On 25th June 2020, we held a round table discussion with 20 participants, using the video conference platform Zoom. Participants represented different stakeholders in the field of planning, including community councils, planning authorities, planning consultants, statutory partners and land-owning bodies.
The discussion was led by a lead facilitator and addressed questions relating to community engagement within the settings of Development Management, Development Planning and Local Place Plans.
The following summary provides an outline of the key themes drawn from this hour-long discussion, sharing the views and experiences of those individuals who attended the session. We hope that these round table sessions will be used to enable the sharing of best practice, and the identification of areas where further research could be undertaken.
Development Management / Planning Application Review
Timeframes and Process
- Reviewing planning applications is complex, particularly for major applications, and no additional time allowance appears to have been granted to Community Councils (CCs) to undertake this duty during the Covid lockdown. Working to pre-Covid timeframes was seen as unrealistic and potentially detrimental.
- It was noted that mechanisms such as time extensions could be facilitated by an individual planning authority, and this would be following a request made by a CC.
- To address resource constraints the suggestion was made to place major planning applications on hold during Covid. However, an alternative view was given that although the current situation was not ideal in terms of community engagement, the imperative for economic activity also needed to be taken into account.
- Given the time and resource constraints that CCs faced during the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a concern that community engagement requirements within the planning appeals process was not adequate. Specific examples were given, where ineffective communication channels such as postal mail were still being used to publicise or inform.
Digital Access and Capacity
- There appear to be obstacles associated with digital access and skills at a local level which may prevent an effective engagement process from taking place and this may leave communities disadvantaged.
- Current Local Authority restrictions pertaining to the use of certain conferencing platforms, such as Zoom, meant that community councils were potentially not being engaged effectively. Zoom appears to be a popular tool used by CC given it is free and easy to use/navigate.
- In terms of the selection of an online meeting platform, it was felt by one community council that although Zoom was the easiest to access/setup, it was not a comparable alternative to running a face to face meeting to review planning applications. It was noted that alternative online platforms, of which there are many, may enable more effective discussion.
- There appeared to be consensus that there was a need to properly support communities in the modal shift being undertaken in community engagement.
Development Planning – Participation and Evidence Gathering
- The use of video-conferencing platforms seemed to enable a wider audience, and the dissemination of recordings of events did appear to provide transparency and reach a wider audience.
- There appeared to be evidence of increased participation following the use of digital engagement, however it was suggested that much of this evidence was anecdotal and more robust research may be of benefit.
- It was felt that the number of online tools being offered may improve the engagement process, however this shouldn’t be at the cost of focused, effective and meaningful dialogue. The outcome of having a plethora of options may result in further consultation fatigue and confusion.
- Although Covid-19 had significantly disrupted the preparation of local development plans, there were examples of good practice taking place. Aberdeenshire Council had adapted their engagement process by deploying an online platform, developed by private industry (https://www.aberdeenshire.gov.uk/planning/plans-and-policies/pldp-2020/). The platform imitated a local hall setting and appeared to encourage more participation. There appeared to bean observed increase in the 20-30s age group, although further independent analysis is required.
- The Connecting Scotland Initiative (https://connecting.scot/) was being used in Aberdeenshire to overcome barriers faced by those who may be digitally excluded. The Council has trained up staff members as ‘Digital Champions’ to help with the provision of equipment and support to practice digital skills.
Local Place Plans / Community Action Plans
- There were difficulties associated with developing community level plans during this time. One participant was considering the preparation of a local action plan, although this was still in the preparation phase and required further input and advice to ensure engagement was effective. Another participant noted that their community’s action plan had been put on hold.
- The role of community councils in the local planning process was discussed, and agreement that there was a need to emphasise the importance of the community councils’ statutory duty and to encourage community groups involved in action plans or local place plans to work collaboratively with their respective community council.
- There was agreement that guidance was needed on how to deliver effective engagement during this period of Covid-19, along with advice on how to use available technology and the potential benefits it may have long-term, eg carbon reduction, increased participation and improved transparency.
Participants were asked to suggest further topics that they felt would be useful to discuss in the roundtable format. These included:
- Building community resilience by enhancing digital skills.
- Introduction to online tools and techniques for meetings and consultations.
- Αn overview of the technology available to assist community councils with garnering residents’ views, e.g. the virtual room offered by Aberdeenshire Council.
- Sharing local authority best practice on engagement during the Covid-19 restrictions.
- Place principle (as distinct from place standard).
- Developing a longer-term low carbon consultation process.
- Local place planning. Identifying differences between Community Action plans and Local Place Plans.