How BREEAM consultation can let developers and communities down

What is the point of an incredibly costly and complex public consultation exercise if it fails to help secure you planning permission? That is something Furrowfresh may be asking themselves after they carried out public consultation on a scheme in Lincolnshire in line with the BREEAM Communities standards, only to be told by the Inspector that they had been unable to “expressly confirm community support for the scale of development proposed.” (see Planning Mag, 9th March).

This raises the interesting question of what public consultation in planning is actually for.  We have an odd system in England and Wales, where it’s down to the developer to show they have consulted local communities on their plans, albeit held to standards set out in a local authority’s SCI.  But at MPC, we have long been arguing that if developers are going to spend money and time carrying out public consultation, they should be doing it in such a way that it reaches a much wider cross section of the community, which in turn increases the likelihood of finding supporters and therefore, of getting consent.

Development is a fairly technical industry, staffed by surveyors, former and current town planners and a host of technical sub-consultants like architects, engineers and ecologists.  The problem with this is that in the real world, development is an intensely human experience – communities facing the prospect of change and their elected representatives struggling with the need to represent them whilst still delivering new homes and facilities.  What BREEAM and other more technical approaches to engagement fail to realise is that so many traditional methods of consultation rely on talking to a self-selecting audience.  You can have as many exhibitions, charrettes and workshops as you like but if they depend on people making the effort to come to you, then don’t be surprised that most of the people you are engaging with are opponents.

I totally endorse the need to carry out a good standard of consultation on developments.  But a really good consultation is one that reaches the largest number of people, through use of social media, newsletters, door knocking and street stalls – exactly the campaigning techniques a local politician would use themselves.  In turn, these techniques engage the hard to reach groups Councils want developers to talk to – who in turn happen to also be those most likely to be supportive – working families, people in housing need and the younger generation.  Great engagement is a win-win for both developers and communities.

The development industry clings to initiatives like BREEAM because it feels they take an emotional subject and make it somehow intelligible through a series of criteria; the more complex the criteria, the ‘better’ the consultation must be.  Truly excellent public engagement doesn’t look like this.  It recognises the role emotion has to play in planning issues; it takes engagement to the places people already are (shopping centres, high streets, school gates); and it has the flexibility to change and adapt depending on the circumstances.

This article was written by Anna Sabine-Newlyn, CEO at MPC.