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Community participation and engagement

Teo Benea and David Tross
November 13, 2023

This article aims to explain why open and transparent community participation and engagement is so important and why community consultations should be conducted fairly and effectively, by reflecting the diverse communities, including the disengaged and marginalised ones, that will be impacted by the decisions taken by public bodies, with an emphasis on local authorities.

In this article we discuss:

  • The Social Equity Centre’s view on why it is vital, especially with the changes in demographics across the UK, that community consultations are fair and inclusive bringing the diverse communities which will be affected by the decisions around the table, including the disengaged and marginalised communities to have their say
  • The Government’s decision in 2010 to end the ‘Duty To Involve’ and the Duty to prepare a sustainable a community strategy, two statutory duties on local authorities, justifying this decision as reducing bureaucracy for local authorities
  • Why was removing the ‘Duty to Involve’ and reducing this to the ‘Duty to Consult’ considered a mistake by many working in local authorities?

In 2010, the then Coalition Government announced in its government consultation on Best Value Statutory Guidance, which was issued in July 2008, the end of the duty for local authorities to involve their public in their decision-making process and the duty to prepare a community strategy.

The Duty to Involve ‘provided that local authorities sought to ensure local people had greater opportunities to influence decision making and provided for consultation and involvement of representatives of local people across all council functions'. Following the announcement, many practitioners across different public services, especially those working for local councils across the country, were heavily critical of this decision, particularly as it seemed to directly contradict the Coalition government’s commitment to increase citizens’ participation on the issues that matter most to them through the stated aim of the Big Society programme  to ‘give people more power and control to improve their lives and communities’. The ‘duty to involve’ was crucial in giving citizens and service users a legal right to have a say about how their local area was run as well as their local services. By removing this and downgrading it to a ‘duty to consult’ the legal requirement was removed, giving more power to councillors and officers to make the decisions that they believed were the most appropriate, without having to involve the local communities that would be most impacted by these decisions. Also, the decision to repeal this duty, did not meet the aim of the Big Society.

The Social Equity Centre’s view on how community consultation and engagement should be run

While the decision to repeal the ‘duty to involve’ and downgrade it to the ‘duty to consult’ is unfortunate, local authorities still have a duty of care to their residents and local communities to consult and inform them in a transparent way about the changes they are proposing and ensure that the feedback provided is seriously taken into account, ‘particularly significant changes or proposals that affect them, such as plans to close schools, regenerate or redevelop a local area, or planning applications’.

In order for consultations to be as inclusive and equitable as possible, a wide range of voices need to be consulted and local authorities need to take into account and bring around the table the wide range of communities that make up the demographics of the local area impacted, including disengaged and marginalised communities who are often neglected by consultations and may be unfamiliar with the consultation processes. If consultations lead to decision making that genuinely takes into account the voice of communities and ensures their opinions are heard, this can lead not only to better and fairer decisions but also could help build trust between decision-makers and the communities they serve.

To ensure fair and effective consultations there are four main principles that have been identified by the courts, also known as ‘Gunning Principles’ which are outlined below:

  • consultation must take place when the proposal is still at formative stage;
  • sufficient reasons must be put forward for the proposal to allow for intelligent consideration and response;
  • adequate time must be given for consideration and response; and
  • the results of consultation must be conscientiously taken into account.

Whether there is a legal obligation to consult, or this is done voluntarily as a matter of good practice, Government’s Guidance on conducting consultations state that consultations must:

  • be clear and concise
  • have a purpose
  • be informative
  • be only part of a process of engagement
  • last for a proportionate time
  • be targeted
  • facilitate scrutiny
  • ask for responses to be published in a timely fashion; and
  • not generally be launched during local or national election periods.

There is also the Public Sector Equality Duty which was imposed on all UK public bodies as part of the Equality Act 2010, outlining that public authorities when they are exercising their functions, need to have regard to:

  • eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited by or under the act;
  • advance equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it; and
  • foster good relations between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it.

However, despite this guidance and the PSED duty, which is more a procedural duty, the compliance rests only with the decision-maker and there is no obligation for a public authority to produce an Equality Impact Assessment, which can be seen as problematic and questionable in terms of whether consultations have really been conducted in a fair and effective way. For example, in the consultation process regarding planning applications, too often public consultations do not include the diverse communities living in a specific area who will be impacted by a development scheme. This can occur through a number of factors such as:

  • people representing different communities are not familiar with the consultation process and are unaware that they can have a sayon the proposals; these are often referred to disengaged and marginalised communities;
  • the communication from developers and the local authorities is limited and does not reach these communities;
  • the consultation materials are not provided in different languages, different formats or media;
  • issues around digital exclusion where people who are not technology literate are excluded from the process - A 2021 report by Age UK noted that digital exclusion increases with age, and the Good Things Foundation found that limited users of the internet are1.5 times more likely to be from Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups.

To help ensure these issues are addressed, more rigorous requirements being included in the ‘duty to involve’ are vital to ensure that these communities are genuinely involved in the process and not just consulted. With a prospect of a new government following the general election next year, we hope this will be re-visited and re-implemented.


In the meantime, we believe it is vital for public bodies as well as relevant private sector bodies to work partnership with organisations that are already providing Social Value and effective practice in the field of community engagement and participation, and who are connected on the ground with different communities. Some of the assistance and advice that could be provided include:

  • researching the communities in the local area before launching consultations to ensure processes are evidence-based;
  • reviewing their consultation strategy and providing support and advice on how to appropriately engage with communities, including those disengaged and marginalised, in a way that ensures that voices are heard from a demographically representative cross-section of communities who are impacted by proposed changes in a locality
  • providing support to identify key community leaders and groups
  • advising on effective communication strategies to reach these communities through a variety of channels.
  • providing training to staff that work in the community engagement teams;
  • reviewing and advising on the appropriate content to ensure that the right information is disseminated to these communities, is easily accessible and also translated in a range of languages representing the demographic of the area;
  • providing support with community engagement delivery e.g. focus groups and workshops with interpreting skills if required

It is also recommended that local authorities are pro-active by ensuring that different communities are aware of the participation opportunities, including employment opportunities that are available in the public sector, and they feel supported and encouraged to access these. This will ensure more meaningful engagement with local communities brought by the lived of experience of their residents.


The Social Equity Centre can help. We can support your organisation in consulting with a variety of new and emerging communities in the UK, including the marginalised and disengaged ones and advise on inclusive, fair and effective consultation strategies.

We can also provide support to local authorities in terms of recruiting a diverse workforce and increase representation of the local demographic.

To discuss your community consultation needs, do email us at

Reference this article: Benea T., Tross D. (2023), Social Equity Centre CIC: Community participation and engagement.

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