It is widely acknowledged that the UK’s council planners are having a hard time of it. They are under pressure from central government to deliver new housing at an unparalleled rate, satisfy local developers’ appetites for “conditionless” consents and assure communities that new development will not impinge on their way of life.

All this at a time of ongoing austerity meaning departments are understaffed and poorly resourced.

Our planning system sits in the centre of a triangle with developers, communities and local authorities at each of its points. Good development and sustainable communities should be the result of effective collaboration between all stakeholders.

However, this is frequently not the case, with agreed development plans seen as the ‘least worst option’ by all parties, in a begrudging compromise. Planning permissions are greeted by a feeling of relief, rather than celebration. Surely there must be a better means of cooperation than this?

Engagement is a crucial process in ensuring development plans are shared openly with local authorities and communities. However, in order to be truly effective, the process needs to be wholly collaborative, and not just a few exhibition boards slung up in a community centre on a Tuesday afternoon.

Affected residents should have a real say in design development, with architects integrating responses in their designs. And responses should not just be formed by those with the time to do so; usually retired professionals. Effective engagement means talking to everyone. It means door knocking, helping residents to form groups and discuss how they want development to proceed in their locality.

An approach that looks at the “fabric and feel of a place”

Our involvement on the development of East Tilbury, Essex is a prime example of this. At the beginning of the project, before designs had started to progress, the community was invited to design workshops with the project team.

These informed the kind of places that people from the area wanted to see – not just the infrastructure, car parking or brick type – the real fabric and feel of the place. This ground up approach creates places that are responsive not just to the existing built environment, but also the incumbent community.

Even with the most effective engagement programme, it can be hard to filter and prioritise responses. Different groups might be calling for different things; recreation, school places, cycling infrastructure. Amidst the clamour of voices it can be difficult to elicit pertinent issues and underlying community requirements. Failure to listen effectively can mean the difference between proceeding with the community behind you or against you.

The new Sustainable Development Scorecard

By utilising an effective framework to manage engagement, issues relating to development proposals can be recorded, tracked and prioritised. The Sustainable Development Scorecard, launched in November 2017, provides such a framework in a free, accessible online format.

Developed around the guidance provided by the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), the Scorecard allows stakeholders to measure the extent to which development proposals comply with the NPPF’s definition of sustainable development. Users are asked a series of questions about the scheme and respond on a five-point scale from ‘strongly agree’ to ‘strongly disagree’.

At the end of the assessment process, users are presented with two scores; one which assesses how closely the scheme agrees with the NPPF’s definition, and one which determines how balanced the scheme is across the three pillars of economic, social and environmental sustainability.

A means for everyone to get behind the engagement process

By employing the Scorecard as part of the engagement process, developers and planning case officers can easily see where development proposals meet local community requirements and where locals feel things need to be improved. Pertinent issues, such as community facilities, public transport or air quality, can then be addressed directly, in a cooperative manner.

Effective engagement and good collaborative development processes are not new. But they are not widespread or mainstream, and are deemed to be the preserve of developers or local authorities with deeper pockets than most. The Scorecard provides a means for everyone to get behind the engagement process to have their say in an organised and easily understood manner, which will hopefully drive better development across the country.