Strengthening public participation in London’s planning system

Developing Trust – Conference report

Strengthening public participation in London’s planning system


London’s continuing population growth has strained the city’s capacity. In particular, most analyses – and mayoral policy – argue that affordability and quality of life in the city are being damaged by a failure to build enough homes. Mayor Sadiq Khan’s draft London Plan seeks to address this by setting markedly higher housing delivery targets – for London to build 65,000 homes each year, more than double the rate over the last ten years.

But new building in London is becoming increasingly controversial. The implicit ‘licence to operate’ from communities on which developers depend looks increasingly vulnerable, as community concerns about new development intensify. Issues such as affordability, design, density and displacement dominate discussions, both in relation to estate redevelopment and other major schemes, and in response to the numerous smaller planning proposals presented to local authority planners every month.

Recent initiatives, such as neighbourhood planning and estate redevelopment ballots, have sought to empower and enable communities to play a more active role in reshaping their neighbourhoods, but development continues to be divisive, as was illustrated by research undertaken by Grosvenor and presented at the conference. If, as one speaker suggested, “change happens at the speed of trust”, re-setting the relationship is fundamental to the evolution of London’s built form, and to the health of democracy in the city.

Centre for London’s Developing Trust conference brought together 237 community representatives, planners and local authority officers, developers and builders to discuss what is going wrong, and how to build a better dialogue.

What’s going wrong?

Many community representatives at the conference felt that they were ignored, marginalised and patronised by consultation on new development. Promises were made and not kept, and consultation was “at best asking others about your plan, at worst about spinning decisions that have already been made.” Pre-application discussions might help developers and local authorities reach a deal, but they shut communities out at the moment when critical decisions were being made.

Some delegates argued that councils and developers seemed determined to sideline community voices, regarding them as “vested interests” and using austerity as a pretext for broken promises and for selling off community assets. The grudging, ‘work to rule’ approach some boroughs take to neighbourhood planning is one example of a more general issue.

Communities felt, in one delegate’s terms, “under siege from new development”, and some were frustrated by the way in which agreed planning policy – as set out in local or neighbourhood plans – was overruled by planning decisions taken by the council (or by the Mayor of London or Secretary of State). What was the point of more community engagement in strategic planning, if strategic plans were ignored?

The value of engagement

Local engagement should not be seen as a chore, a box-ticking exercise or a measure to mitigate risk, but as a way of harnessing the “wisdom of crowds”. Local people could be visionary, constructive and innovative; their “lived experience at the frontline” could add granular knowledge, and community perspectives could “temper development”, raising important issues that were missed by top-down perspectives. Sometimes communities could enhance proposals and enable development to go forward, on other occasions they were “canaries in the mine”, in the vanguard of opposing schemes that would eventually become more widely discredited.

But there was a deeper rationale for engagement too, a sense that existing communities have a ‘right to place’, regardless of land ownership. Cursory consultation ignored their important stake in the future of their place. “We’re not going anywhere. You have no choice but to work with us.” The attitude of local government was also questioned: “councils aren’t the owners of public assets; they are stewards and safe guarders of them.”

From this perspective, talk of earlier engagement risked seeming inadequate or even patronising. The default starting point of planning processes needed to be inverted so they began with local people and their knowledge. One speaker argued that any development proposal should begin with an ‘audit’ of what already exists on the ground, agreed by local people.

Representation, wide and deep engagement

But were community groups representative? Certainly, people attending planning meetings, and the recent London Plan Examination in Public, tended to be from particular demographics, with younger people, renters, small business owners, and people from some ethnic groups under represented. However, this underlined the importance of community organisations and representatives: they should not be denigrated as “the usual suspects” but valued as a way to ‘reach out’ to people unable to engage – “as gateways not gatekeepers”. Similarly, the make-up of attendees of statutory consultation meetings was argued to be an implicit criticism of how bad the current process is at engaging more widely. But developing community networks took time and resources – “nothing just happens” – and dwindling public sector funding for community groups is weakening their ability to carry out this function, just as it is more necessary than ever.

A further issue is perhaps more complex – how should the views of people who do not currently live in an area but are homeless or badly housed elsewhere be taken into account? This underlines the continuing role for local authorities and local politicians in providing leadership, and mediating local, borough wide and broader interests and objectives. It was also suggested that more formal deliberative processes like citizens juries, can help ensure balanced representation.

Complementing this perspective, one attendee suggested that many people didn’t have the time to participate actively in consultation and engagement, that their hope was that they could input into the principles for development, then trust planners and council officers to do their job.

The key, one speaker suggested, was to engage both widely with whole communities, and deeply with the community groups and activists who were willing and able to engage more comprehensively with shaping the future of their neighbourhood.

Drivers of development and constraints on consultation

Developers and local authorities represented at the event also spoke of frustration. One developer argued that they had been constrained by their local authority partners from engaging constructively with local residents, and that procurement regulations and the need to ‘deliver what was in the specification’ had hampered their ability to respond flexibly. Local authorities spoke of the current model that relied on development to fund infrastructure, from new transport schemes to affordable housing, and of the challenges they faced in representing community aspirations when appeals and call-ins could overturn their decisions. The bigger picture of a significant withdrawal of central government funding for both affordable housing and planning departments since 2010 was highlighted as a structural cause of a lot of the problems discussed.

One delegate said that these imperatives to deliver developer profits and public goods made buildings into “gargantuan money machines”.  More honesty about the financial deals and trade-offs was needed, or even better a funding system that did not load costs onto development in this way.

Potential ways forward

A wide range of lessons and potential ways forward emerged from the discussion, both from panel speakers and attendees, though these might be seen more as a means of embedding a different model of dialogue, rather than simple technical solutions. These included:

  • Engage actively on strategic plans, valuing both wide and deep engagement, to get into deliberative discussions about place-shaping, rather than responses to individual applications in isolation.
  • Support local community groups, ideally with funding, but also through valuing their input
  • Work with local communities to audit and understand existing physical and social structures before drawing plans for change
  • Speak more honestly and openly about money, about the business models underpinning development, and about the choices that these involve.
  • Use technology to engage better: technology is not a solution but can boost trust by enhancing transparency.
  • Experiment with new forms of engagement – citizen’s assemblies, urban rooms, targeting harder to reach groups such as young people by going to them, not asking them to come to you.
  • Encourage or require the Mayor to commit to principles of community participation in planning, much as boroughs are already required to do.