Consultation is never a silver bullet to securing planning permission, but it is necessary and de-risks the process, says Louise Page-Jennings.

The government’s ambitious target to build 500 new schools by 2020 is leaving many communities stuck between the need to provide much-needed school places and finding the right location to do so.

To find a site for a free school, the Education Funding Agency (EFA) currently searches an area with an identified need and then pulls together an application, leaving many communities feeling as if they have been presented with a fait accompli. Very often the land won’t be purchased until planning permission has been granted, but residents feel that there is pressure on the council to grant permission, as the alternative is a chronic lack of school places.

Proposers of schools assume the community will be supportive

Recent projects I have worked on all share a common theme; the proposers of schools assume that, because a new facility is being provided, the community will be supportive. Residential developers expect resistance during planning, but school applications are often more difficult because there is opposition to development on top of general contention around education provision. Specific issues on applications differ: in one case, the community was concerned about traffic and loss of green space; in another, which also included residential development, the community felt it was being forced to agree to a residential development to fund the new school.

In both of these cases, better and more timely local consultation would have prevented escalation, mistrust and delay, and engaged a wider audience that could have had more diverse views. Consultation is never a silver bullet to securing planning permission, but is necessary and de-risks the process.

The challenge in applying for planning permission for new schools is to incorporate good public engagement across many areas, in a process that local residents and elected leaders will judge as sufficiently transparent and objective. There will always be common concerns, such as an increase in traffic, behaviour of children and the loss of local amenity space, but by following the principles below, lines of communication can be established and understanding between all parties can grow.

Here are three basic guidelines for good consultation:

Early

Early engagement with members of the local community provides an opportunity to mitigate the sense of a fait accompli by allowing time to identify and alleviate concerns, as well as getting people involved so early that they can be part of a movement shaping their own future.

Transparent

The more honest and open a consultation is, the better. Nothing arouses suspicion and mistrust more than vague, evasive answers and a feeling of things being done “behind the scenes”.

Thorough

Being thorough in an approach to consultation means engaging widely, not just near the site. It is likely that parents living further away will be more supportive of a planning application, as they will be unaffected by development.

Digital tools, such as Commonplace, can also help. Unlike social media platforms, Commonplace builds an auditable and consistent database of responses and local opinion. This combination means that such tools have a key part to play in de-risking the planning process for the new schools.

The EFA, trusts and government locally and nationally need to be seen to be working with local communities, and avoiding the assumption that the benefit and munificence of the “gift” will mean that local issues will be smoothed away. Instead, offering a bottom-up process of local engagement and building trust will lead to better and more effective decision-making and hence investment of public funds.

Louise Page-Jennings is an education planning specialist at Connect Communications