Localism and community engagement
Developers need to understand what planning reform means for the way they work with the communities in which they want to build. Michael Hardware of Chelgate gives some guidance.The Localism Act was given royal assent in November, although we wait for the national planning policy framework (NPPF), expected in March, and details of implementation of the reforms.
This is against a background of last year when homebuilding numbers were at their lowest since the war. Some 1.8 million families (five million people) are on local authority housing waiting lists, and more than one million people who want to buy, cannot due to availability and affordability. There is no argument that we need more homes - an estimated 232,000 new homes a year just to keep pace with current demand - but nonetheless the National Trust, CPRE and The Daily Telegraph, have mounted a fierce campaign against the government's new policy.
The government is confident that the current planning reforms will lead to a significant increase in housebuilding, and will play a part in stimulating our economy. Housing supply, even at current low levels, accounts for 3 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) and more than one million jobs. Increasing housing numbers by just 130,000, to household projection levels, is estimated to have the potential to create 195,000 new jobs, and many hundreds of thousands more in the supply chain.
So what does planning reform change in terms of community engagement? Broadly, there are three key points:
- it means the end of ‘pre-determination', so councillors will be able to campaign for or against developments,
- it places an obligation on developers to engage with communities before any application is made, and
- it introduces neighbourhood plans and neighbourhood development orders.
The reforms also aim to compensate and incentivise communities that accept development.
Developers and planners will need to review their planning communications, stakeholder engagement and community consultation approaches in light of the planning reforms. They may well need expert assistance, but with many more public relations consultancies now offering planning communications services, they will need guidance in selecting the right one.
The reforms remove the pre-determination rule introduced in 2000. This means councillors will be free to take a pivotal role in discussions between developers and communities, and even campaign for or against a development. This opens opportunities for developers and their consultants to approach councillors without fear of compromising them. Now that they are allowed to be public opponents or proponents of a proposed development, they will certainly be some of the loudest voices and key influencers, which is what the government wants.
More emphasis is being placed on consultation - consulting properly, earlier, listening and incorporating the results into proposals before a planning submission is made. In fact, developers will be obliged to consult before they submit a planning application. The NPPF explicitly says that developers who involve the community in their designs will be looked upon more favourably. Thus, any pre-application consultation needs to be properly documented as it may be required to be submitted as evidence in the planning process.
Town councils, parish councils, business forums and neighbourhood forums (which are groups of at least 21 people who are formally recognised by the council as being representative of their area) will have the power to draw up their own policies and create their own plans. In terms of land, these plans range from covering whole towns to spread-out groups of villages, and to a hundred hectares of central London.
Developers that are proactive and seek to involve themselves in a community where they have a development opportunity, and actively assist with the neighbourhood planning process, will reap the results. Although it cannot be guaranteed that all communities will support the developer's aspirations, or want the benefits offered, many will. Involving a community at the start of the planning process, asking them what they want to see on the land, and actively incorporating their suggestions, will build support within that community.
Incentivising and compensating communities
A key pledge from government is that communities that accept development will be suitably compensated and have a meaningful say in how monies received under the community infrastructure levy and section 106 are spent. The planning authority will also have to spend the new homes bonus monies received from new development in consultation with the community where the development happened. There is a political wish that these amounts are also spent within the communities, but currently there is no obligation for a local planning authority to do so. It will be interesting to see how this pans out.
If the bulk of these monies end up in the community, they will provide a huge incentive to accept development, but the community benefit will need to be guaranteed.
What to look for in planning communications
The need for earlier and deeper engagement with communities, and more liaison with local politicians, means many developers will have to change the way they approach projects. Planning communications, stakeholder engagement and community consultation all need to be reviewed in light of the new planning regime, and the earlier appointment of specialist communications consultants considered.
When considering a consultant, key elements to look at are how long they have been doing planning communications, the breadth and depth of their experience, the qualifications and experience of the executives to be working on your project, especially their understanding of planning and local government, and whether executives have experience in councils. Check that the services to be provided are those required, ensure the consultancy has the capacity to service your project properly, and make sure that the consultancy does not intend to adopt dubious working practices, such as spurious public letters, bogus social postings, or people pretending to be residents to motivate support.
And finally, ensure the consultancy has proper systems in place to monitor engagement processes as this may need to be produced as evidence at the planning committee to demonstrate that pre-application consultation has been properly carried out.
Michael Hardware is executive vice-president at Chelgate Planning, a specialist planning communications, stakeholder engagement and community consultation consultancy.