You can take a horse to water, but you can't make it drink

You can take a horse to water, but you can't make it drink

by aurora planning

This month we’re due to attend the second formal pre-application consultation event for the Space Hub Sutherland project - the UK’s first vertical launch facility proposed for the Moine penninsula - giving us cause to reflect on current community engagement processes, and how these might change under the new Planning Act.
As we highlighted in our blog in July this year, one of the key aspirations behind the new Planning Act was to make the planning process more accessible, something we are committed advocates of. Related to this, more and better community engagement was touted throughout the Act’s progress through Parliament as the antidote to calls for a third party right of appeal, with apparent consensus that community engagement is a positive thing.  Importantly, as well as giving people who might be affected by development an opportunity to have their voices heard, effective community engagement can help developers improve their proposals, and to deliver development that works for everyone.  But what might more and better community engagement look like?
This is not a new question – indeed it’s one that has been discussed at length by planners and others involved in the planning process over many years, yet it would seem that there is not yet a clear answer.
Currently, statutory pre-application consultation must be undertaken for all major developments, with the minimum requirement being to carry out at least one public event.  Within this process however, there is a balance to be struck between how much information is given, and when.  If little or no detail is provided at an event, there is nothing for people to comment on.  On the other hand, presenting what appear to be fully worked up plans can give the impression of everything having been decided, rather than it being a genuine and meaningful engagement exercise.  So, the one-off event is unlikely to be a solution.  Instead, more on-going dialogue would allow communities to feel part of the design evolution.
But engagement is about more than just what information is available and when, it is also about how that information is presented, and how feedback is collated.  Given the shift in how we interact with the world around us, there now also needs to be a shift in how the planning system facilitates positive interaction, giving people the opportunity to do so in ways that work best for them, and that will result in the best possible outcomes.
In our experience, community engagement is most effective when there is a diverse team involved, and engagement takes a number of different forms to reach different audiences.  A particularly notable example of this was when we supported a local charitable organisation’s bid to purchase disused playing fields in Aberdeen, in which the multi-disciplinary design team reached out to people using different medias.  Particularly successful in that case was the use of social media; undeniably, engaging with social media is now part of people’s day to day lives in the way that turning up to an event in the local hall isn’t and, in this case, it generated significantly more feedback than many events we’ve been involved in.  
At the same time, there is obviously a difference in both the quality and quantity of information that can be shared in a social media post compared with at an in-person event, and so how that is managed will be crucial to how effective engagement via social media actually is. This is particularly so since it is also easy for objectors to launch an anti-development social media campaign, in which misleading information can be shared.
However, even when developers do try to engage pro-actively with the local community in innovative ways, people don’t necessarily respond constructively, or indeed at all.  For example, one of our clients put up a marque on a development site and invited neighbours around for tea, making it as easy as possible for local residents to attend, and also allowing them to consider the proposals in context.  Unfortunately, very few residents turned up, yet significant numbers later submitted letters of objection to the application when it was made.
All of this of course focuses on engagement on planning applications, but the same principles apply equally to engagement on the preparation of development plans and, in future, Local Place Plans introduced by the new Planning Act.  On which, specific proposals for better engagement are thin on the ground but, as with many elements of the new Act, this is perhaps as reliant on a culture shift as it is on legislative change. 
But whatever the requirements for engagement under the new Act transpire to be, it should be remembered that more, or indeed even better, engagement won’t necessarily result in consensus.  And whatever methods are used, you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

Meantime, if you would like to find out about how aurora planning can assist you in any aspect of the planning process, please visit or email  And, to receive future blogs and updates by email, please click here

Thanks for reading!


Pippa and Maggie

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