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Planning and public engagement: the truth and the challenge

10 May 2017 Author: Sue Manns

Our system has been allowing those most likely to resist change to dominate the discussion around planning proposals. But genuinely reaching out to ‘everyone’ in the future planning of the country has never been more important, a planner argues.

 

In 1968 the RTPI gave evidence to the Skeffington Committee looking at public participation in planning. The RTPI said that “planning is unpopular with many members of the public.... This ‘we’ and ‘they’ attitude, ‘we’ being the public at the mercy of ‘they’ the planners is all too prevalent, and is indicative of the extent to which public participation in the sense of full public involvement in, and responsibility for, is not being achieved at present.”

Currently, the majority of those who engage in planning are over 55 years. Response rates to a typical pre-planning consultation are around 3% of those directly made aware of it. In Local Plan consultations, this figure can fall to less than 1% of the population of a district.

The implication was that through ‘proper’ participation, public antagonism to planning and its manifestation in the lodging of objections, would fade away.

Almost 50 years have passed and public engagement is a statutory part of the plan making process. The NPPF (2012) encourages applicants for planning permission to engage with the local community prior to submission and many developers now do this on a regular basis.

So how successful have we been as a profession in engaging people in the future of their areas? 

Currently, the majority of those who engage in planning are over 55 years. Response rates to a typical pre-planning consultation are around 3% of those directly made aware of it. In Local Plan consultations, this figure can fall to less than 1% of the population of a district. Yet planning decisions are based upon this sample.

Well-managed consultations start early, seek a more balanced engagement and encourage the ‘strategic’ thinkers to engage, but they too frequently fail to engage with the younger age groups – yet we are planning their future. What other organisation would base important decisions on this level of response without checking to see if it was ‘representative’. Yet this is what happens in planning decisions.

We need to find a way in which we can re-ignite excitement in the younger age groups in planning.

Planning requires decision makers to understand and balance a range of considerations, including social, economic and environmental impacts, physical and financial development constraints and public opinion.  Yet, very few planners or politicians (who may be taking the final decision) have any background or understanding of human behaviour, specifically the human psychology and physiology to change.

Planning needs to tap into human nature

Humans are naturally programmed to protect their homes and families and to resist anything that might be perceived a threat to these. Fear of change or perception of negative change will result in a stress response. At its most basic this is the ‘freeze, flight, fight’ mechanism. Around 10% of humans are ‘fighters’ and it is these that we mainly encounter in response to planning proposals.

As humans age, they become more resistant to change and find it harder to envisage how life ‘might be’ if change happens. The more distant a threat is perceived to be, the more the strategic thinkers will come to the fore; the more immediate or significant the threat, the more ‘aggressive’ fighters will be seen.

People also find it hard to recognise that others may hold different views, which can add to the stress response. Behaviour will also be affected by past experiences of ‘engagement’ and by group dynamics – humans rarely want to be seen to disagree with the views of a group that they are part of and may be ostracised if they do so.

We need to re-think how we can change this. We need to find a way in which we can re-ignite excitement in the younger age groups in planning - how we can stimulate discussion and debate on equal terms across society, encourage everyone to think about change, and how this might affect their lives.

Plan to be ‘ahead of the curve’

Technology is changing the way we live, work and play. The rapid growth of internet shopping is changing the retail and distribution industry, yet many of our planning policies still seek to protect retail frontages and resist other uses on the high street. How will it affect the logistics industry? What role will drones play in future delivery patterns? How will 3D printing impact on the location of manufacturing industries as the need for economies of scale and large premises diminish?

There is little doubt that these will have an impact on spatial planning. Planning needs to be ‘ahead of the curve’, not rooted in past patterns or ways of life if we are to be dynamic, economically successful, socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable as a country.

We need to start a nationwide conversation around the spatial impacts of technology change, embrace young and dynamic thinkers and those who see change as exciting, and let’s rebalance the objection-driven engagement culture which has dominated planning over the past 50 years.  

Guest blogs may not represent the views of the RTPI.

Sue Manns

Sue Manns

Sue Manns is Regional Director of national planning consultancy Pegasus Group.