Pre-Application Consultation | consult people on design, not the principle

strathaven town centre action plan

I’ve been co-facilitating a series of workshops in Aberdeen with Seamus Lalor Associates over the last year or so, for ACSEF in Aberdeen city and shire – as I explained in this earlier post.

The workshops are all about building trust and understanding between different players in the planning system – developers, local authority officers, residents, Councillors and so on. Every workshop has a big focus on community engagement: why do it? what are the benefits? and the pitfalls? how could we do it better?

This focus on community engagement isn’t surprising, given that the context of the workshops is culture change: that fundamental building block of Scottish planning reform that sits outside the new planning legislation, and which is all about how people behave and interact with each other: communities, developers and public bodies.

Although I’ve facilitated a session on community engagement at around eight of these workshops now, I learn new things every time. At yesterday’s session, I benefited from some fresh insight into the age-old question of why do we consult people – a question which I think must be asked every time you start to design a community engagement strategy, however small or big the project.

What dawned on me yesterday was the fundamental difference between asking people what they think about a principle (such as whether a site should be developed) and asking them to contribute to a design (about how, not whether, that site should be developed). And the need to be clear about that when we’re consulting people.

I think there is much confusion about these issues – particularly in Pre-Application Consultation on major planning applications. The Scottish Government’s Circular 4/2009 (paragraph 2.4) states that:

“The objective [of Pre-Application consultation] is for communities to be better informed about major and national development proposals and to have an opportunity to contribute their views before a formal planning application is submitted to the planning authority. The purposes of PAC are to improve the quality of planning applications, mitigate negative impacts where possible, address misunderstandings, and air and deal with any community issues that can be tackled. The proposals, if adjusted, should benefit from that engagement and assist the efficient consideration of applications once submitted.”

Pre-Application Consultation should, therefore, be about two things: helping people to be better informed, and enabling them to get engaged in the design process. It is not about judging whether the principle of a development proposal is acceptable – that is the job of the planning authority, assessing the proposal against planning policy.

focus groups, glenrothes town centre action plan

My experience is that far too many people – including professionals – do not realise that good consultation should almost always focus on engaging people in the design process, not just giving them information or asking them questions. Counting up the number of responses to yes or no questions doesn’t engage, it disempowers. And it only leads to intractable debates about the representativeness of those who responded.

But engaging people in dialogue and discussion about change and the future can involve them in the design process, provided that it is well facilitated and the design team is responsive. That needs to happen a lot more. But, unfortunately, you can’t legislate for good facilitation and a responsive design team…

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