Published on July 30, 2015

Talking about infrastructure

By Clive Mitchell

Clive Mitchell is Programme Manager at Involve. He is based in the West Midlands and has 30 years experience of working in and with local authorities.

The week before last I was at a fascinating workshop on judgement and uncertainty in planning for nationally significant wind energy infrastructure, co-hosted by the UCL Centre for Law and the Environment and Natural England. It prompted me to reflect on the forms of evidence and information that get ‘let into’ and influence the planning system.

Planning in England is a highly prescribed system, quasi-judicial in nature (especially at the level of nationally significant infrastructure), with a deeply-rooted rule book and a reliance on technical and expert evidence. It is not good – or at least it is immature – at dealing with uncertainty. My reflection is this: is there a place for deliberation within the planning system, to help navigate this uncertainty, and should we create space for some of this deliberation to take place directly with citizens?

Deliberation is one way of handling uncertainty in decision making. It creates space for different views, narratives and evidence to be explored in depth and for the boundaries of uncertainty to be tested. Decisions on nationally significant infrastructure are made following the presentation and advocacy of a range of evidence to planning inspectors. Could deliberation offer something complementary to this approach, by giving inspectors the space to explore and test issues in a more discursive and open way? This approach needn’t necessarily be about introducing new forms of evidence, but could be as simple as introducing a deliberative element to the examination hearings.

But what about taking this a bit further and thinking about the ways in which the views and ideas of citizens can be brought more effectively into infrastructure planning? As it stands, the planning system has a limited number of points where citizens can feed in their views, but the process is far from friendly, understandable and accessible to ordinary citizens, and it is also remarkably one-way, with almost no capacity for reflection with citizens. The system has even less capacity for integrating values into its decision-making: the only place for this seems to be at the policy-setting stage, and it would be informative to critically examine the extent to which public values are in fact deeply understood and applied here. Others have written about the need for better public engagement in infrastructure planning, including the Green Alliance and Dialogue by Design with the UCL Transport Institute.

Let me run a quick thought experiment about what this deliberation with citizens might look like in practice. I’m going to take a local planning example, but there’s no reason why the principles could not be transferred to national infrastructure.

A local authority is organising a public meeting, as part of its consultation process for a wind turbine development. It books a village hall, publicises the meeting and runs it as a ‘top-table’ event, with planning officers on a raised dais, giving presentations to an audience of residents and then offering a question and answer session. Not everyone gets a chance to ask their question, and anxieties don’t get properly explored. The meeting ends up being fractious and adversarial, and it’s a difficult and exhausting experience for the planning officers. Residents leave feeling frustrated.

Now imagine a different scenario. The same venue and participants, but this time the event is organised with council staff and members of the public in mixed, round-table groups. The event is facilitated, and the emphasis is on surfacing anxieties and questions, hearing all points of view, discussion and perhaps even an element of solution-finding. Everyone leaves with greater understanding and insights and a sense that all voices have been heard. Sweetness and light is definitely not guaranteed, but the process has been open, constructive and collaborative. It stands a better chance of providing useful insight and feedback to inform the decision makers.

There are plenty of critiques and challenges to this approach, and I’d welcome a discussion, so please do feel free to comment!

Photo: Earth Infrastructure

3 Responses to “Talking about infrastructure”

  1. Clive Mitchell
    Clive Mitchell
    August 10, 2015 at 9:20 pm

    I had an interesting conversation on Twitter following my blog post, exploring some of the critiques of the deliberative approach (well, “exploring” may not be quite the right description, given the constraints of brevity on Twitter, but you know what I mean!). You can see the conversation here: https://twitter.com/clivemitchell1/status/626671210332557313

  2. August 20, 2015 at 11:54 am

    Clive, I think you’re absolutely right about the benefits of the deliberative approach and giving more people the opportunity to be more involved.

    It’s not always easy though and we need to explore and develop ways of going even further. I’ve been at a number of events (several recently) with people working at tables as you propose that still manage to be top down. It’s partly about the attitude of the organisers (being genuinely open, wanting to listen, prepared to take away and act on ideas etc.) but also the details of the facilitation, such as giving ample opportunity for every individual to contribute (you can be locked out of a discussion with even 3 or 4 people at the table) such as by writing their own ideas on post-its. You also need ways of capturing the wide range of contributions, which is not easy. A lot of the good stuff is often in the details and examples, but you risk being swamped with too much information, much of it of ‘low value’ (but who judges?). I’m sure there must be lots of opportunities for better use of technology (both within and outside meetings).

    So thanks for your post. Certainly something where more work would be worthwhile.

    • Clive Mitchell
      Clive Mitchell
      August 20, 2015 at 2:25 pm

      Many thanks Adrian. You’re right: who sets the agenda can be a key constraint, and their openness to other views – and even going that extra step to co-production – has an impact on the value of the engagement. And as always, good event design and facilitation are critical. The use of technology is an interesting one – lots of possible avenues here – but as you suggest, it still comes down to how genuine it all is.

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