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Planning Aid England’s virtual support project

Louise Francis MRTPI is the Planning Advisor for Planning Aid England at the Royal Town Planning Institute

Continuing to provide a range of services to help people engage more effectively with the planning system, Planning Aid England’s Support Project was developed between 2019 and 2020 to help local planning authorities extend the reach of their community consultation activities and engage with community members who have traditionally not been involved in the planning process.

Whilst initially conceived as an ‘in-person’ initiative, we moved to a virtual delivery in 2020 due the impact of Covid. As a virtual delivery, the project has the added benefit of allowing Planning Aid England (PAE) volunteers with relevant expertise based anywhere in the country to take part in the initiative from their place of work or from home.

One of our key aims of 2021 was to expand this project. We had gained valuable lessons during pilot projects with Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council and Leeds City Council earlier in the year where PAE volunteers acted as a neutral facilitator in discussions with community groups around particular topics in their local plan consultations.

Following the initial contact made by PAE’s North West Task group, we undertook a series of workshops with Stockport MBC through September and October 2021 to support a consultation on their emerging local plan. This included three online workshops, each focusing on a different district within the inner urban area of the borough.

These early projects taught us that an ongoing dialogue with the local authority is essential in identifying and refining the purpose and format of the workshops

The workshops generated wide ranging discussion which we were able to feed back to the council in written notes, without attributing comments to attendees. These notes were agreed with the workshop Chair and then provided as feedback on the project, both to the individual attendees and to the local planning authority. Each workshop was chaired by a volunteer from the NW PAE Task Group, along with another chartered volunteer as a panellist and a licentiate note taker.

These early projects taught us that an ongoing dialogue with the local authority is essential in identifying and refining the purpose and format of the workshops, as well as working with the relevant team in the Council to identify and reach the groups we’re trying to engage with.

In the Stockport workshops, we worked closely with the Council’s Communities team to reach out to community organisations and individuals identified by the team who might not otherwise have participated in the discussions around the emerging local plan.

Other lessons to take into subsequent workshops include: making sure there is a simple focus of up to two topics for each workshop; limit attendees to a maximum of 10-12 per workshop to enable effective engagement by all participants and, finally, the rather obvious but none-the-less crucial need to ensure that all participants are clear about how to use the meeting software.

Given the positivity these early workshops have generated amongst PAE volunteers, participants and also the councils involved, we want to expand this programme during 2022. Please do get in touch if you’re aware of any consultations or projects you think may benefit from this type of value-added virtual community engagement.

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