News and Comment

Planning in citizen voice

Friday 14 February 2014

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The Coalition Government is currently looking at responses to its discussion document on the nationally significant infrastructure planning (NSIP) regime. The narrative around the review is that it’s needed not because the regime isn’t working, but because it could work better. The message is that the changes proposed are not radical, but aim to streamline and improve.

The review places some focus on consultation. The discussion document refers to complaints about the ‘onerous’ nature of statutory consultation and emphasises the importance of a ‘proportionate’ process – which would mean some ‘streamlining’ of the current process, it seems.

In the context of other changes – for example, to the JR system – it might be tempting to see these as weasel words: streamlining and proportionality could well be interpreted as attempts to reduce the opportunities for people affected – positively or negatively – by NSIPs to have their say and to have their voices heard.

This need not be the case, however. The reviews open up the possibility of thinking more creatively about engagement and consultation. Both refer to the value of early engagement and the NSIP review talks about the importance of genuine community engagement. Done well, early engagement provides an opportunity for dialogue that adds value and reduces consultation fatigue and cost (for all involved).

Last week I spoke about engagement at an NSIP masterclass, with my colleague Lucy. We focused on the value of deliberative approaches to engagement, particularly early on in the pre-application stage. Deliberative engagement is usually quite small scale and relatively high cost per person involved. So it could be seen as disproportionate: why would you spend that much money on so few people when you can run an online public consultation or do a leaflet drop at a much lower cost but with a chance of reaching a far greater number of people?

The answer to this is hinted at in another point made in the NSIP 2014 review discussion document: it is quality, not quantity that counts. Deliberative approaches provide an opportunity to do high quality engagement. Done well, they build relationships as well as providing opportunities for discussing complex and often technical issues. And they are great ways of engaging communities on complex topics, especially when the policy framework and decision-making take place at a national level while the impacts fall on particular local communities.  They’re also a useful approach to identifying common ground and ensuring that ongoing discussions focus on the remaining points of difference rather than going over old ground.

So: I want to understand ‘proportionate’ to mean engage early, engage well, and engage honestly. The balance in question is qualitative, not quantitative. One speaker at the NSIP masterclass pointed to the difference between good engagement and glossy PR. The latter, he noted, doesn’t go down well and is recognised for what it is. So the other thing to emphasise is that engagement is about good process: it’s not about selling a particular outcome. A deliberative approach is one of the best ways of conducting genuine early engagement, no matter who you want to talk to.