Public consultation is becoming a political imperative when it comes to new building schemes. But do current methods really get the community involved or merely pay lip-service to the democratic process?
Public consultation is a growth industry. No longer a question of clients and councils pacifying the local community with tea and sympathy at the town hall, it is a sophisticated business. The panoply of techniques being used includes interactive exhibitions, focus groups, citizens' juries, citizens' workshops, Internet debates and community planning weekends. More than just a statutory planning requirement, public consultation is key to the government's urban regeneration policy. The £800m New Deal for Communities has taken consultation to new levels, with representatives of the public driving the development process.

Last Wednesday, the DETR and the Architecture Foundation hosted a conference to promote the use of the latter's "roadshows" as a model of public consultation for New Deal for Communities projects. In addition, the foundation is to publish a DETR-sponsored handbook on consultation, to coincide with the urban white paper in October. In making residents of sink estates the protagonists of regeneration, the government no doubt hopes to eradicate the suspicion and resentment left by the social experiments of the 1960s. For architects, it is a chance to win public confidence. Developers and housebuilders realise that investing in consultation will save them money and headaches later. And in the current political climate, they have to be seen to do it properly.

Developers of the UK's landmark regeneration schemes are certainly investing serious time and money in consultation. SBC, owner of London's South Bank Centre arts complex, has already put masterplanner Rick Mather through a Herculean nine months of consultation, co-ordinated and assessed by consultation specialist Opinion Leader Research. Extensive consultations are also in progress over the proposed £1bn redevelopment of Elephant & Castle, the £250m Project Vauxhall regeneration scheme, the £30m redevelopment of Swiss Cottage, the proposed pedestrianisation of Trafalgar Square and the new masterplans for East Manchester and Liverpool city centre. A second wave of New Deal for Communities projects that must apply for DETR funding by 14 April are also setting about consulting the public on masterplan options.

Public consultation is just courtesy. If you want a roof extension, you go to see the neighbours first

Piers Gough, Partner, CZWG

But what does it all amount to? Is public consultation being carried out in the democratic spirit intended by the government, with a view to harnessing the public's ideas and meeting their aspirations? Or is it used as a cynical consensus-building exercise by self-serving developers? The difference is in the timing, say architects. If the architect consults the public before designing anything, it is a sign that it is taking the process seriously. The other kind of consultation, says HTA Architects director Ben Derbyshire, is "where a project is rumbling on and requires public support, so a PR campaign masquerading as a public consultation is mounted to get consent".

Alsop & Störmer chairman Will Alsop calls this the difference between public consultation and community architecture: "Public consultation, where it is done after people have done the work, is terrible. It brings out the people who will find fault with it. Community architecture is about harnessing the power and imagination of the general public from the start to contribute to the concept. That way, they feel ownership of it." However, Les Sparks, commissioner of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment and former leader of Birmingham City Council, says "pre-consultation" requires extra effort from architects to create a dialogue. He says: "Often, is it hard for people to interact if there is no plan. If you talk to people before they have any preconceptions, they say: 'Come on, what are you going to do?' They assume there is a scheme and that it is not being shown to them." Nevertheless, Sparks says that if there is time, pre-consultation is far better than arriving with preconceived plans.

Some people liked the radical ideas because they think it’ll put Barking on the map

Spolesperson For Barking Council's Regeneration Unit

How useful are exhibitions?

But are the uninitiated, lay public equipped to contribute usefully to architecture and urban design? Can they be expected to make head or tail of the drawings and plans presented in exhibitions? CZWG partner Piers Gough thinks not: "It's like George Michael going out into the street with a piece of sheet music and asking the public: 'Shall I sing this?'. " Gough says that, although models and CAD walkthroughs generate a better response than drawings, public exhibitions per se are a flawed method of consultation. "The voting numbers at exhibitions are tiny, compared with the number of people who are affected by the scheme," he says.

The BFI loved the CAD fly-throughs because they’re used to movies. But one august society hated them

Rick Mather on the Exhibition of his South Bank Centre Masterplan

Gough's reservations are borne out by a recent competition to design a £15m-20m redevelopment of Barking town centre, won last week by Avery Associates with Urban Catalyst, where entries were exhibited in a corner of the top floor of the local library. The guest list for the main exhibition day was dominated by members of the design teams, artists involved in the local public art project and councillors.

The public would have found at least one exhibit illegible, with orange text maddeningly superimposed on a white background. The Architecture Foundation says it has criticised architects for such solipsism. "It is up to architects to engage the public's interest, inform them and give them the vocabulary to express their opinions," says a foundation spokesperson.

The arty ones have done themselves a disservice by not making their plans easy to read at ground level

Jeremy Grint, Project Director, Barking Regeneration Project

Are public meetings any better?

Public meetings can be more productive, say industry sources. But only if they are advertised widely in advance through leaflets and local press. Architects agree that, at best, public meetings provide a forum for constructive dialogue, where they can outline options and tap local knowledge of, say, circulation routes and crime black-spots. At worst, they are a reunion of "busybodies", attracting rogue objectors and special interest groups with their own agenda.

People often don’t reveal issues that need to be revealed. But they always come home to roost later

Ben Derbyshire, Director, HTS Architects

"You don't get a proper cross-section, usually, at public meetings," says South Bank Centre masterplanner Mather. "Views expressed there are bound to be anecdotal and instantaneous, not well considered or representative," says HTA Architects' Derbyshire. "There are always a few nutters who want either nothing or a huge statue of themselves," concurs FAT director Charles Holland. Gough says a good facilitator who knows the area well and can defuse slanging matches is vital to the success of the discussion.

What are the other consultation options?

Thousands of objections can pour in but the planners can still pass your scheme

Piers Gough, Partner, CZWG

Opinion Leader Research's exhaustive South Bank Centre consultation uses methods that originated in the USA and Germany. These include citizens' workshops, where 12 to 16 local people spend a day reacting to information; citizens' juries, which last four days and involve a group listening to evidence, then consulting others, including expert witnesses, before responding; citizens' panels, where a cross-section of the community is recruited to take part in regular telephone interviews, postal questionnaires and discussion groups; and citizens' forums, where up to 500 people meet to hear evidence, which they debate from the floor, as well as responding in smaller groups and individually.

Many private and public clients are now using the model of community planning weekends, sometimes known as Planning for Real, along the lines laid out in Nick Wates' Community Planning Handbook. Architect John Thompson & Partners is a leading proponent of this method, in which residents spend four days working in groups with architects and developers on different aspects of a scheme, such as environment, transport and housing. On the last day, the locals make presentations to each other and are presented with a slideshow and commentary on the whole process. "It is about making local people feel like stakeholders. You trace the provenance of the solutions you arrive at, so that people can see how decisions are made on their behalf," says David Harrison, director at John Thompson.

Some criticise this method as "design by committee" in which the architect sacrifices design integrity for the sake of consensus. "If I see another sand pit or flags on a map …" scoffs Wendy Shillam, partner in architect and town planner Shillam + Smith, referring to the technique whereby residents are invited to stick Post-it notes on aerial maps of schemes. She adds: "Planning for Real does not discuss the economic situation. It raises people's hopes and then they discover they can't afford things. So often, we think the solution to good design is in the process, not the product." Shillam's view is echoed by CABE commissioner Sparks.

Whatever happens, he says, "consultation is not a substitute for design".

The status quo

Of course, the fact is that, despite the money and energy spent on the consultation process, residents' objections alone cannot stop a private scheme getting planning consent.

Do Consult early, so the consultation informs the scheme’s brief. Involve local businesses, potential developers and housing providers from the start. Don’t forget local schools, either. Be honest about the level of community engagement you are proposing. Propose a clear structure. State where, why and who you are consulting, who is responsible for what and how the process will unfold. Advertise consultation widely, for example, in the local newspaper or through leaflets that describe and/or picture schemes. Have a long deadline for written responses. Use gimmicks to grab the public’s attention; make consultation fun. Make plans accessible, perhaps by organising a mobile exhibition. Make exhibits legible and written proposals jargon-free. Invite residents to elect consultation panels. Ask questions but also give information – allay fears and set out opportunities. Make the process transparent – report back to people. Use the Internet to create a wider consultation network. Don’t Use the consultation as a critique of design. Hold exhibitions in out-of-the-way or inaccessible venues. Let local interest groups demand financial pay-offs or land deals. Invite a disproportionate number of architects, officials from other council departments and local interest groups to exhibitions. Rely on the opinions of existing community leaders with pre-set agendas.