Planning and Participation - by Paul O'Hare

Paul O'Hare, author of the recently published book Planning and Participation, considers the social benefits and the potential pitfalls of public participation in planning decisions... 




The necessity of public participation in planning decision making can seem axiomatic. Yet in 1961, not long before participation was to be mainstreamed through planning systems across national contexts, the academic Lewis Keeble objected to the movement for participation in these rather acerbic terms:  

“Resort has often been had to the pernicious practice of canvassing nearby residents for their views on the application before determining it. To those unfamiliar with the real circumstances this might appear an example of what the Americans call grass roots democracy, but it is quite indefensible.” (Keeble, 1961, p.161)

The profession – and those that train them – are considerably more enlightened today, with participatory initiatives, often very innovative in form, threaded through virtually all planning practice. However, participation remains one of the most challenging and contested dimensions of a planner’s duty.

There are many theories as to why participation poses so many seemingly insurmountable challenges for planning systems. There is an ever-enduring tension between ensuring decisions are democratically sound and providing them in the timely manner that provides the certainty demanded by all those with a vested interest in planning outcomes. Some are concerned that participatory practice can raise unachievable expectations or exacerbate local conflict. In very practical terms, participation can be expensive, both in terms of the time and resources expended, not to mention the patience of participants.

Others, reflecting the concern raised by Lewis Keeble suggest (albeit in hushed tones) that the pendulum has swung rather too far toward public engagement; that ‘laypeople’ may generate more heat than light in decision-making. And, from an even more sceptical stance, there is a compelling analytical narrative within academic circles that doubt the very sincerity of participation efforts, proposing that they lack democratic authenticity and credibility. Such accounts propose that participation is a façade or a sideshow that distracts from where real power and decision-making authority lies.  

For many planners, organising participation must feel like a rather thankless task. Many members of the public report an intense distrust of planners and the development process, deeply held attitudes that can taint all subsequent efforts to engage the public. Planners can frequently find themselves rather vainly trying to drum up any interest in plans amongst an apathetic public.

Yet on other occasions, planners can find themselves mediating between a diverse range of vociferous publics and stakeholders, each with fiercely held opinions on planning issues, feverishly vying for attention. Such instances are a reminder that planners act, not in a vacuum, but within a rich ecosystem of interest groups, community organisations and active, engaged individuals.

Illustrating the richness of this ecosystem, the recently formed Community Planning Alliance coordinates and promotes grassroots campaigns. They have produced a map registering almost 500 environmental campaigns across Britain, an impressive feat, but one that surely only scratches the surface of the sheer range and diversity of groups that exist to engage at some level with the planning system.


Save Greater Manchester Greenbelt march and demonstration


There are, too, critical questions to be asked of the public and civil society. In particular, how can organisations that claim to represent a wider body of people demonstrate that they do so, and beyond this, how can they be held to account?

The task of navigating complex landscapes of participation can seem daunting.

Against this context, Planning and Participation provides insights into the challenges for participatory practice and identifies innovation that might offer more efficacious opportunities for public engagement. Rather than providing a technical or practical guide for engagement in planning, of which there are many, the book outlines the principles underlying participation and critical concerns regarding its articulation through practice. To do so, it draws inspiration from the wealth of critical academic scholarship written in this field, emphasising probing, reflective questions for those assessing their own approach to participatory practice.

Ultimately, it is hoped the book enables planners and public alike to reflect on their participatory practice and to ask incisive questions of what we want from participation, and how the potential for more fulfilling participatory practice, for planners and the public alike, might be realised.


 Paul O'Hare's book Planning and Participation is available now. Click HERE.