Community involvement sits at the heart of the planning process. Evidence shows that enabling people to participate in the decisions that affect them improves confidence in dealing with local issues, builds bridges between citizens and the government, fosters engagement, and increases social capital. It also increases people’s understanding of how decisions are taken, which can lead to more effective decision making. It can encourage a sense of ownership for local people in how their area will evolve, potentially helping communities to embrace developments that might otherwise cause conflict such as housing or redevelopment schemes. It is therefore unfortunate that “planning” and “housing” issues are outside the scope of the Innovation in Democracy Programme (IiDP), an ongoing government trial into the involvement of citizens in decision-making. However, the recent announcement on the IiDP’s pilot schemes, each of which relate to the future of town centres or improving public transport, shows that the programme could still be of interest to developers.

Innovation in Democracy Programme

The IiDP was originally announced in Summer 2018 as part of the UK Government’s Civil Society Strategy:

“The government will launch the innovation in democracy programme to pilot participatory democracy approaches, whereby people are empowered to deliberate and participate in the decisions that affect their communities. The government will work with local authorities to trial face-to-face deliberation (such as citizens’ juries) complemented by online civic tech tools to increase broad engagement and transparency.”

The programme seeks to involve citizens in decision making at local government level through innovative models of participatory democracy. The aims of the IiDP are to:

  • increase the capability of local people to have a greater say over decisions that affect their communities and their everyday lives;
  • encourage new relationships and build trust between citizens and local authorities; and
  • strengthen local civil society by encouraging participation in local institutions.

The government originally stated that it would be looking to support to eight to ten local authorities to pilot “deliberative democracy” through citizens’ assemblies. However, following an expression of interest process, only three local authorities have been selected. These authorities will be responsible for convening a randomly selected, but representative, sample of residents to contribute on the following policy decisions for their areas:

  1. Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council – Future of town centres;
  2. Greater Cambridge Partnership (Cambridgeshire County Council, Cambridge City Council, South Cambridgeshire District Council) – Improving public transport and tackling congestion; and
  3. Test Valley Borough Council – Future of waste and recycling and / or vitality of town centres

Citizens’ assemblies

Citizens’ assemblies, in which key local issues are put in the hands of a group of citizens, are gaining traction thanks in part to government support to programmes like this, as well as council initiatives. The Brexit deadlock may also be partly responsible as arguably it has cast a shadow over the parliamentary democratic process. Citizens’ assemblies also tend to be quite high-profile events which may explain why they are gaining more publicity, but whether they will change the face of decision making awaits to be seen.

This week, more than 100 specially selected members of the public are convening in a citizens’ assembly to discuss Britain’s 2050 emissions target. They will spend four weekends listening to evidence from experts on how climate policy and science will affect the UK and then offer their opinions on how the UK can meet the “net zero” emissions target by 2050.

Lessons for planning?

Bearing in mind how many ways there are for members of the public to get involved in planning decisions, such as making representations on planning applications or appeals, participating in the preparation of development plans and strategies, and participating in the preparation of other policy documents or guidance, lessons learned from this programme may be useful to planning after all.