Failure to prepare, is to prepare for…
Most people I speak to believe that local people won’t engage as fully in the big society thing to the extent and in the numbers that the government reckon. I tend to agree, but we have a duty to try and at least think about what it might mean for planning and how it might work.
Almost every change to planning legislation, guidance etc. over the last 50 years has had improving public participation as a key aspect. Never before though, have such aspirations been part of such a high profile government-wide agenda across all public services i.e Big Society and Localism. As such, I think this time we really do have to put the rhetoric and our professional pride to one side, and think about what it will really take to make community input/consultation the starting point of what we do. I think we are facing a large public education task, a broader role for planners (‘community planners’?) alongside the policy officer and DM officer skill sets, and a much wider role for the ward councilor.
If communities are to contribute to planning on the scale that the government want, and we are to make sure that that contribution is good, then planning departments will need to invest in actively providing communities with the resources they need to properly participate. For this to work, I think we need to consider two things that will help communities participate:
1) Understanding the parameters.
Communities have to understand that it is not just a case of them deciding what they want without any outside(r) input. I get the feeling that some see open source planning as communities getting whatever they want at last. It’s not and can’t be. Communities will need to understand that their input is one (important) aspect and that it needs to be ‘framed’ by other considerations; understanding some of the constraints that their wishes and visions will be subject to.
There will, for example, be national guidance of some sort. Councils will need to make sense of it and put it in terms (and plain English) that people understand. There will also be the need to put together good information/evidence on infrastructure plans, housing and affordable housing needs, 5 year supply of land etc. etc. Once again presented in terms that the community can easily understand so that they can base their vision for their areas around some evidence of what is actually needed, and what resources are available/needed to accommodate them.
It is more than managing expectations; it is about educating people to understand the reasons behind why their expectations need to be managed. It sounds difficult, but unless we try, people are not going to be realistic, or give a damn about the role their area plays in meeting the needs of the wider community. Maybe I am being naïve, but unless councils attempt to do this, the only input from communities will be protectionist or unrealistic/unachievable leading to more dissatisfaction. Or we could just do what we do at the moment and provide communities with our ideas and the answers dressed up as consultation.
2) Councillors and neighbourhoods
The role of the ward councillor needs to develop. They need to be more planning ‘savvy’ if communities are going to ‘get it’. They will need to understand all of the above AND be adept at explaining it to their communities. This is THE starting point for people’s involvement – understanding at the outset and being happy with the parameters of their input. The councillor needs to create (with the help of the council) the ‘participation infrastructure’ to make it easy for people to get involved.
Once there is a decision of what constitutes a ‘neighbourhood’, then there may be some re-drawing of ‘wards’ – I suggest that each neighbourhood needs to be represented by a planning councillor. They will be the focal point for making the consultation and contributions from the community happen/work i.e. everyone given, and feels like they’ve been given a ‘fair crack’.
Open Source planning states that ‘every member of the neighbourhood approached to take part’. This is a great opportunity for officers and councilors to work together combining their skills. An aside on neighbourhoods, if we are being truly local, shouldn’t communities themselves decide what makes up their neighbourhood? This already happens unofficially in many places in social/cultural terms – I grew up in inner London where, in places, one street or block on an estate constituted a neighbourhood as far as some locals were concerned.
Bringing it together
So councils will need to provide some parameters and a process to get all of this carried out so that each neighbourhood can produce its own plan / ‘module’. The council then has the role of ‘incorporating these modules into the final plan’… unless there are ‘strong grounds’ for modification. Another job then. What will constitute strong grounds and who will ultimately decide? Will what constitutes ‘strong grounds’ differ from neighbourhood to neighbourhood? If the council has prepared the community well, and made it aware of some of the parameters/non-negotiables, then finding solutions should be easier.
The council will then develop a plan for the area as a whole based on the community input, and some negotiation with / input from various infrastructure providers. I presume that this will then need some kind of formal agreement (back to the community again?) before becoming the plan.
All of this needn’t take any longer than it currently does. I think with a bit (well maybe a lot) of preparation, being transparent with our communities about what we are trying to achieve, the consequences of not getting involved/taking forever/ignoring the ‘parameters’ (at least one of these being the ‘deemed to have an entirely permissive approach’) then we have a chance.
Shoot the above down (as I’m sure you will) in flames…