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Demos advocates digital deliberation in planning


Michael Cross Correspondent

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Digital engagement could help ease the housing crisis by defusing opposition to badly needed new developments, a cross-party thinktank has suggested.

In its People Powered Planning report published this week Demos proposes tackling a fundamental problem faced by local authority planning departments – that the people most likely to engage in the process are from sections of society most opposed to new developments.

Homeowners are "significantly" more likely than renters to contribute to planning consultations: Demos research found that 56% of owners had engaged, against 29% of renters. But renters were more likely than owners to support the principle of new housing developments.

A broader cross section of input "is essential if the planning system is to be rescued from the capture of those most opposed to new housing development", the report says.

The solution could be deliberative e-democracy, both to broaden the base of people contributing to planning proposals and to encourage a more constructive debate than automatic opposition.

20th century resemblance

Author Ben Glover says the planning system’s current use of technology – typified by a notice strapped to a lamppost – “often resembles that of the last century".

The report calls on central government to create a digital planning innovation fund, enabling local planning authorities to develop innovative online consultation and engagement tools for planning.

As an example it cites an app developed by Lancaster University that displays planning information on a map and notifies residents of any changes. Users are able to leave comments and engage with others in discussion.

However, even with such tools the planning system in its current guise will find it hard to attract more representative participants.

A "sense of disillusion with consultation and engagement exercises runs deep", the report states. "Those that are already disengaged are likely to continue to be disengaged, even if substantial steps are taken to address this."

Representativeness factor

Rather than merely creating a system open to self-selecting participants, "we may need to consider the merits of decision making systems based not on open participation... but on the selection of participants designed to ensure representativeness."

This could be achieved by citizens' assemblies with members chosen by random ballot. With such approach "we would expect to see the influence of renters and the poor – groups that typically engage less with the planning system – increase, whilst the influence of the retired and homeowners – groups that typically engage more with the planning system – decrease. This could help to get more homes built."

Demos concedes that referring all planning decisions to a citizens’ assembly "would likely bring the planning system to an unacceptable standstill".

Rather, they should be employed on a more strategic level. It recommends that local planning authorities should trial the use of deliberative decision making methods as part of the local plan making process.

Such efforts should be supported by a ring fenced emergency grant to local planning authorities, the report states. However, Glover would not be drawn on how much money might be required.

Image from iStock

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