Community involvement, public consultation and publicity are required components of the statutory planning system and it is recognised as being important that local people are involved in the decision making process and have sufficient opportunities to comment, support or object to planning applications.
The first Statement of Community involvement (SCI) was adopted by Middlesbrough Borough Council in 2005 to set down a degree of involvement that the community and other stakeholders can expect in the taking of decisions regarding planning proposals and future planning strategy.
Reasons for community involvement can be identified as an integral part of the planning process:
(a) Involvement leads to outcomes that better reflect the views and aspirations and meet the needs of the wider community, in all its diversity;
(b) Public involvement is valuable as a key element of a vibrant, open, and participatory democracy.
(c) Involvement improves the quality and efficiency of decisions by drawing on local knowledge, and minimising unnecessary and costly conflict
(d) Involvement educates all participants about the needs of communities, the business sector, and how he local government works; and,
(e) Involvement helps promote social cohesion by making real connections with communities and offering them a stake in decision making
Hands on Middlesbrough aims to support and promote Middlesbrough’s heritage and green spaces. The group formed in 2014, following concerns regarding the Acklam Hall housing & medical village development which arguably put heritage (above and below ground), a conservation area and habitat for wildlife at unnecessary risk, without appropriate care and provision.
We revealed a number of flaws in the consultation process when we conducted interviews with members of the local community and researched the methods of consultation and publicity utilised by the Council since 2009/10 when a preferred developer for the site was accepted.
Hands on Middlesbrough recognise that the SCI identifies a minimum consultation framework, which in most cases does not effectively consult the public in good time.
We welcome a review of the current SCI because it gives the local authority an opportunity to make positive changes, which will enable members of the public to get involved in the decision making process and we would suggest that the SCI document describes how community involvement will impact on the decision making process, and any potential outcomes.
Hands on Middlesbrough would like to offer our support for a review of this document and give recommendations about how we feel the current consultation process could be made more effective and inclusive.
ELECTED MEMBERS, COMMUNITY AND PARISH COUNCILS
Historically, it has always been elected members, community and parish councils who are identified as best placed to relay community concerns with regards to planning proposals. Community and Parish councils often use traditional methods to disseminate information; meetings, newsletters, word of mouth and emails to members. These forms of communication can be successful but they are rarely effective in reaching out to a wider audience beyond the community or parish council itself. A newsletter can be successful for reaching those who may not have internet access.
The fundamental flaw with this is that despite being regarded as the most effective way to consult the general public, community and parish councils are not representative of the diverse society in which we live. Therefore, they should not be given the sole responsibility of bridging the gap between members of the community and the local authority when consulting on planning proposals or discussing neighbourhood plans.
The community council, in some cases, can be a politically charged environment. It is not always a comfortable environment for those who find the jargon involved in planning difficult. A more relaxed, informal approach where people can view plans and ask questions is perhaps the way to reach out to members of the community.
Some Middlesbrough wards do not have an active community council who hold regular meetings, so it is unclear how people in these areas get involved in the planning process.
The local community should be informed at an early stage through well publicised public meetings, drop in sessions, online communication, such as emails and social media and articles in the local press and media. It is also essential that there is an easily accessible public consultation section of the Middlesbrough Council Website, which links to planning proposals and the Search and Track facility for identifying new developments. We therefore welcome the use of more modern media techniques to make consultation easier and also as a means of communicating with a wider audience.
Planning notices give a planning application reference number and a contact, but there is often no description and they are difficult to read due to the small font size used. They are also written in jargon which is difficult to understand and excludes some members of the community.
The Love Middlesbrough magazine which goes out to 64,000 people every quarter would be an effective way of offering advice and support to people interested in getting involved in planning. It is recommended that this is used as a vehicle for communicating and consulting on major planning proposals.
Since the ward councillors are the first point of contact for a member of the community, it is vital that they are approachable and emails are responded to promptly. If an email is sent to a councillor regarding a development which is not in their ward, then they still need to pass on the email to the councillors who are responsible.
Heritage Champion, English Heritage states:
The role of a Heritage Champion is to act as the elected representative championing the historic environment, working alongside the local conservation staff. Champions should provide authority and clarity about heritage issues, connecting the work of elected representatives with local planning authority officers.’ (English Heritage 2014).
If Middlesbrough Council still has a heritage champion, then they should be made aware of all developments which put heritage above or below ground at risk and should also be actively involved in consulting with relevant groups. The heritage champion should also be a first point of contact for the public to flag up any concerns they may have regarding heritage at risk.
Often, planning proposals can last a number of years. Therefore, more effort needs to be made to re-consult so as to keep the community informed. This exceeds the minimum consultation requirement but is essential in enabling social cohesion and confidence in the planning system.
One reason for a loss of confidence in the planning system is due to a lack of transparency. Some meetings regarding the sale of land for development take place without the public or press present. This creates feelings of mistrust towards those who are supposed to represent the community as some people feel they are excluded from the consultation process.
A way to regain that trust is by setting out the ways in which public views will be listened to and acted upon. The review of the consultation process is welcomed but once the public have been consulted it is not clear how these views will be taken into consideration when making planning decisions.
If a large majority of public opinion is against a particular development proposal how can the public be confident that their opinions will be listened to and acted upon?
Hands on Middlesbrough would like to be directly consulted on future planning proposals and will disseminate that information via social media and other means.
It is also a recommendation that Middlesbrough Borough Council puts together a diverse advisory board of proactive local people (including young people and hard-to-reach groups) and consults with them directly on a month by month basis.