Some Thoughts On Planning Reform – When To Consult?

I’ve just been reading an article in the Sydney Morning Herald about the state of Planning in NSW.

The article quotes a submission to the Independent Review Panel on planning by the Planning Institute of Australia which laments the culture of fear in the industry which, they seem to suggest, is killing creativity and innovation among planners. It’s an interesting read but what really grabbed my attention was this:

Many of the few hundred submission received, focused on the need for community consultation at the strategic planning level rather than on an ad hoc basis.

It worries me a bit.

As a former planner, I can agree wholeheartedly that it is desirable to have meaningful long-term regional strategic plans in place and to base shorter-term or more local decisions on these plans. It’s a tough proposition to argue with.

The problem that I see here is that this ‘planners utopia’ ignores the preference of the community in terms of what they want to talk about. I’ve managed enough online engagement projects to know that when you talk about the really big picture the community is considerably less engaged and interested than when you talk about the tangible, the real and the shorter term.

I’m worried that the thinking behind these submissions could lead to the community being invited to comment every 3 to 5 years on issues of strategy but ignored when important local issues arise on a day to day basis.

Strategic planning is a real skill – some might say and art. It’s something that there are university degrees dedicated to. This is because it’s hard. It’s hard to project forward, it’s hard to envisage the implications of major long terms changes to our surroundings and it’s hard to understand the language of strategic planning – ever tried reading an LEP?

I can see why some might like a world where the ‘community say’ is dealt with in one go and then the technocrats make the decisions. I think that would be an effective cloak for cutting the community out of planning decisions.

In reality, the community are far more given to responding to shorter term visceral issues. Things that are actually going to impact on their lives.

The planners need to become adept at taking the community pulse on these ‘ad hoc’ but tangible issues that they deal with all the time. This includes individual DAs but also a whole lot of stuff that sits outside the traditional realm of planning. They should talk to their colleagues charged with managing infrastructure, running social programs and economic development. The community will engage on these micro issues. Listening carefully to the community on these issues rather than just during the bureaucratic process of preparing a strategic planning document will arm planners with the ammunition they need to see off the vested interest groups and actually reflect community needs in their decisions.

We don’t need less engagement, we need more. If planners are hearing only from sectional interest groups then they are asking the wrong people the wrong questions and using the wrong tools and methodologies to listen.

Photo Credits: Makarios Consulting, LLC

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