Michael Gove’s ambitious Cambridge 2040 vision aims to significantly increase the city’s size and strengthen its tech industries – the sectors primarily responsible for the city’s success in attracting and retaining younger employees.
Cambridge is a young city – with an average age of 34, the fourth youngest in the UK. Some of those who will be old enough to vote in 2040 are just one year old today. On the other hand, many of the retirees (those who are historically the most vociferous on development decisions) may never see the changes that they have brought about (or prevented).
So the proposals for Cambridge 2040 – or any other long-term planning proposal – must make a concerted effort to shift the balance towards younger people. Carter Jonas’ Cambridge office has a strong contingent of under 30s willing to address this challenge. Planning and Development InSite spoke to Emily Grapes, John Mason, Rob Preston and Charlotte Wint about opportunities to engage with a younger demographic.
It is was immediately apparent in our conversation that development proposals in Cambridge do not routinely target younger people in the most innovative, engaging or effective ways: leaflet drops, notices on lampposts, newspaper advertisements and heated community hall debates simply fail to compete for time and attention. In fact Charlotte, Rob, John and Emily, when they had taken part in local consultations in a personal capacity, had been made aware of them in a work context – through the Planning Portal, office chat or the property media.
Yet consultations outside of planning succeed in engaging with young people: examples cited were of consultations a through local bike store, on a train journey, and of course through social media.
Tactics for Planning Consultations
During Covid, many planning consultations were run solely online. This was found to be very effective in achieving a greater balance in participation. Accordingly, online consultation has been developed with considerable success.
But it is no panacea: the brevity necessitated by social media does not sit easily with planning’s complex nature. Rob had experienced exactly this: “I did experience a consultation on a new local plan promoted quite effectively on Tik Tok,
” he says, “But it linked to the Council’s website which was full of lengthy documents. It’s not an easy leap from a 60 second video to a draft local plan.
Emily describes a very positive example of face-to-face consultation - but from outside the planning word. As a university student she was a brand ambassador for the mobile phone brand Voxi. She describes her wide-ranging presence, “Handing out leaflets on the campus and in the student accommodation and student union - you couldn’t miss me! I must have met every student at least once and several lots of times.
Clearly the physical location matters. Asked where she would leaflet when consulting on a planning topic, Emily suggests the café where she meets friends for brunch on a Saturday morning. Others suggested Cambridge’s shopping centres, Station Square and market.
“I would suggest an outdoor space for maximum accessibility,
” says Rob. “Ideally with a marquee with a bowl of sweets on the desk and a 3D printed model which people can group around to discuss the issues.
Food can work well as an incentive, as John explains: “I attended a very innovative and refreshing consultation which was successful in attracting young people partly because the organisers arranged for food vans to be present and gave out vouchers for free food. It very was popular and not just among the ‘usual suspects’.
Providing a more accessible location can help address the balance - but evidence suggests that this only works to an extent. Emily cited an example of a consultation event on Parker’s Piece in Cambridge, which was clearly intended to appeal to a younger demographic but in reality was dominated by an older age group, to the extent that younger people left, feeling marginalised.
Genuine dialogue is often best achieved through face to face communication within like-mined groups - there’s an argument that a younger consultee is better reached by a younger consultor. “People can be intimidated by a situation in which a certain demographic takes over,
” says Rob. “Often it’s best to break discussions down into groups, ideally led by someone representative of that group, and to allow like-minded people to bounce ideas off each other.
Rob suggested that surveys of young people could lead by young people – perhaps involving a local sixth form college.
Planning Consultation Topics
Can the principle of engineering consultation tactics to engage more widely also be applied to consultation topics? There are inevitably some topics that younger people are more inclined to comment upon: housing, education and sustainability among others. But as Charlotte points out, “No topics should be excluded for the conversation: those who are single and renting today may be married with children more concerned about home ownership in seventeen years time. And when it comes to an issue like home ownership, it’s important to engage with those who have already experienced the challenges as well as those who will be concerned about them in the future.
If achieving a balance of views (let alone encouraging younger voices) proves impossible, there are means of using representative sampling to rectify the balance. Charlotte explains, “Before Carter Jonas, I worked in a research capacity for a market research agency, surveying people on science-related topics. This was done by contacting people on LinkedIn if they meet certain demographic requirements, based on a list of those who were needed to complete the sample.
” This approach, common in consumer market research, could succeed in achieving better balance, not only on the basis of age, but also gender and ethnicity.
Taking the market research a step further could potentially involve ‘weighting’ responses to ensure that they are representative of the community: could this work in planning? Rob’s view is that, “Due to the very discursive nature of a consultation, views expressed tend to be qualitative rather than quantitative. While percentages can be weighted, this is less easily achieved with commentary. But there’s an opportunity to use the summary of a consultation to weight responses according to the statistical representation in the community, to prevent a single group from being over-represented.
The ability of planning to reach younger people has traditionally lagged behind that of other sectors despite the fact that young are those most affected by the changes. There is much that can be learnt from other sectors and large scale projects such as Cambridge 2040 present the ideal opportunity to put this into practice. As our brief discussion has suggested, perhaps the best way to achieve this is to consult with young people on how best to consult them.