UK: Community Engagement - Updated Guidance

Last Updated: 5 October 2010
Article by Murray Shaw

Introduction

The Scottish Government has for some time stressed the importance of community engagement in all aspects of the planning system. The Government recognises that engagement will not satisfy all people, nor allow all issues to be resolved, but does consider that active and early engagement should result in a more effective planning system.

A number of the more significant changes brought about by the 2006 legislation concern the issue of engagement. In relation to major developments, there is now a requirement for mandatory pre-application consultation. In the development plan context, one of the key issues the Reporter or Reporters who are appointed to examine the strategic local plan and development plan are to consider is whether or not the appropriate authority has consulted on the plan and involved the public in an appropriate way and in a manner consistent with the way in which they said they would. This part of the investigation is intended to satisfy statutory provisions in the Act.

Against that background, the Scottish Government published further guidance on community engagement in Planning Advice Note 3/2010 ("the PAN"). Paragraph 3 reflects the importance that the Government places on engagement with communities where it states "Successful operation of the planning system will only be achieved if those involved: planning authorities, agencies and consultees, applicants, communities, representative organisations, public bodies, the Government and the general public, commit themselves to engaging as constructively as possible in the process."

Guidance

The PAN cross-refers (and the electronic version includes links) to other documents which give guidance on this topic. The PAN, however, sets out specifically standards which the Government is seeking to achieve through effective community engagement (see below).

There are a number of criteria set out in relation to engagement, including:

  1. The engagement must be meaningful and proportionate.
  2. The engagement must happen at an early stage with a view to influencing the shape of plans and proposals
  3. It is essential for people or interest groups to get involved in the preparation of development plans as this is where decisions on the strategy, for growth or protection, are made.

While that last point is certainly correct (it is still not uncommon for local objectors to turn up at site-specific inquiries, failing to understand that the principle of the development may well have already been established as a result of provisions in the development plan), it is harder to achieve in practice, despite the efforts of groups and organisations such as Planning Aid for Scotland and Community Councils. Generally, people are interested in what affects their immediate environment rather than planning in the widest sense.

The PAN rehearses the roles of various parties within the planning system, including the Government itself, local authorities, councillors, community interest groups, applicants and their agents. One tricky area is the extent to which councillors can become involved in a consultative process. The PAN makes reference to the Code of Conduct for Councillors. It notes while there is no impediment to councillors being briefed or advised by particular parties, councillors must be "wary of offering a view of any proposal in advance of any decision being made". This is generally a difficult area within the planning system, and one that all parties find frustrating.

Helpfully, the PAN summarises the timetable for preparation of strategic development plans and development plans, highlighting when there are opportunities to become involved. This is probably particularly helpful from the point of view of individuals and community groups, who can find the whole system difficult to understand.

The guidance acknowledges that there will be differences, and consultation cannot resolve all differences. It does make reference to local authorities (planning authorities) seeking to resolve differences through negotiation, and highlights the possible use of mediation – where the Scottish Government has published separate guidance. Some caution may be necessary with mediation. This is typically a private process while planning affects the wider public.

In relation to site-specific proposals where there is mandatory consultation (major applications), the guidance rehearses the specific requirements. Paragraph 44 of the PAN suggests that applicants in submitting a pre-application consultation report should set out how they have responded to comments made. The guidance records that while there is no obligation to take on board the views of the community or directly reflect them, "the proposals, if adjusted, should benefit from that engagement and assist the efficient consideration of applications once submitted". Part of the difficulty is, of course, that what suits one person may not suit another.

Possibly the most significant part of this guidance comes towards the end, where reference is made to other documents that give more detailed guidance on how effective community engagement may be carried out. Reference is made to publications south of the border from the RTPI (Guidelines on Effective Community Involvement and Consultation) and the National Standards for Community Engagement. The guidance also refers to "VOiCE", an acronym for Visioning Outcomes in Community Engagement. This is a database tool which helps to plan, record and monitor community engagement activity.

Benchmarks for effective Community Engagement

Ten standards are set out as being benchmarks for effective community engagement. These are:

  1. involvement;
  2. support – identifying and overcoming barriers to involvement;
  3. planning – good planning is essential to delivering effective community engagement;
  4. methodology – agreement on use of methods of engagement which are fit for purpose;
  5. working together – use of procedures that enable participants to come together effectively and efficiently;
  6. sharing information – making sure information is communicated to the right parties effectively;
  7. working with others – promoting links between parties with a similar interest;
  8. improvement – developing skills and confidence in the participants;
  9. feedback – providing transparent feedback ensures that the engagement is effective; and
  10. monitoring and evaluation – confirming whether the engagement has achieved its purpose.

Each of these standards or benchmarks is amplified to a greater or lesser extent in the PAN, though the PAN does not give specific guidance, leaving that to the documents which are referred to in it. In relation to Standard 4 (methodology), however, the guidance identifies not only what issues should be taken into account in deciding the right method (such as culture, demography, literacy, support from the community and budget), but also gives examples of methods that might be used other than simply public events. Specifically, the guidance asks for feedback about methods which work well in practice, so that this can be disseminated by the Scottish Government.

Conclusion

Consultation is a key part of the planning process, and this guidance is therefore well-timed to assist all of those who are involved in the process. The need for each party to be involved in the planning process is underlined not just in Britain but through European guidance to which the UK is a party, such as the Aarhus Convention (though this more specifically looks at rights to challenge environmental and planning decisions).

While the developers often consider consultation an additional burden, there is evidence that effective consultation can bring about significant benefits, and in that context this guidance deserves and needs careful consideration.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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