Analysis: Building trust as well as homes

Grosvenor is the latest to report a lack of trust in placemaking and the planning system, and it is among those working to build it, finds Josephine Smit.

Grosvenor is working with Oxford City Council to deliver a neighbourhood of around 900 homes at Barton Park, in Oxford, and promote social cohesion
Grosvenor is working with Oxford City Council to deliver a neighbourhood of around 900 homes at Barton Park, in Oxford, and promote social cohesion

A new survey has just confirmed research carried out in Scotland more than two years ago, finding that there is a lack of trust between communities, planning authorities and developers to deliver a quality outcome for all. That is bad for UK homebuilding targets, for the places being made, for people and their communities and for local democracy.

Landowner and developer Grosvenor canvassed more than 2,000 members of the UK public earlier this year, to gauge their trust in placemaking and the planning system for large scale development. The survey found that when it came to such development, just two per cent of the public trusted developers and only seven per cent trusted local authorities. The findings were described by Grosvenor chief executive Craig McWilliam as, "a significant wake up call to all involved in large scale development".  

The public’s views echo research findings published by the Scottish government in 2017, as well as points made by the Town and Country Planning Association’s Raynsford Review of Planning, published late last year. It also provides further food for thought for the government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, which has just published its interim report, Creating space for beauty. That report sets out many positive ways in which communities are being engaged in the development process, as well as the legal duty to consult and the growth of neighbourhood planning. But it also recognises that there has been a breakdown in trust, quoting evidence from one civic society, which said, "this process of collaborative engagement is now practically defunct."

Building trust with the community

Grosvenor has pledged to take its own actions to help build trust with the communities in which it works. It says it will make it easier for the public to weigh the value and costs created by development, by outlining – in plain English – the anticipated social and environmental benefit created for a community locally and more widely, as well as the expected financial risks and returns for Grosvenor. It has pledged to increase transparency in the consultation, decisionmaking and design process for development, by enabling scrutiny from an independent and objective commentator. And it has also committed to improving its consultation process.

It is also planning to establish an industry working group, with representatives from developers, the public sector and civic society – to develop a set of joint pledges. McWilliam says, "Developers and councils all need to be involved to engage more people in the planning process, to explain ourselves better, to raise interest and understanding in the choices that have to be made and to increase transparency."

Building trust with stakeholders

Mistrust extends to local stakeholders, as the Raynsford Review acknowledged when it quoted a parish councillor saying, "Planning is…not about people, it’s about greed."

"Developers fear that planning committees will make political decisions, while planning committees fear developers will be focused on their profits," says Michael Hardware. Hardware works across private and public sector as director of planning and property at public relations company Chelgate, deputy cabinet member for economic development at Essex County Council and vice chair of its development and regulation committee, and a district councillor at Harlow Council.

Efforts to build trust between developers and planning committee members have to be careful to avoid lobbying individual interests, says Hardware. He points to the positive learning opportunities that can be provided by site visits, like those for Kent Developers’ Group, an association that brings land and property owners, and commercial and residential developers together with local authorities.

In September, Ashford Borough Council committee members will be taking the first of a planned series of tours by Kent councils to exemplar sites. "They’ll be seeing examples of good placemaking, and developers and committee members will be able to discuss what makes a good place as well as the obstacles faced," says Hardware, who hopes to see the initiative repeated in Essex.

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