Community engagement – how important is it really?
Community engagement plays an important role in the planning process and can result in better places being created. There are different legal requirements for engagement depending on the scale and type of development. Notwithstanding this, it is courteous to carry out engagement with local communities. Proactive engagement is also supported by the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF):
“Applicants should work closely with those affected by their proposals to evolve designs to take account of the views of the community. Applicants that can demonstrate early, proactive and effective engagement with the community should be looked on more favourably than those that cannot.” (Paragraph 132)
The Planning Practice Guidance also states:
“Pre-application engagement with the community is encouraged where it will add value to the process and the outcome.” Ref ID: 20-010-20150326.
What Are the Benefits of Community Engagement?
Encouraging stakeholders to view proposals at an early date helps in explaining the value that a development can bring to an area. Engagement is also critical in demonstrating at an early stage why the development is needed.
Nexus Planning were involved in a series of community engagement events for a site in Northamptonshire. By identifying key stakeholders at an early stage, we were able to engage with these individuals/ organisations and involve them in the design process. The town council originally objected to the allocation but from carrying out meaningful engagement with them, the town council ended up supporting the proposal at planning committee. The town council’s support also led to an increased awareness and understanding among the general public of the benefits that the development would bring. In this case, the town council also identified that there was not a demand for a Multi Use Games Area in this area and instead identified another play area in the vicinity where this may be better located. This knowledge sharing can result in a better outcome for both the developer and local community.
Objections from a large number of residents or the local town/parish council during the application process can trigger the requirement for applications to be taken to planning committee in some Local Planning Authorities. Undertaking early engagement with these parties and providing education about the benefits of the development can go towards removing this obstacle and can result in getting communities onside with the development, which is particularly beneficial where applications are eligible to be determined by officers.
Importantly, developers’ reputations can be enhanced from having positive conversations with local communities and stakeholders.
Is Community Engagement Always Beneficial?
We’ve all heard the word ‘NIMBY’ or ‘Not in My Back Yard’ bounced around during planning applications and ultimately community engagement can simply be an opportunity for residents to unleash their grievances about everything and anything, sometimes resulting in an unhelpful and irrelevant outcome. The ultimate problem with ‘NIMBYISM’ is no matter how much consultation you undertake there is sometimes no overcoming some residents’ views.
Further, public consultations are often attended by those most affected by the proposal. Often those that support or are neutral to the proposed development do not attend these events. Consequently, feedback is not always representative of a whole community.
Some developers/ landowners also consider community engagement to be a tick box exercise in order to progress with a planning application. This can limit the input that developers allow the public to have in order to progress with a predetermined design.
Covid-19 has helped to scope a way forward for consultations to be online. This can lead to a further reach of people and the feedback to be representative. However, due to consultations being undertaken online it restricts attendance to those that have internet access.
Ultimately, community engagement is a two-way process. Public engagement can be meaningful and worthwhile if the applicants want it to be and can help reduce the risk associated with the application. Having said this, as much as the applicant can engage with the community, it is ultimately down to the public to be open minded and listen to the proposals. All too regularly, we see residents dismiss developments altogether following a NIMBY approach rather than accepting that some change and development has to happen.
Authored by Kathryn Block, Planner