Public events in support of planning applications - is there a better way?

Planning authorities expect developers to engage with local communities, with public meetings often used to do so - but are they a genuine engagement tool or just a box-ticking PR exercise?

In part, it depends on your perspective.

Following a recent public meeting about a forthcoming planning application, a developer commented to us that they thought the event was a success because it was well attended.

Residents that attended, however, said they came away feeling that it hadn’t really answered their questions. We’d characterise that as a failure.

So why the perception gap in this particular instance?

Well, for the developer that will later need to demonstrate that it has consulted the public in the communities that could be affected by its plans, it’s a success in the sense that it can demonstrate it held a meeting that a lot of local people attended, and thus put a tick in a box for the planning authority. But this is a low bar.

For those that attended with questions, leaving without having them answered and their concerns addressed won’t have been very reassuring, and will have contributed to a feeling that the event was somehow more about ‘window dressing’ rather than a genuine attempt at community engagement.

The crux of the problem is this belief that simply meeting the minimum requirements of the planning system is somehow enough. It isn’t. But that’s not just the fault of developers and the way they interpret the requirements, it’s a problem with the way planning authority guidance focuses on outputs rather than outcomes.

Output-based stakeholder engagement is essentially a numbers game: it’s about how many individual letters you’ve sent to residents, how many people have called your freephone number with queries, how many public events you’ve held and how many attended them, as well as how many letters of support and opposition are received by the planning authority once your planning application has been submitted and is being considered.

Outcome-based stakeholder engagement, on the other hand, is much more about having a proper dialogue with potentially affected communities. It’s about talking to people (like real people), explaining your proposals, seeking their feedback on how they could be made more acceptable, answering their questions, resolving their concerns and showing that you genuinely care about how they feel and what’s important to them, and being approachable.

The former lends itself to easier measurement and performance metrics, but that doesn’t mean that outcome-based stakeholder engagement can’t be measured. In fact, it can be measured quite easily if done well and using the right tools.

The key difference is about whether or not stakeholders feel as though they've been effectively consulted, given a chance to air their views, and maybe even shape the development proposal itself. The more opportunity they have to do that, and get their questions asked and answered, the more they'll be inclined to trust you.

It doesn't mean that some of them won't still actively oppose your plans, but it's better for that opposition to be about material planning considerations and not the fact that you've engaged inadequately.

Public events can still have a role to play in outcome-based stakeholder engagement, but if they're mostly about you transmitting information from a podium and displaying static information boards around the room, then you're going to find that they don't really offer much value - either to you, or your stakeholders.