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Public trust in planning: is it too late to turn things around?

Posted by  David Janner-Klausner 

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Last week Grosvenor, one of the UK's largest property companies (and Commonplace client), published the results of research they commissioned on public trust in developers and in the planning system[1].

2%. That's the headline figure.

Just 2% of YouGov's representative sample trust private developers.

7%. A bit larger but in some ways worse - 7% is the proportion of the sample who proclaimed trust in local authorities "to make decisions about a large scale development that are in the best interests of the area".

The authors conclusion: "These findings confirm that public trust in planning is low and suggest that it will take a significantly different approach to cut through the lack of interest and likely scepticism that any new initiatives will face."

At Commonplace we couldn't agree more. We applaud Grosvenor and other developers and public bodies who are looking for ways to build trust in the processes that shape our public realm, housing and transport for decades.

Trust rests on integrity and on communication. Virtually every development decision involves necessary trade-offs, at least in the short term. Indeed, much of the art of local politics is managing delayed gratification: after the disruption will come a benefit. Some people's needs will be met this year, others may have to wait longer. With a decision, there are disappointed citizens who may feel ignored and disinclined to trust the system or engage with it. I think it is fair to assume that in some cases "distrust" is synonymous with "disappointment". That conflation may contribute to the spectacularly low trust figures in the Grosvenor survey. 

The nature of public discourse - much of it having now shifted to social media - does not help. Social media platforms thrive on adversity and on amplifying people's previously held opinions rather than presenting alternatives. Anger makes people spend time on social media and helps sell advertising. Facebook defined its mission (2017) as "Bringing the World Closer Together"[2] but arguably it has ended up supporting factionalism, fake news and turning people on each other.[3]

At Commonplace we have believed, since our inception in 2013, that trust is inexorably bound with transparency. Our goal has been to build a trusted platform for public engagement in processes that shape the public realm; one which provide opportunities for varied opinions to be expressed and be seen and, importantly, maintain a clear record of the discussion behind the planning and development decisions.

This is far from obvious. Establishing the provenance of a development in terms of the discussion, consultation, planning application process and decisions on public benefit can be extremely difficult even for planning professionals. Materials are dispersed between different websites; are couched in highly technical language; public inputs are often invisible to the very public who contributed them. If you are a member of the public and anything you say seems to end up in an impenetrable black box, it's small wonder people don't trust the planning and development processes and actors. When I went to university, a newcomer to the UK, a Scottish fellow student with far more experience of drinking cultures than I ever had or acquired since warned me never to enter a pub I could not see into. I never became a great pub crawler but took the lesson to planning and local government. How can you trust a process that you can't see? And how can you trust the motives of those who keep the processes hidden?

Now, as the Grosvenor research shows by its very existence, the mood is slowly changing. The Grosvenor CEO writes in the introduction to the Discussion Paper:

"...a lack of trust in the planning system is bad for democracy. The planning system can offer one of the most immediate expressions of democratic accountability. Large-scale developments are shaped by public policy and decided by politicians. Proposals are open to public scrutiny and should, in my view, be formed by many more people, and a more diverse range of voices, than they are now."

Last month Commonplace reached what feels like a significant landmark: Commonplace websites have been viewed by over 700,000 unique visitors - exceeding 1% of the UK population. Half of these visitors were in the past 12 months, so the pace is accelerating. Social media - Facebook and Twitter - are important vehicles for driving traffic to Commonplace's online platforms - but the way we gather and present opinions facilitates plurality and attempts nuance. In planning and development decision, I believe, a lack of nuance often indicates a lack of integrity. Things are simply not that simple, much of the time. Hence trust rests of communication and integrity. 

We are also building a catalogue of development provenance. This is an important feature because the provenance of decisions is often very difficult to unpack in retrospect (and sometimes even in real time). The decline of local reporting has meant that local capacity for independent investigation and disclosure has been lost, and considerable local knowledge of planning processes[4]. So for our part, when the direct public engagement for a project ends, we continue to host the Commonplace website. At any point, residents can refer back to Commonplace to see what was promised, what the public said - and compare this to what they see developing in front of them. People may still be unhappy but one hopes they will at least not feel deceived. If they do, they have the evidence to hand to hold developers and local authorities to account.

Finally, there is the question of obtaining a wide variety of views on development. The Grosvenor Report states (page 10):

"Our polling indicates few local people get involved in the public conversation about large-scale development proposals, and that those who do are more likely to think that development has a negative impact on their local area. It suggests the approach developers take to consulting the public on planning proposals is only either attracting the disgruntled few or souring perceptions, or both."

In contrast to this conventional picture, Commonplace attracts more varied and more balanced views in many cases. By extending the reach of public engagement we also bring in more diverse views. 75% of Commonplace respondents are under the age of 40 - a group rarely seen in public meetings and exhibitions.

There is a long road to recovering trust and placing it on new foundations of transparency, honesty and dialogue. Technology is not a panacea - not sufficient on its own to create trust. But it is necessary – because technology can unlock transparency, and transparency can unlock trust.

 

[1] "Rebuilding Trust - Research Finding Summary" and "Rebuilding Trust - Discussion Paper" - both from Grosvenor; downloaded on 11.7.2019 from https://www.grosvenor.com/our-businesses/grosvenor-britain-ireland/rebuilding-trust

[2] https://www.facebook.com/notes/mark-zuckerberg/bringing-the-world-closer-together/10154944663901634/

[3] The role of polarisation in the Facebook business model is discussed in detail in "Zucked" by Roger Mcnamee (Harper Collins)

[4] See https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/may/07/read-all-about-it-how-local-papers-decline-is-starving-communities-of-news and https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/12/communities-losing-local-radio

Posted by David Janner-Klausner

Co-founder and director of Customer Success

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