Consultation at a crossroads
The long-awaited consultation on reforming the NSIP consenting process opened last week, after the government set out its intention to make the process ‘better, faster, greener, fairer and more resilient’ in February.
Of the number of changes that are recommended, one that sticks out is the proposal to introduce an early ‘adequacy of consultation’ milestone during the pre-application stage. Essentially, this would mean that plans for consultation are checked by the Planning Inspectorate and local authorities to make sure they are proportionate before they are carried out.
The rationale for this is as follows: a lack of guidance about what may be construed as ‘adequate’ consultation is causing developers to over-consult to ensure their application is accepted for Examination, leaving communities fatigued, projects over-budget and timelines delayed.
It’s clear that some communities are feeling under pressure from large volumes of national infrastructure - take the three solar NSIPs currently being examined at the same time, proposed around the village of Sturton by Stow (with a fourth just concluding statutory consultation). But when you read through the consultation reports, the feeling of being over-consulted doesn’t exactly jump out at you – in fact, it doesn’t feature at all. Complaints are far more likely to critique the confusing Examination process than an abundance of consultation events.
The findings of our National Planning Barometer underline this. Carried out on an annual basis, this year we asked councillors for the first time about their experiences of dealing with NSIPs. When asked what prevents communities from engaging in the DCO process, councillors most frequently cited the complexity of the regime (20%), followed by a lack of engagement and consultation (18%).
It is then slightly bizarre that the response is to introduce yet another milestone into the DCO process. I would suggest that this comes from a misunderstanding about why these complaints come about in the first place - it is not that communities are being over-consulted, it is that they feel they are being underheard.
The complexity of the process and often the projects themselves means that it is hard for residents to believe that their voices are genuinely being taken into account. This often leads to protracted engagement over the lifetime of the application, with issues that are often beyond scope left unresolved and festering well into the Examination. To press the point, adding another ‘box' for developers to 'tick’ is unlikely to change the perception that consultation only happens because developers are made to do it.
To be fair, attempts to acknowledge this tension have been made elsewhere in the proposals. As part of the reforms, updated guidance would be issued to ensure developers set out how they have considered issues raised by local communities in their application and which ones remain unresolved. In short, taking the new PADSS approach to reporting community feedback.
While this sounds relatively uncontroversial, it also runs the risk of simplifying the dialogue between communities and developers and ignoring the habitual scepticism that charges interactions in village halls. Often this mistrust leaves resolved questions in fact unresolved and – again - kicked down the road into Examination until they can be answered by a different voice.
The very nature of NSIPs should lend themselves well to addressing these issues. These projects evolve over a longer period of time with a higher level of flexibility built in compared with other planning applications. Opportunities to demonstrate change as a result of consultation are plenty if community concerns are well understood from the outset and a developer is willing to listen.
Greater emphasis should be placed on front-loading consultation at the point where communities have the greatest chance to influence plans, while also being clear about what genuinely can be influenced. Demonstrating this flexibility and transparency can begin to build confidence and trust, helping communities to find their role in the process and leading to a well-informed application.
As a final point, it also strikes me that any good look at the current system should interrogate what we mean when we say ‘community.’ More often than not, this is a label for a small (but vocal) minority of local residents that are taken to represent hundreds (if not thousands) of people, rather than just themselves. Steps should be taken to recognise and address this imbalance – whether that’s by making this clearer in the reporting process, or by encouraging developers to go beyond opt-in consultation methods to achieve a more representative viewpoint. Which is where SEC Newgate can help.
Having written about consultation, it would be remiss of me not to highlight that you can of course share your views on the reforms here. The consultation is open from 25 July to 19 September 2023.