Exploring the Role of the Community Assembly in Achieving Greater Equity and Representation in Participatory Public Engagement within the United Kingdom Planning System

Christopher Scarffe
15 min readJan 25, 2021


Built Environment Development Model Introduction: The Planning Collective

Figure 1: Planning Collective Radical Practice Model, Network Diagram.

Our proposal is concerned with the current planning process and how we believe it is not a collective, knowledge just, transparent, equitable, or sustainable, model. Our solution, the Planning Collective, aims at resolving these issues through radicalising and empowering community input — or, put simply, by democratising engagement.

The Planning Collective is a national independent body, funded by not for profit grants, investments into planning, and tax revenue. It proposes two main interventions within the planning network and system.

The first part of the proposal is the creation of an independent advisor role for the community, the planning mediator. The planning mediator acts as the intermediate body between local authority and the community. Their role is to advise the community, and the local authority, on each other’s thoughts and queries surrounding projects and feedback. They would also attend events, such as public consultations, as mediators in order to ensure helpful discourse is had; this mediator would also take minutes to upload to the project’s planning portal in order to keep those in the community who could not attend up to date.

This role would be assisted by the Planning Collective’s online resource facilities. These would include: a database of the current available resources, and an online resource publication explaining the planning process and pertinent planning laws in standard terms. The standard terms publications would also be available physically within relevant planning and council buildings.

The second part of the proposal is the inclusion of a Community Assembly within the public consultation process. The community assembly is a pool of individuals from the local community, that seeks to offer a more representative voice of the community demographic. Their role is to organise the community’s response, and consult with stakeholders and the local authority. The community assembly would be considered as a service to the local government, similar to jury service, and the individuals would be assigned in rotation and be compensated for their time.

Figure 2: Two ‘maps of power’ illustrating the current and proposed position of the local community with regard to influence and interest in shaping the built environment.

With the addition of these interventions, the planning network and the wider community would be able to have more meaningful conversation and debate, and the non-professionals would also be able to understand how their concerns might be relevant, and be able to articulate them more clearly. Through the planning mediator, education, and/or translation, the public would also be encouraged further to participate, allowing for more representation within the process. Through the community assembly, a more equitable community voice could be reached; voices that might be currently unheard or pushed down by a privileged majority could be able to represent themselves and the issues they face.


The following text will critically reflect on the Community Assembly aspect of the proposed development model as a more equitable method of ensuring that the diverse social and spatial needs, wants and desires of a local community are fairly and accurately represented within the process of planning their built environment. To do this, the essay will first explore how the current system came to fruition and how methods and attitudes toward public participation within the planning system has developed over time. The essay will then critically explore the methods of public participation in use today and how, and why, they fall short in achieving a fair and accurate representation of the local community and its impact on our physical world. Next, the essay will discuss what it is exactly about the ‘Community Assembly’ that can offer an equitable contribution to the planning process and how this could be achieved. This will be informed by the feedback received during the discussion with Alan Beveridge, an Associate Architect at RCKa Architects. RCKa Architects is an architectural design practice based in London, United Kingdom, that regularly works with local councils in producing community facilities. RCKa Architects value community engagement as a vital part of the design process.[1] Finally, the essay will conclude by reflecting upon the successes and limitations of the Community Assembly aspect of the proposed development model.

A Critical History of Public Engagement Within the United Kingdom Planning System

The United Kingdom Planning System that governs the design and construction of the built environment is a relatively recent constitution brought into existence by the post-war government through the Town and Country Planning Act (1947), giving local authorities control over land use and development in their area for the first time.[2] Prior to this Act, built development did not require planning permission as such, as the function of development control was simply to ensure a number of basic standards were met with regards to fire prevention, daylight, and sanitation for example.[3]

Figure 3: Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation

The field of public opinion in the planning of the built environment started to gather traction in the 1930s and early 1940s with a number of groups carrying out social mapping surveys on the future of post-war planning. However, the opinions of those engaged didn’t have a meaningful impact in the technocratic planning system which favoured ‘expert’ opinion.[4] While there were some legislative changes made in the 1950s which required planners to outline their decisions more clearly, public engagement in a participatory capacity didn’t formally become a statutory requirement until the introduction of the Town and Country Planning Act (1968). The changes in legislation came about due to public pressure following the emergence of a number of protest groups that were dissatisfied with the failure of modernist planners and the ‘top-down’ approach employed in curating the built environment.[5] One year later, Sherry Arnstein published the paper, ‘A Ladder of Citizen Participation’ in the United States which criticised community participation at the time as ‘tokenism’ and argued that true participation required the public to actively take part in the decision making, which Arnstein called ‘citizen power’.[6] The paper was influential on an international scale and has been noted in its impact on the Skeffington Committee in the United Kingdom, led by Arthur Skeffington MP and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.[7] The Skeffington Committee was appointed in 1968 to assess how the public could become more meaningfully involved in the planning process and published a report in 1969 called ‘People and Planning: Report of the Committee on Public Participation in Planning’ (also known as the Skeffington Report).[8] While the report has been described as a “symbolic commitment” to public participation rather than a practical tool for local authorities, it is widely considered to be one of the most influential planning documents in the United Kingdom. The report paved the way for a more proactive approach to the democratisation of the planning system and participatory public engagement.[9] [10]

Other than a series of initiatives that sought to increase public participation there were not any substantial legislative changes to public engagement requirements within the planning process until 2004 when the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act (2004) introduced a requirement for local authorities to outline how exactly they intend to involve the public in the production of local development documents using what was called a Statement of Community Involvement (SCI). However, in 2008, the Planning Act (2008) undermined the efficacy of SCIs as it stipulated that they no longer have to be independently reviewed resulting in inadequate levels of engagement.[11]

The next major legislative change which takes us to the planning system we know today that governs and facilitates public engagement in the curation of the built environment was the introduction of the Localism Act (2011). The act was established with the intention of devolving of powers from a centralised government to local authorities which in theory, as the act states, should “…help people and their locally elected representatives to achieve their own ambitions.”[12] Part 6 of the Localism Act (2011) outlines the changes to the planning system which most notably represented a shift from Regional Spatial Strategies to Neighbourhood Planning.[13] Neighbourhood Planning was relatively radical in terms of participatory public engagement within the planning system as it sought to give local communities “direct power” in shaping the development and growth of their local area.[14] Within this new model, communities, in principle, had the opportunity to exercise this ‘power’ by:

- Influencing where new developments should take place

- What new developments should look like

- Under certain circumstances, grant planning permission[15]

It is not within the scope of this essay to critically analyse the particulars of all of the successes and failures of the Neighbourhood Planning initiative, however, it is worth touching broadly upon how it impacted representation within the field of public engagement. While the motives behind the new model might have been to democratise the system by offering local communities greater agency in shaping their environment, it inevitably empowered the groups that already wielded power in the planning system.[16] Essentially, the planning system continued to view ‘the public’ in the same way as the Skeffington Report, published over 40 before, as a homogenous whole, which fails to acknowledge the social injustices and structural forms of inequality present in society. Arguably, if the United Kingdom is going to achieve social, environmental, or economic justice in the built environment, the system that shapes its development must acknowledge structural forms of oppression within society and respond with mechanisms that seek to actively work to offer equity rather than simply equality. To explain this point further, an equal system is one that would offer all members of society the same opportunity to participate in the planning system which relies on all members of society to exist on a level playing field, ignoring structural forms of oppression such as racism or disablism. An equitable system, on the other hand, is one that recognises structural forms of oppression and the barriers they present to marginalised members of society and actively works to offer greater opportunities to counteract these injustices.

Furthermore, while various forms of legislation have changed what exactly the local community has an opportunity to shape, how local communities engage with the system also has not greatly changed over the last 50 years. Be it at the scale of neighbourhood plans or individual development projects, there are two main methods of participation:

1. Commenting on and objecting to planning applications

2. Attending public consultation events/exhibitions[17]

Commenting on and objecting to planning applications is largely a reactive method of participation rather than a proactive one. Consultation events on the other hand should, in principle, offer the local community an opportunity for proactive engagement in the case of the development of Local and Neighbourhood Plan documents. Whereas consultation events of individual planning applications tend to be more reactive than proactive despite the local authority’s best intentions.[18] Both methods will be discussed in greater detail in the following section.

Critical Analysis of Current Methods of Participatory Public Engagement Within the Planning System

The reactive nature of responding to individual planning applications makes it largely ineffective in offering the local community the kind of control and partnership in the shaping of their environment. Furthermore, the need for individuals to actively navigate the online portal themselves or stumble upon one of the publications in the local newspaper, notice board, or site-posted information placard etc. requires a pre-existing interest and therefore fails to acknowledge and actively engage the underrepresented or disenfranchised members of society. When individuals do decide to engage with an application they are then required to possess the skills and tools necessary to first understand the proposals, and second, articulate their opinion in relation to the legislation. While local authorities have responded to public pressure to make the legislation more accessible with ‘Plain English Guides’, and free advice services such as Planning Aid exist to support individuals in their engagement, it remains a time consuming and cumbersome process.[19]

The same can be said of public consultations as a method of participatory public engagement. While consultation events should offer a proactive rather than reactive opportunity to shape the environment through Local and Neighbourhood development plans, in the case of individual applications, they tend to follow a top-down approach with minimal participation, described by some as the ‘Decide, Announce, Defend’ (DAD) method.[20] Within this approach, the local community is engaged relatively late in the design process with little intention of making any considerable changes to an already ostensibly finalised design proposal. One participant, when asked their opinion on the consultation they attended in London said:

“I don’t think they wanted our input, but I think they wanted to see what our objections would be so that they could arm themselves against them…of course they are totally sham exercises…Yes, completely pointless.”[21]

Figure 4: Quantitative research carried out by Ben Glover illustrating the correlation between engagement in the planning system and support for new development. [22]

This has a considerable impact socially as it results in an exacerbation of distrust in the efficacy of the planning system by those that are already disenfranchised. In terms of a physical manifestation, a recent report highlighted that there is a significant correlation between those that currently actively engage with the planning system and those that object new development. As a result, the planning system has been, as the report describes, “captured” by those that oppose new development.[23] This is a useful analysis in understanding why the planning system is perceived as an obstruction to new development rather than something that aids in the construction and maintenance of a built environment reflective of its local community. This analysis makes the argument for an approach to public engagement that actively seeks to involve a more diverse and representative group from the local community, particularly the currently marginalised members that tend to support new development.

Furthermore, while the devolution of power through the Localism Act (2011) principally gave local communities greater agency in generating plans that were more contextual, one report found that this also led to a disparity in the level and quality of engagement across the country due to a lack of nationally prescribed guidance.[24] This has been further compounded by the fact that the local authorities have faced a number of budget cuts over recent years, resulting in a severe lack of resources, skills, and training available to carry out comprehensive consultations for many authorities.[25]

There is not the scope within this essay to complete a fully comprehensive, critical analysis of the current methods of participatory public engagement within the planning system. However, from the relevant critical analysis undertaken, it is clear that the United Kingdom’s planning system not only needs to become more ‘knowledge-just’ through the addition of a facility such as the proposed ‘Planning Mediator’ it also needs to become more equitable through the addition of a model such as the ‘Community Assembly’. This is an important point, because, frankly, without a proactive approach to engaging a more representative cross-section of a local community, the systems and models in place, including a ‘Planning Mediator’ will only ever empower and be exploited by those that already yield the power in the curation of our built environment, as was evidenced by the Neighbourhood Plan initiative. The following section will explore in greater detail how the ‘Community Assembly’ could begin to achieve greater social, economic, and environmental justice within the United Kingdom’s planning system.

The Community Assembly: A Model for Equitable Participation

The Community Assembly aspect of the Planning Collective is based on the model of ‘citizen’s assemblies’- a group of randomly selected people who are “brought together to learn about and discuss an issue or issues, and reach conclusions about what they think should happen.”[26] While ‘citizens’ assemblies’ have had a recent resurgence of interest, they have been recorded to date back as far as circa 500 B.C in Ancient Athens.[27]

The Planning Collective model proposes a ‘citizen’s assembly’ style group with the agency of a jury in an attempt to proactively take steps toward achieving greater equity and representation with regards to the way participatory public engagement shapes the development of the built environment. The model proposes that the Community Assembly will sit as statutory consultee within the process of development whose collective voice should sit with equal weighting to that of a Heritage Consultant for example. The Community Assembly will not replace ‘expert’ opinion rather it will sit alongside it.

To avoid a perpetuation of reactionary participation and to ensure that the Community Assembly can be given a level of participation that sits in the ‘Citizen’s Power’ tier of Arnstein’s Ladder, engagement must become involved as early as possible. However, from conversations with Alan Beveridge (Associate Architect, RCKa Architects), it has become clear that the Community Assembly would not be suited to all stages and scales of development as it would inevitably become an overly bureaucratic and cumbersome process in a system that, as Beveridge described it, is already laden with “red tape.”[28] Therefore, it seems most appropriate for the Community Assembly to participate in stages such as the Neighbourhood or Local Plan, where a proactive approach can be achieved without becoming a burden to development.

Finally, two points are worth discussing in regard to the economic model of the Community Assembly. Firstly, the funding for the model must be ring-fenced to safeguard it from budget cuts and to ensure it isn’t subject to the churn of party politics. Secondly, participation within the assembly itself must not become a financial burden for the participant to bear as this would only exacerbate existing inequalities in representation. The role must offer financial payment to ensure that any time taken out from employment to participate doesn’t negatively impact one’s income. Furthermore, as is the case with jury duty within the judicial system, employers must not be allowed to prevent their employees from participating in the Community Assembly to ensure that the model does not exclude any members of society.


Something clear throughout the history of participatory public engagement is that no matter the number of alternative models or legislative changes established, the system will suffer the same pitfall of empowering the already powerful unless it acknowledges and actively works toward addressing the structural forms of injustice present in society. To reiterate, the system must seek to provide equitable methods of capturing a representative cross-section of the local community it seeks to serve rather than simply equal ones.

However, with that said, it is important to acknowledge that the Community Assembly will not single-handedly solve the issue of representation within the United Kingdom’s planning system. In fact, arguably absolute representation in participatory public engagement cannot be practically achieved in any capacity, and so our ambitions should not be to find the one solution that will inevitably fall short in delivering on its promises resulting in further distrust and disenfranchisement. However, the impossibility of this task should not warrant a lack of trying to provide a more equitable and just system. Through mechanisms such as the Community Assembly we can not only achieve greater representation but we can also begin to rebuild trust, and confidence through showing that all members of the local community, including those that are socially/economically marginalised, can actively contribute to the curation of their physical environment.

[1] RCKa Architects, ‘Profile’ <https://rcka.co.uk/profile/> [Accessed 12 January 2021]

[2] Jack Airey and Chris Doughty, Rethinking the Planning System for the 21st Century (London: Policy Exchange, 2020) pp. 16–19.

[3] Ibid. p. 16–19.

[4] Make:good, ‘A History of Participatory Design’ <https://make-good.com/a-history-of-participatory-design> [Accessed on: 12 January 2021]

[5] Andrew Barron, ‘A critical Examination of Recent Developments in Public Participation in Urban Regeneration with particular reference to Spitafields, East London’ (University College London, 2005) pp. 13–18.

[6] Sherry Arnstein, ‘A Ladder of Citizen Participation’ Journal of the American Planning Association, 35:4 (1969), pp. 216–224.

[7] Andrew Barron, (University College London, 2005) pp. 13–18.

[8] Make:good, ‘A History of Participatory Design’ [Accessed on: 12 January 2021]

[9] Andrew Barron, (University College London, 2005) pp. 13–18.

[10] Sue Brownill, Geraint Ellis, Andy Inch, and Francesca Sartorio, ‘Older but no wiser — skeffington 50 years on’ Town and Country Planning 88:3 (2019), pp. 122–125

[11] Make:good, ‘A History of Participatory Design’ [Accessed on: 12 January 2021]

[12] Department for Communities and Local Government, A Plain English Guide to the Localism Bill (London: Department for Communities and Local Government, 2011) p. 1.

[13] Legislation.gov.uk, ‘Localism Act 2011’ <http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2011/20/contents/enacted> [Accessed 12 January 2021]

[14] Gov.uk, ‘Neighbourhood Planning’ <https://www.gov.uk/guidance/neighbourhood-planning--2> [Accessed 12 January 2021]

[15] Ibid.

[16] Frances Bodman ‘Power to the People? The Impact of The Localism Act 2011 on Environmental Justice in England’, Journal of Law and Jurisprudence, 3 (2013)

[17] Planning Portal, ‘About the Planning System’ <https://www.planningportal.co.uk/info/200127/planning/102/about_the_planning_system/2> [Accessed on: 12 January 2021]

[18] Elizabeth Hopkirk, ‘‘Don’t be sneaky in public consultations,’ architects told’, BD Online <https://www.bdonline.co.uk/dont-be-sneaky-in-public-consultations-architects-told/5096074.article> [Accessed on: 10 December 2020]

[19] Make:good, ‘A History of Participatory Design’ [Accessed on: 12 January 2021]

[20] John Forester, The Deliberative Practitioner: Encouraging Participatory Planning Processes (London: The MIT Press, 1999) p. 63

[21] Ben Glover, People Power Planning: How to Better Involve People in Planning to get more Homes Built (London: Demos, 2019) p. 11

[22] Ben Glover, People Power Planning: How to Better Involve People in Planning to get more Homes Built (London: Demos, 2019) p. 11

[23] Ibid. p. 18

[24] Ibid p. 11

[25] Sue Brownill, Geraint Ellis, Andy Inch, and Francesca Sartorio, ‘Older but no wiser — skeffington 50 years on’, pp. 122–125

[26] UK Parliament, ‘About Citizens’ Assemblies’ <https://www.parliament.uk/get-involved/committees/climate-assembly-uk/about-citizens-assemblies/> [Accessed 12 January 2021]

[27] Citizen Lab, ‘Are citizens’ assemblies the future of participation?’ <https://www.citizenlab.co/blog/civic-engagement/are-citizens-assemblies-the-future-of-participation/> [Accessed on 12 January 2021]

[28] Alan Beveridge, (2021) Interviewed by Christopher Scarffe [07.01.21]