This blog states my personal views and not those of Chester Civic Trust. The recent CV mailing asking civic societies for their views on becoming a statutory part of the planning system pointed out that societies have a range of views on the subject. This is not surprising since, whilst it appears a simple issue, the more you look into it the more complex it becomes.
- Civic Voice should seek a formal role for civic societies within the planning system. However, this will be of limited benefit unless there is greatly improved engagement – participation, not just “consultation”.
- The engagement should not just consist of the ability to object to proposals but to contribute positively to their development.
- There needs to be a two-way process, with meaningful feedback given by LPAs to consultees on their proposals and objections.
- Individual civic societies must be able to decide whether to be registered as formal consultees and to opt for differing levels of involvement in the planning process.
- There will need to be an acceptable way of defining a “Civic Society” – unless all community groups are to be given a formal role. There is a significant opportunity for Civic Voice to have a role in this process, as detailed below.
Consultation and Engagement
Being a statutory consultee can be of very limited benefit. It is, of course, helpful if a planning authority is required to ask for our views but what really matters is whether they are then considered seriously. The relationship between the LPA and the civic society is a key element in this. Where societies are viewed (fairly or not) as nimby troublemakers, their views will be disregarded whether or not they are statutory consultees. If they are seen by the LPA as critical friends their views are more likely to be taken into account. Parish Councils are Statutory Consultees and I spent 20 years as a Parish Councillor. More often than not, our comments on planning applications in our area were ignored. There may have been good reasons for this; many of the objections raised were doubtless “nimby” in nature or not in accordance with planning laws. What frustrated the Parish Council, however, was that there was no mechanism for the Planning Authority to give any feedback or explanation of the reasons why their submissions were discounted.
Feedback on the outcome of consultation would have helped to develop the planning skills and understanding of the PC members and would have made consultation much more meaningful. It would, of course, increase the workload of planning officers but Local Plans and NDPs already require the reasons for discounting an objection to be given. If we are looking for “best in class” consultation, surely meaningful feedback to consultees must be an essential element.
Whether or not the other proposals in the White Paper are adopted there is a welcome recognition that the current consultation system does not really work. Too often, the only way of commenting on a proposal or application is to enter a formal objection, even when you may support the proposal in principle but want to suggest improvements. This can create an unnecessary sense of confrontation and negativity. What is needed, as Civic Voice has been saying for years, is much more community involvement in the formulation of Local Plans and development proposals. Unless the system changes in this way, a formal role for civic societies will not help much.
Capacity, Expertise and Accountability
There are also concerns about the extent to which Civic Societies may have the capacity and expertise to be statutory consultees. Clearly, in order to have a formal role in the system, a society will have to be registered in some way with the LPA. The issue of capacity could easily be dealt with by a system that allows societies to decide whether or not to be registered as consultees.
They should be able to define the geographical area where they wish to operate and it should be understood that they will not wish to comment on each and every application. The reforms envisaged in the White Paper mean that the drawing up of local plans and design codes will be the key areas for consultation and involvement. This would lead to an intensive period of engagement with these processes for (maybe) 30 months followed by a hiatus until the next review in (say) 10 years’ time. This could be challenging for many societies but it is vital that they are involved if at all possible.
The movement of Local Plans to a digital format may cause problems for some societies and there needs to be a requirement for LPAs to facilitate access to the system (e.g. from libraries and council premises) particularly in areas where broadband access is poor.
The issue around “expertise” is, in my view, a red herring. The whole point of consultation should be to obtain non-expert as well as expert views. Provision of feedback, as proposed above, should enable societies to develop understanding of what is and is not possible within the system.
A thornier problem is the extent to which civic societies can be seen as representing the views of our communities. We are essentially self-selecting and we have no democratic accountability. We see our role as to improve the places we live in but other inhabitants may have differing ideas about what constitutes “improvement”. Societies do sometimes undertake consultation exercises to gauge community opinion but it doesn’t happen often. In reality, most civic societies’ responses to planning applications are made by a small group of members and don’t necessarily even reflectthe views of the wider membership.
How to define a “Civic Society”. A role for Civic Voice?
If I were a Minister or civil servant considering a proposal to give civic societies formal status in the planning system, the first question I would ask is: “What constitutes a Civic Society?” If our role in the planning system is to be enshrined in law there needs to be a way of defining what we are. There are many other community-based pressure groups. What is it that makes us different and entitled to a formal status?
In the past, civic societies were registered with the national Civic Trust and had to have their constitutions approved by the national body in order to be accepted. With the demise of the Civic Trust and the creation of our new “bottom-up” national body that system has disappeared. It would be tempting to insist that the criterion for being considered a Civic Society should be full membership of Civic Voice but, given the number of societies that are not members, it is unlikely to be acceptable.
Nonetheless, Civic Voice could take the lead in running some kind of “kitemark” scheme under which civic societies (and possibly other amenity groups) could apply for an approved status which would then allow them to be registered for a consultative role with their LPA. Taking on such a role would be unreasonable with our present resources but, if MHCLG were supportive of the principle, they might be willing to provide grant funding to operate such a scheme. There would need to be agreed criteria for acceptance and possibly a panel of civic society representatives to oversee the process. This could be an opportunity to cement the status of civic societies as an integral part of the planning process.
Civic Voice Trustee and Chester Civic Trust