Experts and industry leaders gathered to discuss findings from ‘Choices for Planning: challenges for infrastructure and development’, a new study undertaken by Copper, Womble Bond Dickinson and Barton Willmore. Copper’s Pippa Gibbs Joubert reflects on what might be on the horizon for UK planning.

With unparalleled levels of need for housing and a huge amount of infrastructure and development either in delivery or in the pipeline, an industry conversation about how the UK planning framework could evolve to better respond to national need couldn’t be more timely.

The workshop explored two ways we could do this, which were:

  • Optimising accessibility with virtual reality that could bring projects to life and engage stakeholders on a deeper level;
  • Using artificial intelligence to improve efficiency in analysis, which could tighten timelines and result in greater accuracy in terms of understanding themes and patterns in stakeholder preferences and behaviour.

These are just two tactics that came out of last week’s workshop – but more notable is the emerging attitude that these tactics reflect. Leading voices are recognising that by taking an innovative approach to stakeholder engagement, you can drive down project risk; increase certainty; reduce timelines; and ultimately, deliver a better return on the investment into the project.

The Development Consent Order (DCO) process codifies consultation, serving to enshrine stakeholder engagement requirements in English law. While some planning professionals and promoters recognise the statutory consultation obligations as progress towards a more inclusive planning process, there is also a risk of project teams adopting a transactional, ‘tick-box’ approach to engagement, instead of considering the effect of their engagement on stakeholders.

As Copper’s director of major projects Andrew Weaver said:

“In general, people don’t react to a planning process. When people do react negatively, it’s partly because they feel projects happen ‘to them’, not ‘for them’. People want to know what projects mean, the benefits, and what’s in it for them.”

Regardless of the statutory requirements, systems or obligations that promoters are required to work under, stakeholders’ needs remain the same.

Early, considered engagement gives promoters the chance to identify and iron out any issues before consultation, paving the way for constructive discourse on specific issues while maintaining consensus around the opportunity the development provides. And with the proliferation of artificial intelligence in everyday life, what is the opportunity for stakeholder engagement?

Proposals could take a quantum leap in terms of accessibility if virtual reality was incorporated in consultation; allowing stakeholders to get a feel for what the ‘end product’ could bring. While technology like this offers no guarantees of project popularity, it can offer reassurance and vision to plans and ideas, allowing stakeholders to experience new sites and streets, and navigate the benefits investment could bring.

Enhancing public understanding helps progress public reactions beyond a generalised fear of change, allowing for meaningful conversation about the points the developers need to hear about.

But simply deploying the latest technology will never be enough.

To make the planning system work for everyone, industry needs to embrace the stakeholder engagement principles and spirit that were set out in Planning Act 2008, whether or not the project is required to do so by statutory law. Despite a framework that can feel entrenched in legality and obligation, we should view it as a baseline onto which we can proactively build best practice.

This should include early stakeholder engagement with ‘plain English’ materials along narratives that are relevant to stakeholders, and an innovative approach that uses the tools available to us.