With over £100bm of new linear infrastructure projects planned between now and 2030, consultation and engagement professionals who work in the planning sector are going to be busy.  And it’s not just the benefits of the required changes that are at stake…without proper land use optimisation we are all doomed.

But currently it takes, on average, 44 months to approve a scheme – so whatever comes next will have to be quicker if we wish to reach our carbon targets.  With such slow progress it begs the question of which generation the improvements are targeting – and how best to reach them.

It’s no secret that major builds are coming in electricity transmission and water distribution are already on the horizon.  Some thinking has already happened on how to tackle the challenges of pace.  In-fact, Lord Banner (KC) is currently doing a review on the legal challenges to the planning process to determine if the courts are holding up the process.  Moreover, a review of digital in planning has previously been commissioned by government and hundreds of thousands of pounds are being poured into local government “PropTech” grants.

Yet there are other blockages which are not being tackled.  For example, the economics of large schemes are broken – it is 900% more expensive per mile in the UK to build rail schemes than in France!

A longstanding problem (and one for which most of us can relate) is NIMBYism.  It isn’t helped that the planning system is based on objection but fundamentally stakeholders are not acting with selflessness or compassion for needs greater than their own.  Meanwhile, developers are not building enough democratic accountability or authenticity into their consultations.

At a smaller scale, housebuilding has become a vote winner and Labour are said to be targeting “pro-development” constituencies.  In-fact, they have even pledged to build on greenbelt alongside a commitment to build 1.5 million homes within five years.  Of course, housebuilding is probably more amenable to most people than being presented with the prospect of a new Pylon or open sewer.

Apart from a war on NIMBYism, exactly what can be done to make planning consultation meaningful is up for debate. The tool stack is certainly becoming more impressive – check out Hello Lamp Post, SitePodium and Optioneer if you haven’t already.  However, we’ve got our eye on the following: –

  1. Co-ordination – there is a job to be done to tackle the mess of parallel consultations.  Without a joined-up and synchronized plan, citizens will have no chance of understanding the compound impacts.  There was never a better time for an “office of public engagement” but we think that the regulators will have to step in.
  2. Quality – mistakes or compromises in quality will be made while working at pace.  We advocate that the coverage of consultation and engagement stretch from conception to route selection and scheme implementation.  If in doubt, think about enhancing trust via compliance.
  3. Catalysts – now is the time to explore how tools and technologies (such as AI) can be deployed to save time.  For example, in the processing of views or rapid reaction to stakeholder inputs.
  4. Education – work is needed on how to change public attitudes.  Community engagement has a role to play in this.  Check out our mantra if you haven’t already.
  5. Community benefits – the democracy of community benefits schemes will need to be orchestrated.  We think there’s a case for devolving the tools used by consultors back to the community.

    Of course, If you’re interested in the debate, come along and say hello