The role of communities in the planning process seems to be a hot topic at the moment. But, in reality, it has always been the biggest factor in the development industry's success.

Grosvenor GBI recently released a report on polling carried out by them and YouGov, which paints a bleak picture about trust in the development industry and local government when it comes to reflecting the needs and aspirations of a community in the planning process. Only 2% of those asked said that they trust developers to do the right thing and only 7% said the same of local government when it comes to planning. The Centre for London is about to hold an entire conference to discuss strengthening the role of the community in planning and placemaking.

Indications from the development industry are that the importance of meaningful community engagement is growing, and that the current model for community involvement must change, as Civic Voice's Sarah James argues for here.

However, meaningful community involvement has always been the key factor to success and community buy-in has always been the tipping point between success and failure in the planning process. Ultimately, this is because most major planning decisions are made by politicians sat on a committee (or the Secretary of State) and those politicians are ultimately receptive to the voice and sentiment of their potential voters, both at a local and national level.

The development industry may argue that early-stage, meaningful community engagement and 'public consultation' is counterproductive, attracting a disproportionate number of negative voices from a community, and that by providing those negative voices with any kind of platform they are simply going to harm their chances of gaining support from the decision-making politicians.

That has led many developers to adopt an approach whereby they bypass the community and go straight to the politicians to lobby for support, in the hope that they will 'see sense'. However, my experience is that cosy relationship and support from politicians tends to crumble away as soon as issues emerge at the grassroots or the community expresses any form of discontent.

I can understand the industry's frustrations, but I would argue that by excluding meaningful community input at the start of the process and relying on direct lobbying or reactive and exclusionary traditional engagement methods like public exhibitions, they are naturally building distrust, creating a more confrontational process and providing a platform for engagement that naturally favours people that are more likely to have a negative point of view on their proposals.

Inviting truly-inclusive early-stage 'issues and opportunities' involvement not only helps build a sense of trust and collaboration with the community, but it also provides valuable insight that can inform plans from the bottom-up. This insight helps avoid having to go through an expensive and time-consuming retrofitting or redesign process in response to 'consultation' feedback at a later stage.

Using digital engagement tools, like ours, for 'issues and opportunities' and 'pre-application' engagement helps provide an accessible and unintimidating platform for younger, busier people that are more likely to be the 'end-user' of development, see positives from what you are trying to do and contribute to the conversation in a more constructive and positive way.

This winning combination of inviting involvement earlier in the process, and opening the debate to traditionally excluded voices, has the potential to drastically improve the chances of achieving community buy-in and the political support that comes with it, as well as reduce confrontation, rebuild trust and reduce risks along the way. It's a win-win for everyone.

Written by Paul Erskine-Fox - Founder, Participatr

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