Engagement can be highly effective in helping communities to accept new development. With the right timing, community engagement in the design process can be very constructive, helping local people – alongside stakeholders - to be part of setting the conditions for project success.
From the community's and stakeholders' perspectives alike, the earlier the engagement the better – although a pitfall can be engaging too early on an emerging policy or project that is not sufficiently well-formulated to be understood clearly. There is therefore a need to balance:
- establishing what development and what types of design are more popular, by engaging local communities and other interested parties at the earliest opportunity; with
- obtaining local opinions on aspects of a community's environment that are of most value; with
- ensuring a policy or project is sufficiently far advanced to receive constructive feedback.
In setting design and development frameworks for a site or area, planners should use their emerging policy-based thinking to initiate high level planning and place making discussions. This can be by establishing collaborative multi-disciplinary and cross-sector workshops, capable of embracing iteration and challenge. Using a design champion for a third party view of engagement processes and consultation proposals can be enlightening too.
Early engagement can however raise significant resource issues for planning authorities, as substantial investment in enabling excellent communications is likely to be necessary - survey and data collection, presentation aids and 3d modelling will all have to be funded. Virtual Reality and similar technology should be used with key stakeholders, to improve the ability of both the developer and other stakeholders to visualise the finished product prior to commencement and thus be able to make viable enhancements where possible.
Currently however, many councils of necessity undertake the statutory minimum consultation on their emerging policies, and are dependent on applicants deciding on, and funding any project-related consultations and engagement themselves (including via pre-application processes and planning performance agreements).
There can also be value in community engagement later in the application process. The Institute is aware of one civic society that has a Planning Forum (that includes both lay people and professionals), that assesses and comments on planning and listed building consent applications. Considering design quality - including the relationship of a proposal with its surroundings - is a fundamental part of that process. Feedback from developers, architects and planners involved in the Forum appears positive and its work is appreciated, opinions not least reflected in how its comments are often cited and expected to be considered in the subsequent determination of applications.
The Institute would therefore suggest that there is scope for planning officers, and more particularly for elected members, to have more training on what is achievable (often more than they know) through the most constructive of early stage and later engagement processes.
Overall, it is the RTPI's view that carefully conceived and well-executed collaborative engagement processes that help to involve communities and stakeholders early in both policy formulation and projects can provide legitimacy to final outcomes. More constructive dialogue through design leads to higher quality policy and project outcomes than community and stakeholder consultation only undertaken on more advanced schemes.
In your experience, does good design help communities to accept new development?
 RTPI (2019) Delivering Large Scale Housing, Learning from research in the South West of England. Available from: https://www.rtpi.org.uk/knowledge/practice/delivering-large-scale-housing/