Sam Davies

How can we be a city where all citizens are listened to?

Last week I highlighted one of the key elements of the Greater Cambridge Local Plan First Proposals, out for public consultation starting on 1st November.

Today, I want to probe a bit deeper into the meaning of ‘public consultation’ and the mechanisms by which it happens.

Probably the most famous model for this is Sherry Arnstein’s 1969 paper on the Ladder of Citizen Participation. It’s a way of thinking about the extent of citizens’ power in determining the end product of a participatory process. The ladder is a simplification, but helps to see that there are significant gradations of participation, and not all participation is empowering:

How is the Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Service (GCSPS) Local Plan process performing when viewed against that model?

Last year it ran its ‘First Conversation’ process, an input to the development of the First Proposals. The summary of the results separates out responses from website commenters (mostly private residents) vs email and Opus 2 consult respondents (planning professionals, statutory consultees or agents/landowners). This is informative in looking at responses as a whole, as well as to individual questions.

Remember that about 250,000 residents live in the Greater Cambridge area, yet only 1,250 responses were received via routes accessible to residents, vs 6,600 from professionals.

Will we see resident engagement with the process increase as we move from Conversation to Draft Plan? History suggests we should, as 11,000 residents commented on the Draft of what is now the adopted Cambridge City 2018 Local Plan.

On this basis, perhaps we should be anticipating twice that number of comments on the new Greater Cambridge plan, as double the population is now affected by it! Taking proper note of that many comments would be a Herculean task for the GCSPS plan makers.

But more than that, we have to avoid being beguiled by the number of contacts achieved, and falling into the trap of assuming that means the participative process has been successful. One of the criticisms of the First Conversation was that it presented continued aggressive growth as a given, and then simply asked respondents where they wanted that growth to go, and how they wanted it delivered.

This article by David Farnsworth describes the battle which community groups in Bristol have fought to reframe the citizen’s role within the planning process, moving away from an arms-length, tick-box approach designed to satisfy narrow legal requirements and towards truly meaningful community involvement. He highlights four profound conceptual differences which needed to be resolved (LPA = Local Planning Authority; SCI = Statement of Community Involvement):

There is a lot of detail in Farnsworth’s article about how the differences between the LPA and the community groups in Bristol were resolved, and it gives some pointers as to how that might be achieved elsewhere. I wonder how we might apply this to Cambridge, and specifically to the next Local Plan process. After all, the City Council’s vision of ‘One Cambridge – Fair for All‘ includes a specific statement that Cambridge should be “a city in which all citizens feel that they are listened to and have the opportunity to influence public decision making.”

So how far up the ladder of citizen participation is it willing to climb to achieve that? The consultation starting on 1 November should give us some clues.

Sam Davies


  • I have followed Cambridge planning from the late 1960’s and in those days we were listened to and buildings that would have gone, were saved. Not in the case of the Lion Yard though. In recent years, all protests, seem to fall on deaf ears, are seem useless. If the City Council does agree with the citizens objections, the builders counter- protest and always seem to win, as there are both fines to be made to the Council and fat profits to be had by the developers. Poor Brunswick Terrace never stood a chance and look at the towering monolith that has risen on the site. The brutal entry to Cambridge if arriving by train, says it all. Our protests are not heeded – listened to maybe – but we never win. Money wins every time and I have seen this city change from a lovely and unique place to live, into a polluted city surrounded by concrete building blocks. I know that many of us feel this way but we have given up objecting and protesting because we know that we will not win.

  • Council consultation documents on important questions always appear to me to be masterpieces of asking questions that are designed to elicit the desired response. Alternatively, especially in planning applications, the scope of one’s allowable objections is too limited. You give a good example of aggressive growth being assumed as accepted so that consultation is only on where that growth will be. Every ‘tick box’ question should have a box with ‘Other’ and a space to write your own words. The writers of comments should be required to declare their interests and there should always be an independent review of the public comments. As Cambridge grows, consultation and cohesion gets more difficult.