In my 40 years Local govt experience one thing I learned and took to heart was that holding assumptions about what a community ‘needed’ was not the best starting point when writing planning policies or embarking on a project. I saw many occasions when a lot of effort was wasted on detailed schemes that were developed by well meaning councillors and professional staff, and only then put out to consultation with the community. Which then tore the schemes to threads.
The answer of course is to front load consultation with lots of engagement activity. Sessions where community members are involved in the actual design of the project can pay huge dividends. Such an approach will tell you things you didn’t know, help to make people aware of the reality of the limits that apply, build relationships with local people, and identify the key stakeholders and opinion formers. It also helps later to avoid accusations of tokenism when you do go out to formal consultation. But best of all, it will most likely result in a positive consultation response and an end product that has street-cred with the local community.
In my experience that means planning policies that are less often disregarded, and less abuse of public realm projects and community buildings. In NDP terms it can also mean that you can develop proper local policies that address real local issues, not just rehashes of national or local plan material.
Trisha Hewitt, former Communications Manager at Cornwall Council, agrees. She says in her blog (trishahewitt.com) that ‘effective consultation and engagement with communities rather than carrying out a cynical box-ticking exercise is vital if organisations want to take their residents or customers with them and avoid opposition’. She advises ‘talking with people at an early stage, and then using their views to shape the final decision. And, where this is not possible, going back to them to explain why’. This approach is vital in developing key local documents such as Neighbourhood Plans.
PS. Trisha’s experience in picking up the pieces from the effects of poor consultation (surely not at Cornwall Council?) means she understands how organisations should consult and engage with their local communities. Trisha can advise on the right way to carry out your NDP engagement activity, rather than just the easiest. You can contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 07946 654121.