As the neighbourhood planning process gains ground it is providing plentiful examples of good practice in stakeholder engagement, writes Mark Wilding.

Neighbourhood planning is gaining momentum. What began as a trickle of plans when the process was launched in November 2011 has since become a flow. In excess of 1,000 groups around the UK are preparing plans. As more are adopted, more examples of good practice emerge and the importance of the process becomes more widely accepted among residents, businesses, landowners and developers.

Each neighbourhood plan and its accompanying consultation statement, must be backed at an independent examination and a local referendum, which in some cases involves polling local businesses as well as residents, making thorough engagement still more important.

The nature of neighbourhood planning means that every plan will vary, and the requirements for stakeholder engagement differ accordingly. But some key lessons for all parties have emerged courtesy of the movement’s pioneers.

Starting early is vital

Groups preparing neighbourhood plans are legally obliged to engage with local stakeholders. But it has become clear that engaging as early as possible leads to better plan-making. Dave Chetwyn, managing director at community interest company Urban Vision Enterprise and a planning adviser to community organisation network Locality, says while the statutory requirement is only for “late-stage consultation, what really matters is early stage engagement. If you haven’t done the early stages, the later stages will be more of a problem.”

On the Bristol housing estate of Lawrence Weston, residents were trained in community research and conducted a doorstep questionnaire that collected more than 1,000 responses. The issues identified were then used to inform the drafting of the neighbourhood plan.

Andrew Weaver is an account director at stakeholder communications firm Copper Consultancy and has experience consulting on major infrastructure projects. He agrees that early engagement is crucial. “As you go along, you need to bring the community with you. If you engage early, statutory consultation is more effective.”

Strive to involve everyone

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to who has to be consulted. Steve Barker, principal consultant at the Local Government Association’s Planning Advisory Service, says: “Which stakeholders you have to engage depends on what’s in the plan.” He cites Milton Keynes as an example of an area where the ambitious scope of the plan meant a wide-ranging consultation was required.

The town was the first to adopt a business neighbourhood plan. In areas that are predominantly used for business, neighbourhood plans are subject to two referendums following examination: one for residents, the other for companies. Engagement during the plan-making process therefore needs to involve both groups.

But whether a proposed neighbourhood plan area is to be business-led or not, developers are also key stakeholders, entitled to attend public meetings and engage with the process alongside councillors, residents and other local businesses.

Anna Sabine, director at public consultation consultancy Meeting Place Communications, says it can be in a developer’s interest to ensure that engagement takes place as widely as possible: “We know from both experience and research that, if consultation is constrained to a small number of people, they are likely to be retired, settled and comfortably off and more interested in preserving the status quo than considering how well-planned development could help their community.”

As the body that will use the completed plan, the local authority is another stakeholder that should not be overlooked. East Coker Parish Council and neighbourhood plan steering group drew up a memorandum of understanding with South Somerset District Council, for instance, outlining the responsibilities of each body in the process.

Overall, consultation has to be comprehensive, says Ellie Stevenson, consultant at community engagement advisers Your Shout. “You need to target each group so no-one is missed out,” she says. “Later along the line, if people haven’t been targeted, it turns into a bit of a mess.”

Be prepared to listen

Demonstrating the way in which a plan has taken into account issues and concerns been raised during stakeholder engagement is a crucial part of the consultation statement and to ensure that a plan passes examination. But there are dangers in seeing engagement as merely a tick-box exercise.

Professor Gavin Parker is chair of planning studies at the University of Reading and lead author of the 2014 research report User Experience of Neighbourhood Planning in England for Locality, which represents community groups. He says: “What we saw during the research was that quite a few of the groups actually expanded the scope of their plan as they went through. That was partly down to the engagement they had carried out. We need to think of the engagement stages not as a process to be suffered but one that should inform the plan.”

“If you ask for a preference or opinion, you had better be prepared to listen,” adds Andy Martin, director of community consultation consultancy PPS Group.

Keep an open mind

Some stakeholders may come to the process with preconceptions about how it will work and what others are hoping to achieve. It would be easy to assume that most residents’ groups would be opposed to new development. But Chetwyn says this is rarely the case: “The fact is, they have to go through an independent examination and any neighbourhood plan that is blatantly anti-development isn’t going to pass,” he says.

In Holbeck, Leeds, residents are hoping to use neighbourhood planning as a tool for regeneration and are seeking to engage with groups including housebuilders. In areas where there is no plan in development, Sabine suggests that landowners and developers could contact the town or parish council and offer to help kick-start the process. “The industry only now seems to be waking up to the opportunities presented by neighbourhood planning,” she says.

Once the process is under way, trying to ensure that specific sites are allocated for development is not necessarily the best approach for developers, suggests Parker. He argues that focusing on sensible strategic policies and keeping options open may lead to the best results. “One of the outcomes they could hope for is a neighbourhood plan that doesn’t allocate sites but has sensible policies that don’t close doors on appropriate sites,” he says.

Focus on the positives

As a landowner or developer, it’s important to stress the positive aspects of development, argues Sabine. She says: “If a developer comes to the process early and says, ‘Look, we can deliver 100 homes rather than 20, and I know this seems a lot, but it means that the village pub stays open, we can fund a new play park or community centre, and we’ll work with you on the layout and the design over the next few years,’ then that can become a welcome prospect rather than a threat.”

Neighbourhood planning also provides residents with an opportunity to shape the growth that takes place in their area. Framing the debate in these terms can help make the process a positive one for all involved, says Chetwyn. He cites the example of Woodcote in South Oxfordshire. Its neighbourhood plan was initially conceived as a way of tackling the threat of residential development, but a rigorous engagement process meant site allocations for housing were eventually agreed. Despite the controversial nature of some aspects of the plan, 91 per cent of residents voted to approve it at referendum. The turnout was 59 per cent – the highest recorded at any neighbourhood plan referendum so far.

Source: Mark Wilding, Planning Resource 10 July 2015 (online)