to all the arguments, perhaps arising from a workshop or local exhibition, are often very reasonable and considered when offering feedback.
“Similarly, large numbers of respondents might not always be representative, or more balanced and considered, in their views.”
Atwal says lobbying campaigns and petitions based on single sources, or even skewed information, can mean that responses do not represent mainstream opinion.
The influence of the internet on the consultation process has exacerbated the type of skewing Atwal warns of. If a popular social media account directs its followers to a portal, it can lead to hundreds of responses from a particular demographic.
“Social media has certainly amplified the voices of some under-represented groups,” says Duffield. “But it’s really important that we engage sooner and more intelligently – and actively seek out the views that wouldn’t otherwise be heard.
“This is fundamental to the idea of taking the long-term view on projects and making a serious commitment to social value.”
Council planning portals, although improved in recent years, could also benefit from being more user-friendly, according to Stantec’s Byrne.
“There is certainly room for improvement with planning portals, particularly in making applications and documents more visually engaging and intuitive, and cutting down technical language and jargon,” he says.
Byrne also notes that making the technical details of a scheme more accessible to obtain does not necessarily mean that the general public will be able to understand properly and thus give an informed opinion on documents such as design and access statements, supplementary transport or sustainability appendices and other documents, which are intended to be read by planning officers at district or county councils.
“We should strive for a simplified, easy-to-engage system that encourages participation from everyone,” he adds.
Atwal says understanding the demographics of a community is also a key consideration.
“Higher numbers of the same social demographic will often just provide more of the same view.
It is the range and diversity of voices and views that adds value and breadth, which makes inclusivity essential.”
Engagement from broader demographics can be achieved by offering a variety of consultation methods including in-person, digital and hardcopy information sharing and feedback methods.
“You also need to build trust and credibility over time,” she adds. “Early engagement helps with this – even before design development – and regularly feeding back on how their views have actually helped shape change, as well as meeting commitments and promises made to the community.
“People need to feel their voice matters and has an impact. If they feel their views carry no weight, they won’t bother.”
One key feature, according to Atwal, is engaging early in the process. “We need to do more to invest in relationships ahead of events and exhibitions, and ideally even ahead of design development.
“If people feel part of the process from the earliest stages, and see the influence and impact they can have, they will get more engaged – and often will understand better the realities and restrictions of development.”
New research is also being conducted into the nature of consultations and public response. Backed by funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Community Consultation for Quality of Life (CCQOL) is working with the universities of Cardiff, Edinburgh, Reading and Ulster to investigate the dynamics of community consultations.
As part of the research, CCQOL worked on a map of local assets in the four university cities as a way of engaging local communities and helping inform the debate over future improvements and developments. The project also set up urban rooms in the cities, which were open for eight months, to better understand a local population’s interaction with urban development.
“We asked people if they had participated in a planning consultation before and 69.1% said they had never been near a consultation in their lives,” says the University of Cambridge’s Samuel.
CCQOL is due to publish a national report on each of the four home nations of the UK in the coming months, followed by a UK-wide report and code of conduct for consultations at a later date. The project published the insights gained from the individual studies in four cities this June and July.
For communities and developers, improving the relationship and interaction over new developments cannot come soon enough.
Byrne says: “We need to be realistic, open and honest to communities, showing clearly from the outset what people can realistically seek to influence and input into on any development. Building this two-way, continuous engagement and relationships of trust will help inspire more people to participate, to stand up and make their voices heard.”