Communication the key to unlocking development

Copyright: David Lawson - first published Property Week June 2005

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Why is it so difficult to get anything built in this country? Because planning authorities are so nit-picking, of course. At least, that’s the message embedded in the subconscious of every developer. Not surprisingly, planners have their own mantra, blaming developers for driving like a bull at a gate, trampling every innocent bystander who might be in the way.

   Sound familiar?  Marriage counsellors face such intransigence daily. Perhaps the government should draft in an army of ‘relationship consultants’ to unblock the system before it grinds to a halt.  In the meantime,  it has stolen the key message hammered out to every warring couple. Communicate. It’s amazing how many potential divorces dissolve into an orgy of cuddles when partners just simply talk.

    The mere idea of consultation can send shudders through the smallest developer. Planners are seen purely as a negative force and the public a wild card to be avoided at all costs.  Yet there is no longer a choice.  The swing to urban regeneration and high density development has also brought local residents closer.   Most development  is now almost bound to  tread on someone’s toes,  Innes Gray, MD of Consensus Planning, warned the Henry Stewart Annual Planning Briefing earlier this year. Many will react badly because the first response to change is usually fear.

   Trying to hide  or to bulldoze is no solution because the new planning system has for the first time insisted that consultation is a ‘material consideration’ that must be considered. Applications can be rejected and appeals turned down if  ‘communication with the community’ is deemed faulty.   To make things worse, planners are almost eager to find fault. They are under enormous pressure to determine applications within eight weeks to avoid sliding down the new performance leagues which decide how much they get in government grants.

   Locals authorities also fear costly court battles where objectors can unwind permissions by showing decisions did not conform to new procedures. Officers will often avoid that risk by simply throwing back applications for further consideration.  In the past, developers have relied on the statutory site notices and advertising that local authorities must carry out under the General Development Procedure Order. But that meant objections could flood in half way through discussions.  Applications might then be adjusted to ameliorate complaints but planners are now pressured to make decisions quickly, and consulting further on changes would break the statutory time limit. They are more likely to throw proposals back at developers and tell them to start again.    

   All this can be avoided by talking – sometimes long before plans are even conceived. It is vital to get involved in the current discussions taking place on formulating local plans, says Gareth Capner, Senior Partner at Barton Willmore. These will set out the ground rules for future development.   His firm is busy offering information as wide ranging as social exclusion, health and education to these discussions. Advisors can influence the shape of policies early on as well as educate their clients about what development planners want. ‘I suspect few are aware that they should be involved and many won't have the resources to devote to early involvement,’ adds Stuart Robinson,  executive director for planning at CB Richard Ellis.  ‘But failure to engage could have severe implications further down the line.’

    Working closely with the community on major schemes can help shape the way planners think. Barton Wilmore went into a proposed major housing development in Stevenage with a blank sheet and after consulting with local residents, employers, schools and so on produced findings the local authority has used as a master plan.

    What about more modest schemes?  Some local authorities tell developers not to bother pushing the consultation envelope on anything less than around 50 properties, says Gray. Yet he has worked on a scheme as small as 10 flats, where locals had to be persuaded that it did not change the area’s character.  The key is to talk to planning officers, who should give an indication about the scale of consultation required. They also have the local knowledge to pinpoint where objections may emerge. Councillors may also be available – sometimes on an unofficial basis – to give early warning.

   Then plan how to go about communication. This can vary from as little as a mail-shot to a full-blown campaign of exhibitions and public meetings. Think more rather than less, says Gray. The first reaction to change is fear of the unknown. Objections are more likely to arise from people not knowing what is happening rather than being told. Who should be included when the rules include vague terms such as consulting ‘interested parties’? Again, ask the planners.  Some refuse to advise, fearing this could be used in an appeal where objectors query whether enough has been done. ‘It is better to do too much than too little,’ says Gray.

    Don’t see this as a negative, however. Feedback from locals can add to the success of a development. After all, they are the potential customers. But this is bound to extend timetables and rack up costs. Barton Wilmore has been working on its Stevenage scheme since 1997 and Capner says the workshops, reporting and extra administrative time on a major development like this could cost £500,000. Consultations for less substantial developments will be far less expensive, however. Gray says this can start as low as £1,000 and even schemes involving hundreds of units could be covered for £15,000.

   That may still prove annoying to a developer struggling with tight margins and frustrated by delays. But Robinson warns about merely going through the motions‘The worst possible thing to do is to undertake half-hearted consultation, this could lead to increased opposition and more entrenched local views. ‘


Exhibitions:  for diffusing strong feelings. Can still leave some locals dissatisfied

Workshops: explore all potential issues but can be costly

Panels: can get to hard-to-reach groups but still exclude others

 ‘It is critical to consider whether the exercise is simply to tick boxes and inform through an exhibition or genuinely engage through a workshop to identify problems.’  Innes Gray, Consensus Planning – Henry Stewart Annual Planning Briefing 2005.

Statement of Community Involvement [SCI]: Local authorities also have a duty to consult under the new planning system by producing an SCI. The aim is to show how they intend to engage the community on major planning applications and preparation of new Local Development Frameworks, which replace the current Unitary Development Plans (UDP). They must set out groups the council intends to consult, where the information will be made available on planning documents and how the community can get involved.   Many have produced drafts on their web sites,  but, ironically, these will not be complete until they have gone through consultation. Lack of resources mean some councils won’t even start work until next year.