The planners’ public – the paradox of public participation?

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Public participation in the planning process is usually seen as a key part of local democracy and considered an inherently good thing, with less regard to the methods of recruitment and participation. In England, perhaps the most common method of participation is consultation, a process which typically involves inviting local residents and others directly affected by the proposals to attend public meetings or similar, and anyone who would like to have their say can do so. There may also be targeted efforts directed at people with certain characteristics or ‘hard-to-reach-groups’. These participants are either self-selected or selected by the planners, meaning it is unlikely the group will be reflective of the public it is assumed to represent. As for the method of participation, consultation is in itself preference-led. By asking questions such as “what do you think of X?” or “do you like/dislike Y?”, answers are often at two ends of a spectrum – agree or disagree.  

This approach skews the perception of what is “in the public interest” in two ways. Firstly, if participants do not ‘mirror’ the wider society, they are unlikely to be representative of the publics’ opinions on how to shape development – not least because people tend to respond based on their own needs. Among self-selected participants, those who ‘have the most to lose’ from development tend to participate to a higher extent, typically causing an over-representation of characteristics such as older age and higher income, while a large proportion – ‘the silent majority’ – are not heard.  Secondly, by using tokenistic methods which provoke binary responses means that we are missing out on participants’ own ideas and instead end up with ‘yay or nay’ or ‘X or Y’ scenarios – neither of which facilitates constructive participation.  A cynic might even say that by inviting “everyone”, we are ending up with less representative outcomes.

In recent years there has been a push for increased use of digital tools to make participation more accessible, thus facilitating communication with ‘the silent majority’. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated this push, but while there is not yet any conclusive research on whether this has been successful in recruiting a broader demographic, it poses new risks of skewed outcomes. For example, a recent consultation in Newcastle was found to have been ‘hijacked’ by thousands of fake comments[1]. Indeed, many online consultations take few measures to verify the identity of those responding, and therefore have no way of understanding their “representativeness”. The move online also seems to have made consultations more divisive than ever, with loud opposition groups adept at using social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, often controlling the narrative.

Overall, unrepresentative and binary participation poses a real risk of outcomes where those who ‘shout the loudest’ get their way. It is therefore clear that we need to think about methods which better mirror the public, while also allowing this public to contribute to shaping and taking ownership of development (rather than just being offered a set of options). But how?

One interesting approach is the civic lottery. This was recently tested in the development of plans for Copenhagen’s Medieval City Centre[2], in which the City Council asked participant to imagine how to best use the space in a future with less cars. The civic lottery model first analyses the demographics and broader characteristics (such as gender, age, income, housing type, access to car) in a defined area to create selection criteria. Invites are then issued – in this case 10,000 which were split 80% to addresses in the Medieval Centre, and 20% to addresses in the remainder of Copenhagen*. A representative sample of residents is then selected. In Copenhagen, this was 36 individuals, which formed a citizens’ assembly who fed their ideas into the visioning work through a series of meetings as part of a wider ‘co-creation’ process. This was complemented with more traditional input from stakeholders and interest groups, as well as a larger public meeting. Similarly in the UK, a citizens’ assembly using the civic lottery model was set up in Romsey in 2019[3] which was used in the early visioning work informing the masterplan of an area south of the town centre.

Participation, as with anything, is of course also a question of time and resources. While it is hard to imagine a method like the civic lottery to be meaningful in smaller-scale projects, if paired up with more traditional methods it could certainly carry many benefits for larger or more controversial projects – not least in terms of enhancing social value through citizen empowerment. Such empowerment could boost faith in the democratic process, ability to effect change, and – importantly – a greater public buy-in. After all, planning decisions are nothing if not politics.

*While not discussed in this post, representation in public participation carries the question of who should have a say in the first place – only existing residents, or also potential future residents? To some extent, exclusionary outcomes can be minimised by not defining ‘local’ too narrowly, or by applying a proportionate approach such as this 80/20 example. Nonetheless, it poses the much broader question of who the future of an area belongs to.


[1] BBC, 2021. Newcastle bridges consultation hijacked by ‘fake accounts’ [accessed 26/03/2021]: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tyne-56126566

[2] We Do Democracy, 2019. Citizens’ assembly in Copenhagen city centre [accessed 26/03/2021]: https://www.wedodemocracy.dk/borgersamling-i-middelalderbyen-1

[3] Romsey Future, 2021. Citizens’ Assembly [accessed 26/03/2021]: https://www.romseyfuture.org.uk/citizens-assembly

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