Community Involvement – OCS response

OCS response to Oxford City Council's Statement of Community Involvement (Planning)

18 February 2015

Very many thanks for the opportunity to comment on the Statement of Community Involvement (Planning) (SCIP). Our comments are linked to those made by OCS on the Community Engagement consultation in January 2014.

1. Overall Comments on Community Involvement in Planning

1.1 The SCIP appears to be rooted in the statutory requirements for consultation on planning matters. This is understandable and necessary but it is suggested that it is not actually sufficient, given the context of localism and the current very dynamic development planning and management circumstances of Oxford.

2. The Context of Localism

2.1 Although we are pleased to see reference in the draft SCIP to the Oxford City Council Community Engagement Policy[1] we are concerned that the intention stated in the Community Engagement Policy to put collaboration at the heart of the city’s planning processes is not reflected in the draft SCIP. The SCIP is orientated towards consultation – it tends to be about getting people to agree to proposals already drafted by professionals. Collaboration is more orientated to bringing the community’s knowledge into the process to create better proposals and therefore better places.

2.2 Progress is slow with the implementation of the vision of localism incorporated in the Localism Act[2] but the Act and attempts to implement it provide the context for SCIP. The aim of the Act was to devolve more decision making powers from central government back into the hands of individuals, communities and councils. The act covers a wide range of issues related to local public services, with a particular focus on the general power of competence, community rights, neighbourhood planning and housing. The key measures of the act were grouped under four main headings; (i) new freedoms and flexibilities for local government; (ii) new rights and powers for communities and individuals; (iii) reform to make the planning system more democratic and more effective; (iv) reform to ensure decisions about housing are taken locally.

2.3 This recognition of the spirit of localism is noted in the recent report by Civic Voice[3], which notes that community involvement at a neighbourhood level lies at the heart of recent planning reforms, reflected in the National Planning Policy Framework[4]. Civic Voice goes further and suggests that real community participation, through early, inclusive collaborative methods, must be supported and embedded at all tiers of planning to generate a common sense of ownership and deliver high quality places.

2.4 Other local authorities have been bolder in seizing the spirit of localism and as an example Lambeth Council has stated that its vision is one of citizens, businesses and council staff working together on an equal footing, allowing citizens more direct control and influence over the design and delivery of services that make a difference in their lives. The collaborative approach by Lambeth “puts local residents in the driving seat – a world away from residents being consulted on schemes already designed and scoped by professional officers. We also devolved decision-making to ward councillors, helping to coordinate community engagement in their areas, making decisions based on residents’ feedback and being held accountable for those decisions”. A recent article in the Oxford Civic Society’s newsletter “Visions[5]” asked if, in comparison to the Lambeth solutions, Oxford City Council’s more pragmatic consultations-orientated approach is likely to be more or less effective in achieving the overall aim of “Oxford: A World Class City for Everyone.”

2.5 The SCIP’s orientation to consultation does not appear to be consistent with localism and the intentions of the NPPF.

3. The Development Planning and Management Context of Oxford

3.1 Our main concern is that the draft SCIP is not action-orientated, failing to take the opportunity which exists to contribute right now to the debates and formulation of solutions to current major Oxford planning issues, including, as examples, the relationship between Oxford and neighbouring district council areas, including issues of acute housing shortage, new housing locations and urban extensions into the green belt, major city centre development activities and very poorly linked transport and development / spatial planning in and around the city.

3.2 For example the draft SCI is not responsive to the current very significant and active debate about planning policy for Oxford and Central Oxfordshire – and now is the time when difficult planning choices need to be made for Central Oxfordshire in a coordinated way. As it is presented currently the draft SCI is not an instrument which will contribute “to a smarter approach to strategic development in the region, underpinned by a shared vision of the future[6]”.

3.3 Of relevance to the SCIP, the Oxford Futures Report[7] recommends: (i) setting up an Oxford Futures Commission and a Development Forum to facilitate debate and guide the formulation of coordinated Central Oxfordshire planning policy. Although it is not suggested that the SCI necessarily recommends setting up this Commission and Forum it could, perhaps, encourage innovative consultation of this kind to formulate good planning policy, recognising the challenges facing Oxford’s development.

4. Why should the community be involved in the planning process?

4.1 Before this can be addressed it is necessary to define the “community” in more detail than does the draft SCIP. The draft SCIP rightly defines community as all the individuals, groups and organisations that live, work, or operate within Oxford and includes “stakeholder” under this heading, defined as individuals, landowners and organisations with a direct influence on the subject under discussion. But it is emphasised that current Oxford planning issues necessitate the involvement of people and organizations outside the City but who live, work or operate within the City. This community needs to be acknowledged and the characteristics of this community need to be understood, but the SCIP is silent on how this might be done.

4.2 Within the City boundaries the Oxford community is very far from being homogenous, as described very well in the Community Engagement Policy. The draft SCI is silent on how different communities can collaborate, for example, deprived communities, minority ethnic groups, younger age groups, renting households and owner occupiers. The collaborative involvement of each of these communities will enable: (i) equitable contributions to the formulation of planning policy, with acknowledgment and consideration of the priorities of the communities; (ii) the provision of local services which meet local needs; (iii) increased community commitment to the future of an area; (iv) stronger, more cohesive future communities and (v) planning policy enhanced by local knowledge.

4.3 Civil society includes many types of representative bodies and community associations: sometimes they exist as long-term, institutionalised bodies representing the interests of defined groups or professions. On other occasions they are transitory pressure groups springing up to campaign for or against specific proposals and mobilising grassroots opinion to participate in the many ways that a democracy allows. Building excellent relationships with representative groups is a high priority for all public bodies, but is particularly important if planners are to carry communities with them in the interests of sustainable development. But how will this be done? This is not clear from the draft SCI.

5. Principles for community involvement in planning decisions

5.1 It is noted that the following principles of community engagement have been established in the City Council’s Community Engagement Policy Statement 2014-2017 and are accepted as the principles underpinning planning consultations: (i) Flexibility; (ii) Proportionality; (iii) Transparency and clarity; (iv) Timeliness (v) Feedback; and (vi) Inclusiveness and accessibility. The SCIP attempts to enhance these principles and recommends the following as key principles:

  • The opportunity to contribute ideas – people will have the opportunity to put their ideas forward and the City Council will consider and respond to these suggestions as appropriate;
  • The opportunity to take an active part in developing proposals and options – the City Council will provide opportunities for people to actively engage in the planning process from an early stage. The City Council will also encourage others who are promoting development proposals to do the same;
  • The opportunity to make comments on formal proposals – for more advanced development proposals and planning documents, the City Council will actively seek views to meet, and in some instances exceed, the Regulatory requirements for community involvement;
  • The opportunity to receive feedback and be informed about progress and outcomes – the City Council will consider all comments received through consultations and will make appropriate changes accordingly. The City Council will provide updates on the progress of planning policy documents to all those who submit comments as part of a planning policy consultation. This may be by direct contact or by publishing material on the City Council’s website (e.g. consultation reports and updates). The City Council will also explain how comments on planning applications have been taken into consideration in officer’s reports. These reports are also published on the City Council’s website.

5.2 These enhanced principles are very worthy but abstract, do not reflect a collaborative approach and do not reflect practical issues. Currently the Oxfordshire County Council is consulting the community on the updated Oxford Transport Strategy (in the context of updated Oxfordshire Transport Strategy) but this consultation is separate from any discussion of development policy of the City. One issue of principle could and clearly should be inter-authority synchronization and coordination on major consultations of this kind. Similar considerations apply with the transport implications of all major developments within the City.

5.3 Much Oxford development policy and development funding is in fact determined by agencies to which the City Council contributes but which have opaque planning policy consultations procedures and certainly no collaboration with the public. Examples are the Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and associated Oxfordshire Growth Board (the implementing agency for the LEP). A principle for community involvement in planning decisions could also be a more open process of community participation in LEP and Growth Board activities. This could be through the political representation on these Boards, but the SCIP should be suggesting how this might be accomplished..

6. Consultation on planning policy documents

6.1 The draft SCIP explains how the different planning policy documents link together to form the Local Plan for Oxford and their relationship with the wider planning process. This is a rather abstract approach and ignores the several elephants in the room, examples of which are described in paragraphs 12 and 13 above. Our concern is that planning policy documents as described should be the outputs of community collaboration not the focus of community consultation.

6.2 The draft SCI describes consultation on the Local Development Plan Documents and Supplementary Planning Documents: early public involvement is stressed and it is noted that before drafting begins, informal consultations will be held and a process of informal dialogue will commence. This may involve publishing a consultation document, or it may be as wide-ranging as simply asking questions about what the document and policies should include. This is very welcome as it provides opportunities for communities to initiate planning ideas.

7. The Neighbourhood Development Plan process

7.1 It is noted in the draft SCI that the preparation of neighbourhood planning documents is led by local communities in accordance with the Regulations[8], and the principles of localism. As such, the majority of the community engagement in the preparation of Neighbourhood Plans will be led by the neighbourhood planning group[9]. There are then certain stages where the City Council is required to carry out formal consultation in accordance with the Regulations and these are described in the draft SCI.

7.2 Neighbourhood plans are about allocating land for development and being able to say where new houses, businesses, shops and so on should go and what they should look like. Once plans are adopted they will become an important consideration when making decisions on planning applications. To date three local groups have asked Oxford City Council to formally designate their proposed neighbourhood areas and designating a neighbourhood area is the first step towards producing a neighbourhood plan. The SCIP could say something about why the Neighbourhood Plan process has had a slow start in Oxford, what obstacles exist and what ways are recommended to overcome the obstacles?

8. How will people be involved in the preparation of planning policy documents?

8.1 The SCIP notes that the methods of community involvement to be used will depend on the subject and the stage in the plan-making process. It goes on to explain that there are different levels of involvement that may be appropriate in different circumstances: (i) Information-sharing – providing information through leaflets, advertising, on-going awareness, and publicity campaigns; (ii) Consultation – consulting the community and stakeholders through questionnaires, exhibitions, and formal consultation processes; and (iii) Participation – such as in workshops, charrettes, or ‘Planning for Real’ type exercises. To address the major development planning issues of the day in Oxford a collaborative approach is recommended and process number (iii) above comes closest.

9. Additional point: role of elected councillors

9.1 The SCIP does not explain nor discuss the roles, or the potential roles of Councillors in planning processes; for example: (i) should they be encouraged to play an active part in area committees and neighbourhood forums so as to help the local community to articulate its views; (ii) should Councillors advise the most appropriate methods for public involvement for their wards and for the authority as a whole; (iii) should there be awareness training for elected members on the most frequently used consultation techniques, and particularly how to interpret the results? It would be interesting to know the extent to which Councillors have been involved in the preparation of the draft SCIP.

10. Comments on Community Involvement on Planning Applications

10.1 Consultations before planning applications are submitted

10.1.1 One reason for updating the SCI is to be able to review the consultation procedures relating to pre-application processes in light of the recommendations and lessons learnt in the Roger Dudman Way Review (2013), and subsequent Action Plan. The review identified four key principles for effective engagement in planning: (i) Timely and sustained – events and activities should start before any planning decisions are made and engagement should last throughout the planning process and beyond; (ii) Inclusive for all local people – those living and working in an area have a right to be involved, all parties are welcome, and process must take account of peoples’ varied needs; (iii) Two way, open and responsive – communication should be discursive not prescriptive, so that information can be debated and ideas exchanged; and (iv) A matter of public record – the processes must be documented and published[10].

10.1.2 Effective engagement means identifying the kinds of audience that need to be involved at each stage of the process on any given issue. This requires a good understanding of the networks of interest and expertise in the area. Some examples of the range of engagement forums[11] are described below:

  • Area forums are informal meetings held across six geographical areas of the city, providing an opportunity for local people to discuss priority issues for the community and agree actions with other residents, councillors, city council teams and other partners. Area Forums are sponsored and supported by the Council, and are free to adapt arrangements to best meet their own needs. The purpose of Area Forums is to: (i) identify key issues and priorities to feed into city-wide service and budget planning processes; (ii) enable local councillors to play a central role in drawing up community plans, which provides an opportunity to link up service-planning more closely with local needs and aspirations; (iii) provide a space in which residents and community groups can work with mainstream service providers – health, education, police, businesses and the voluntary sectors – to ensure that local services are responsive to community needs; (iv) comment on policy documents and proposals that affect the area; and (v) enable local issues and interests to be discussed with local members. The question is what role do and could Area Forums play in debating planning issues and applications?
  • Community Partnerships have been established in those areas of the city which have been identified as being in greatest need: Barton, The Leys, Rose Hill, Wood Farm, Northway, Cutteslowe and Littlemore. They are not decision-making bodies but provide a focus for local action and engagement on local issues. A neighbourhood management approach is being implemented in these areas to develop a stronger sense of community. It involves residents working in partnership with mainstream service providers, the local authority, councillors, businesses and the voluntary and community sectors to address local priorities and make local services more responsive to the needs of their area. The question is what role do and could Community Partnerships play in debating planning issues and applications?
  • Neighbourhood Forums – the Localism Act has introduced new rights and powers for communities and individuals to enable them to get directly involved in spatial planning for their areas. Neighbourhood planning will allow communities to come together through a neighbourhood forum to produce a neighbourhood plan. The question is what role do and could Neighbourhood Forums play in debating planning issues? An assessment of why Neighbourhood Forum take-up has been slow in Oxford would also be useful and possibly within the scope of SCIP.
  • The Oxford Student Community Partnership Group – is an example of a community of interest is the university student population of Oxford who run the Oxford Student Community Partnership Group. This meets twice a term and is attended by representatives from both universities, along with all Councillors and Oxford City Council officers. Topics of interest for this community include waste and recycling, voter registration and housing. There are very many other special interest groups and the SCIP could explain how these will be incorporated into a collaborative engagement in development planning and management.
  • Oxford Strategic Partnership – the partnership was founded in 2003 to promote joined-up approaches for improving quality of life in the city. The aims of the OSP are to: (i) provide a clear and ambitious vision for the future of Oxford, developing its environmental, economic and social life in a positive and sustainable way; (ii) to improve the quality of life of all sections of the community, to reduce inequalities, and support the needs and aspirations of citizens in their local areas; and (iii) to foster and promote closer working between local agencies to deliver responsive and high quality services across the city. The OSP seeks to deliver these aims by providing a focused approach to identifying and realizing clear improvements across the City, targeting in particular those areas of greatest need. The Partnership will deliver these actions by pooling expertise, knowledge, resources, research, and good practice. It will build a long-term, city-wide vision, alongside more immediate support to foster and encourage sustainable, partnership-based development. The OPS is a good step in the direction of collaborative planning and the question is how can it be used to achieve the objectives of the SCIP?

10.1.3 Another kind of Forum which is actively engaged in planning is the Oxford Design Review Panel (ODRP). Also prompted by a review of the Roger Dudman Way student accommodation planning process, the ODRP was established by Oxford City Council, in partnership with the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) which offers Design Review as one of its services. Since February 2014, the ODRP has held 26 review meetings on 24 development schemes which have been judged to be major projects or which are sensitive, in terms of design, public interest or impact on a locality. The reviewed schemes have been a mix of those at pre-planning application and planning application stages.

10.1.4 But despite this level of ODRP activity we know almost nothing about its impact on design quality. A more open (collaborative?) approach would be for the ODRP to benefit from access to local knowledge through collaboration with the public just as the public, including potential developers, will benefit from access to ODRPs deliberations. Respecting developer confidentiality may be important in some cases to encourage developers to seek advice but public access to ODRP could be, for example, by open meetings being held at the beginning of the series of meetings the ODRP will have with developers of major sites. The SCIP could discuss the relationship between the OPDRP and the public?

10.1.5 Would it be useful to engage with key stakeholders and/or their representative groups in advance of specific consultations to provide them with adequate advance warning, and to seek their views on the most effective means of publicity; this could also include an open forum for the initial meetings of the ODRP on major developments enabling the ODRP and public to engage?

10.1.6 The SCIP is not convincing that all parties likely to have a valid interest in any particular planning issue will be engaged, that whatever methods and media are most appropriate will be implemented for this engagement, or that explanations of the issues and background, pros and cons etc. will be provided, i.e. that there will be an objective description of all the issues, as required to enable people and organisations to make worthwhile judgements. The SCIP is further not convincing in providing assurance that the best facilities will be provided for entering debate or expressing views, i.e. without obstructive processes. By this we mean bureaucratic or technical obstructions (like limitations on characters in response boxes on websites, or allocations of 15 minutes only for discussion with a case officer).

10.2 Consultations when applications are submitted and are under consideration[12]

10.2.1 There are concerns[13] that: (i) too many people are unaware of planning applications which could affect them in some way; (ii) there is over-reliance on IT access to view applications; and (iii) the IT systems themselves, and the management of data therein, are inadequate.

10.2.2 The SCIP does not provide assurance that proper consideration and weight can or will be given to consultation responses, and that such consideration will be seen to have been given, by reference to responses, discussion in reports, and with explanations and justifications for the non-adoption of rejected suggested solutions or points of view.

10.2.3 The OCS has experienced significant difficulties in monitoring planning applications. Members of the Oxford Civic Society Planning Group have met on a regular basis (every two weeks) to examine and debate as a group the merits of selected planning applications, since the inception of the Society over 40 years ago.

10.2.4 Following re-organisation of City Council operations 2 or 3 years ago no paper copies of application documents are made available (except for very few, very major projects) and all examination is required to be made online. Facilities for such examination on a group basis comprise a small meeting area at the rear of the City Council’s St Aldate’s Chambers premises, equipped with 3 moderately-sized computer monitors, plus shared use of the public-access computers located at the front of the premises, equipped with small screens. We are thus invariably forced to split our group, with some members using the public-access computers at the front of the premises. This is not a satisfactory arrangement, since it compromises the confidentiality of other members of the public who are often engaged in sensitive discussions with Council staff; it also necessitates frequent visits across the office, causing disturbance and distraction in order that the two parts of our group can confer on any controversial issues arising, and the small monitors available at the front of the premises really preclude proper appreciation of complex drawings.

10.2.5 Since nearly all planning applications can now only be viewed electronically, we feel strongly that the efficacy of the systems to enable this is critical to the proper engagement of members of the public and community groups, critical to the establishment of a satisfactory consultation process, and critical to the exercise of the rights of members of the public and groups such as ours. We believe strongly that we perform a valuable public service in providing a consensus view of non-professional but experienced lay-people, representing residents from across the city but without personal vested interests.

10.2.6 Our efforts at examining planning applications at St Aldate’s Chambers have been dogged with difficulties since the arrangements were set up. Many of these have been related to issues such as mis-filing of documents, or flaws in the scanning and uploading process, but we believe that most are the result of technical issues associated with the IT systems, including both hardware and software faults.

10.2.7 During one period last year one of the three computers at the rear of the office was non-functional for a period of several weeks, despite repeated reporting to front-desk staff. There are thus clearly issues not only of reliability of the equipment, but of the systems of maintenance and fault rectification.

10.2.8 Apart from reliability issues, we have also experienced periods when attempts to open any document simply result in a display of hieroglyphics; periodically it has been found impossible to open documents such as reports, where these are formatted as text files, since the public-access computers are incapable of reading them. Recently, we have experienced on a frequent but unpredictable and intermittent basis, displays of a “Bad gateway” messages, and complete denial of access. This has now become a persistent fault which has necessitated abandonment of our group meetings on occasion. The computer systems are also chronically unresponsive and slow. We have complained repeatedly of these failings, but, regrettably, we have seen little sign of commitment to improvement.

10.2.9 These comments are made not only out of Civic Society frustration or self-interest: we emphasise that the functioning of the parts of the IT systems to which we refer is now a critical element in participatory local democracy, since planning applications can be viewed through no other mechanism. It is thus essential that these systems, including the human input, the software and the hardware must operate reliably and promptly, and be capable of being accessed intuitively by the public. Anything less is not just a minor frustration for the few who are interested but a significant breach of the duty of the City Council to engage and involve communities and individuals as it should.

10.2.10 The SCIP includes a Table (Table 3) which states: ”Via Public Access and PlanningFinder, applications can be searched for individually”. The point we are making is that whilst it may be true that applications can be searched for individually, our experience is that that search is made fruitless all too often by the defects and unreliability of the systems deployed; ‘community involvement’ is effectively precluded by the technological failures of those systems[14].

11. How will consultations be resourced?

11.1 The new emphasis on community involvement will require substantial investment in building and deploying the skills of public engagement and consultation. Part of the rationale is the belief that a bigger effort made in the early stages of the planning cycle (e.g. the preparation of LDF documents) will result in savings later on. At all costs, planners must avoid commitments to public engagement that cannot or will not be funded. The RTPI recommends[15] that Statements of Community Involvement (SCIs and CISs) should be costed and an estimated budget calculated for at least three years ahead. OCS agrees with this suggestion but the current draft SCIP will need a lot more detail on “how to” before costing can be accurate.

11.2 Ways of undertaking collaborative work with the public efficiently do need to be identified and could include: (i) cost sharing with other departments (e.g. communications, marketing etc) using similar methods and committing to comparable projects; (ii) liaison with other local authority departments undertaking consultation and public involvement to reduce the likelihood of overlapping or duplicated exercises and thereby eliminate confusion (why, for example, was the Community Engagement Policy consultation and the consultation of the Statement of Community Involvement (Planning) undertaken separately?; and (iii) City Council departments and other agencies working together to build and maintain an accurate database of representative groups as part of a single stakeholder database.

12. Evaluation of Consultation

12.1 How will consultation on planning matters be evaluated? We stress that the adequacy of a consultation should be measured by results, not by inputs. Successful consultation should be judged on the volume and quality of responses received, the contribution these make to the development process and the quality of the development itself, not by the statistics of actions taken, messages issued, hand-outs and flyers distributed etc. Only in that way can any meaningful assessment be made of whether effective community involvement is actually taking place.

Peter Thompson
Chairman, Oxford Civic Society
[1] Community Engagement Policy Statement 2014-2017: Oxford City Council 2014
[2] Localism Act 2011
[3] Collaborative Planning For All, 2015
[4] National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), Department for Communities and Local Government, March 2012 – The NPPF refers to the importance of involving communities in the design of developments and in the creation of Local Plans it also notes as examples: (i) It also notes that applicants will be expected to work closely with those directly affected by their proposals to evolve designs that take account of the views of the community; (ii) Early and meaningful engagement and collaboration with neighbourhoods, local organisations and businesses is essential. A wide section of the community should be proactively engaged, so that Local Plans, as far as possible, reflect a collective vision and a set of agreed priorities for the sustainable development of the area, including those contained in any neighbourhood plans that have been made.
[5] Visions – Shaping Oxford’s Future: edition 130, March 2015. Oxford Civic Society
[6] Oxford Futures – Achieving Smarter Growth in Central Oxfordshire. Oxford Civic Society, 2014
[7] Ibid
[8] Neighbourhood Planning (General) Regulations 2012
[9] Neighbourhood planning groups are community groups that are designated to take forward neighbourhood planning in areas without parishes. It is the role of the local planning authority to agree who should be the neighbourhood planning group for the neighbourhood area
[10] Roger Dudman Way Review 2013, paragraph 91
[11] These “engagement forums” could be useful for planning policy and planning applications engagements
[12] Reference has also been made to: Guidelines on Effective Community Involvement and Consultation: Royal town Planning Institute (RTPI) Good Practice Note 1
[13] For example comments made to our members by Headington Action, St.Ebbe’s New Development Residents Association and others and made by our members.
[14] We also note that the Oxford Strategic Partnership Steering Group, is actively discussing the ‘Smart City’ aspirations of the City Council and University, whereby the application of advanced technological systems will lead to improvement in all our lives. This vision contrasts starkly with our actual experiences of reliance on what cannot even be regarded as complex or even modern technology.
[15] Guidelines on Effective Community Involvement and Consultation: Royal town Planning Institute (RTPI) Good Practice Note 1