A few weeks ago at the urging of a friend, I went to the National Theatre to watch Grenfell: In The Words of Survivors by Gillian Slovo. The play was created using interviews with people who lived in the tower, and it goes into detail about the multiple failures that led to 72 people losing their lives. 18 of them children.
As someone born and bred in London, it is difficult to not feel personally affected by this tragedy. As someone who works on issues to do with the built environment and the effects associated policies can have on people, I wanted to find out more about the role planning had played in what happened. And with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) consulting on reforms to Local Plan-making, it is a good time to ask if they will ensure that communities are given enough opportunity to engage meaningfully in the planning process in future.
At present, residents don’t have enough time to engage with the Local Plan consultations that must take place before those plans can be approved. There are two parts to the process – called Regulation 18 and Regulation 19 – both of which are only six weeks long. There is also a right to be heard in a public examination by the Planning Inspectorate. The new DLUHC proposal is that residents get an additional four weeks to give feedback at an earlier “gateway assessment” stage. But although it would be good if that extra time was provided, it would not be good enough.
Engaging meaningfully with the planning process can entail communities getting to grips with something entirely new to them, complete with its strange terminology. Suggestions from residents and communities at the early scoping stage should make for better and more inclusive neighbourhoods, but sufficient time needs to be allowed for it.
Another of DLUHC’s ideas is using digital tools to boost engagement with so-called “hard to reach groups”, with funds provided for PropTech and other online consultation resources. This is a fine idea, but without more emphasis on engaging with communities in person, it will only scratch the surface.
Even more important is how local authorities respond to the comments and responses they receive. In the case of Grenfell, residents were either brushed off or flat out ignored by the local planning authority. Online resources were used to express concerns about plans for the area, including that building a school next to the tower would make it difficult for emergency vehicles to have adequate access. However, these were largely ignored by the Tenant Management Organisation, which was responsible for the tower and its adjacent estate, the council and the developer Rydon.
As the government consultation notes, online engagement is not new. Organisations such as CommonPlace and BuiltID already provide local authorities and developers with software and support. Many London boroughs, including Waltham Forest (Town Hall pictured) and Hackney, as well as local authorities far beyond the capital, such as Rutland County Council, provide consultation opportunities on their websites. But relying on these, even with more resources, does little to solve the issue of poor relationships with “hard to reach communities” if no notice is taken of those already using them.
During Slovo’s play, we heard that the only way residents were able to stop some of the plans going ahead was by banding together and sharing the knowledge they had collected over time. Through door-knocked, they had conversations with each other and collected local knowledge and skills that could be used to make their case. Communities would be better served if there was more emphasis put on supporting engagement opportunities in-person and enabling people to ask face-to-face questions. This might also make it harder to ignore residents’ concerns.
Another problem with Local Plans, as many people would agree, is that they are time-consuming – requiring an average of seven years to complete at present – and take up a lot of local authority time and money. DLUHC is saying they should be produced in 30 months. Granted, the department has provided funds to the Local Government Association for graduate planner programmes to help boost capacity, but this, along with the proposed planning skills delivery fund to help clear backlogs, won’t alter the fact that planners are struggling now.
Without allocating more resources to those planners it will be almost impossible to produce local plans in 30 months, let alone to properly involve residents in them. The time pressure could also result in authorities making risky and potentially deadly decisions in order to meet deadlines.
Local Plans are an important tool for planning. They form the blueprint for the future of local areas, and it is vital that communities play a role in their development. When watching Slovo’s play I was struck by how much pride residents had, not just in Grenfell Tower itself, but in the borough of Kensington & Chelsea as a whole.
They were proud that they lived in close proximity to some of the most expensive properties in London. Many were part of multi-generational families living in the area. They deserved the opportunity to be heard, but the system did not make that possible. The DLUHC’s proposed changes to Local Plan consultations will not change that. The government should instead take this opportunity to help local planning teams put community voices at the centre of the Local Plan process and help ensure that a tragedy like Grenfell can’t happen again.
Denean Rowe is a Project Manager at the Town and Country Planning Association and Planning Aid for London. Follow Denean on X/Twitter. If you value On London and its writers, become a supporter or a paid subscriber to Dave Hill’s Substack for just £5 a month or £50 a year.