It is essential that we fill in the gaps and develop a consistent, national approach to community consultation before we start designing and building, says Sadie Morgan


I have always been invested and interested in new models for residential development. From growing up on a cooperative commune, to designing houses with sliding roofs or made entirely as prefab flatpacks, to helping meet national housing targets as a board member for Homes England.

Aside from the workplace, homes are the places where we spend most of our time and make most of our memories. Second only to our families and friends, they are the thing that can make us feel most secure, safe and nurtured.

It doesn’t take much to imagine that, when they don’t do that, homes can have a huge adverse effect on the way that people feel and develop. When a home does not do what it needs to, the absence of its greatest comforts can significantly alter a person’s quality of life.

How do we ensure that we keep ourselves up to date with what people need from their homes to feel protected and happy?

So, as designers, how do we ensure that we keep ourselves up to date with what people need from their homes to feel protected and happy? The most powerful way to find out about how people want to live is to ask them – which is why community consultation is one of, if not the most, important stages in any residential development’s lifecycle.

When an architect is asked to design a private house, they develop it in parallel and in constant communication with their client; usually the person who will live in it. With larger-scale development – development on the scale of entire neighbourhoods – this consistency in dialogue, ideas sharing and approval seeking is far more difficult to achieve. National community consultation in planning therefore is still not a perfect process.

There has been a lot of attention given to stressing the gaps in public consultation. Last year, the RIBA highlighted important biases in the process within its response to the House of Lords’ built environment committee’s inquiry on “Meeting the UK’s Housing Demand”. It pointed to the discrepancy between older and younger generations and how much more likely the former is to get involved in the planning process.

The response highlighted their different levels of free time, experience and income, and how this impacts decisions on new development, which in turn contributes to a shortage of affordable housing. But this is only one of the problems.

Discovering how to tackle the rest of the complex and intertwined issues with public consultation in planning has been a recent focus for the Quality of Life Foundation, set up in 2018 to ensure that wellbeing is made central to the way we design and develop homes and neighbourhoods. Our team has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to develop a research project that we call Community Consultation for Quality of Life (CCQOL).

This major endeavour presents a new, map-based model of community consultation that takes place both online and face-to-face across the UK. The project’s main aims are, firstly, to allow people to input into digital maps so that we can measure and assess the impact of changes to their neighbourhoods, and, secondly, to develop best practice guidelines for how community consultation and engagement is carried out.

In line with the second aim, CCQOL has collaborated with CACHE to publish a ground-breaking review of research on participation, engagement and consultation in planning with a focus on the UK. Within this review, the research team has put forward the recommendation for a consultation “code of conduct” – in other words, a set of guidelines for those involved in the process of public participation.

The planning appeal system itself originates from the postwar reconstruction era, which is now about eight decades old

The code of conduct needs to build on robust research knowledge of what works in public consultation, establishing the standards that are needed to ensure necessary levels of inclusion are achieved.

Aside from the problem of certain user groups being less inclined to participate in consultation, the code of conduct addresses ways to tackle other inclusion deterrents, such as the dominance of technical language in planning documents, hostile consultation settings and information imbalances – all of which serve to increase public disenfranchisement.

The research highlights how the planning appeal system itself originates from the postwar reconstruction era, which is now about eight decades old. If we are to return to the question of what people want out of their homes now, surely we also need to question how we change our system around asking them about it.

As with many issues in architecture and development, problems are often being fixed slowly and in their own disparate ways by practitioners and public alike who are working singularly within their districts to develop places that make for a good and healthy place to live. One of the projects being developed at dRMM, my own architectural practice, has shone a light on the value of truly authentic resident driven design.

Our team has been working collaboratively with several other practices on the redevelopment of the Tustin Estate in south-east London – a project that has been actively shaped by the needs and desires of its intergenerational community. It began with a “residents’ manifesto”, a set of absolute must-haves from the people who will live on the estate. Our team worked to develop this into a formal design code, and this document will go on to guide all future development on the estate.

Finding ways to better unite place-makers and the people who will inhabit them will always be a challenge, but it is one we need to tackle head on and with vigour. Homes are the lifeblood of how we develop both as individuals and communities. We need to make sure that people are placed more firmly at the heart of them.

Sadie Morgan is a co-founding director of dRMM, chair of the Quality of Life Foundation and a design advocate for the GLA