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the value of early engagement: where’s the evidence?

early engagement in easterhouseMy colleague Steven Tolson and I are delighted that the Scottish Land Commission has asked us to research the value of early public engagement in the planning system. We see this as really important piece of research by the Commission.

Why? Because, despite the principle of early public engagement being enshrined in the two major reforms to Scottish planning legislation in 2006 and 2019, there is remarkably little evidence of its benefits.

If early engagement is such a great thing, why isn’t everyone doing it and why is there still scepticism about it and a perceived widespread lack of public trust in the planning system, one of the main barriers to community engagement in planning identified in Scottish Government research in 2017?

Our job is to understand from developers, property agents, landowners and planners in the public and private sectors – the main stakeholders for the purpose of this research – exactly what they believe the benefits of early engagement are. We want to understand the value, to them, of early public engagement on land use changes, development proposals and planning policy.

The research will be conducted through discussion with those stakeholders. In true research style, we have some hypotheses to test: for example, whether early engagement reduces risk, uncertainty timescales and cost. We want to understand when and how early engagement is beneficial, and when it isn’t. And because this research is about community engagement, we’ll be speaking to a range of people in the community sector to explain what we’re doing and understand their perspective.

Our challenge is to produce quantifiable evidence of the value of early public engagement. Whether we get to the holy grail of cost-benefit analysis depends on how candid stakeholders are willing to be with us, but we’ll certainly get as close to that as we can.

We also want to understand why decision-makers invest more in early engagement for some proposals and plans, and less in other situations. We think this will generate useful knowledge about when early engagement generates value, from their perspectives, and when it does not. So, we’ll speak to a range of organisations, some of whom we know are supportive of early public engagement and others less so.

We see the outputs of this research as being very useful to inform practical guidance to support planning applicants and agents to understand how to effectively and meaningful engage with communities in advance of the planning application stage; we hope that this could contribute to the preparation of secondary planning legislation, guidance and support.

Ultimately, our intention is that the research will contribute to delivering legislation’s promise of more early engagement with real results. From the Scottish Land Commission’s perspective, that might just help everybody make better use of Scotland’s land – as well as creating a better situation for communities, developers and government alike.

If you’d like to find out more or get involved – confidentially, if you prefer – please get in touch: nick@nullnickwrightplanning.co.uk or 07900 334 110.


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