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Professionalising Consultation in Planning

The law surrounding statutory consultation is extensive, and case law is increasingly helping to raise standards in consultation – as was highlighted this week in the case of Claire Stephenson v Secretary of State for Housing and Communities and Local Government which has been explained in detail by the Institute.

And yet when developers consult on planning applications, there is a stark absence of official guidance, regulation and case law. In fact with an extension of Permitted Development rights allowing development without planning consent, we are seeing a decrease in consultation in planning.

Why, in a discipline led by professionals – chartered surveyors, planning consultants and lawyers – is the approach to consultation so lacking in professional rigour?  Because in most cases, there is no statutory requirement for consultation and therefore no legal framework.

True, there is law relating to consultation on Local Plans, Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPS), Neighbourhood Planning and on that carried out by local authorities prior to determining planning consent.  But for many new schemes there is no duty to consult under English law.

The situation might have been very different.  The 2010 Localism Bill introduced a requirement for developers to consult communities before submitting planning applications.  But this was omitted from the resulting Localism Act except in the case of wind turbines.  Developer engagement is instead determined by the relevant planning authority, and local authorities’ inclination towards consultation varies considerably.

The advantages of developer consultation are numerous.  Consultation can deliver a real insight into a local area, create enduring beneficial relationships and enable an early understanding of any issues or misunderstandings which may stand in the way of planning success, thus save time and money.

I recently attended the Institute’s The Law of Consultation conference.  As a consultation consultant working with developers and planners, I was immediately struck by the extent to which regulations and case law impacts on so many consultations, but not on mine.  Rather than feel relieved to be free of such restraints, I saw how guidelines and past cases drive up standards in consultation in a way which is lacking in my industry.

There are some excellent examples of best practice consultation in planning, but a lack of consistency:  enlightened developers devise consultations which are open, transparent, accessible and engaging, but too much engagement is minimal.  While enough to qualify for planning consent, ‘consultations’ are invariably rife with leading questions, lacking in information and used solely to justify a foregone decision.  Sadly it is this which is reported in the local media, tarnishing the reputation of both planning and consultation.

When the Government consulted on changes to the National Planning Policy Framework, the Institute responded, requesting a tightening up of legislation surrounding planning and development.  We also supported the changes to consultation and community engagement recommended by the Raynsford Review.  And earlier this year we responded to another Government consultation on Planning Reform.  Our message to Government is that the current confusion over the obligation to consult must be removed and the planning system needs greater consistency to.

Prior to any legislative changes taking place, for anyone responsible for community engagement on behalf of developers, I would thoroughly recommend The Consultation Institute’s Consultation Law training:  far from being irrelevant it is an excellent means of gaining understanding best practice across a variety of sectors which can have enormous benefit on pre-planning consultations.

Penny’s book Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide is published by Routledge.  It is available online through RoutledgeAmazon and other bookshops.

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