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March 25, 2015

People at odds with planning

Something seems to be seriously out of kilter with our planning system. Recent high profile planning decisions – Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall Steps and Aberdeen’s Marischal Square –appear to treat the views of the general public with a degree of disdain that borders on contempt. If the planning system fails to reflect the common good or even to explain itself in terms that people can comprehend, then it becomes the enemy of local democracy. And yet there are devices out there that can bring the people and planning decisions closer together.



Andrew Learmonth, Common Space

Scotland’s councils should look to use “citizens’ juries” when it comes to planning, according to the Common Weal, the Scottish “think and do tank”.

The call comes as campaigners in Aberdeen demand a massive overhaul of planning in Scotland in the wake of the city council’s decision to go ahead with the controversial Marischal Square development.

The campaigners say that decision was evidence the current system does not work.

Recent planning decisions taken by councillors in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Argyll and Bute have also led to massive, vocal campaigns.

“The process is broken,” said Commonweal Aberdeen’s Bob Taylor. “If the politicians are working inside of something that favours a particular behaviour then we have to change that process so that that behaviour is no longer allowed. It’s irrespective of [which political party] you have, you get that behaviour because the process is broken.”

Under the group’s plans for citizens’ juries, two groups of 12 people would be selected from across local authority areas much in the same way as the current jury system works in the courts. The juries would be presented with detailed information on planning proposals and would then ultimately make a decision. This would feed into the planning process.

In Aberdeen, it was not until unofficial images of how the Marischal Square development would looked were released to press that campaigners started to mobilise. At the resulting extraordinary meeting called by the council, councillors voted 22-21 against halting the development. Before the meeting 8,500 people had signed a petition calling on the councillors to think again.

The meeting was decidedly party political, with the Labour administration voting for the development and the SNP opposition all voting against.

This weekend saw organisers of the Reject Marischal Square Development organise a “mourn-in”. Campaigners were asked to leave cards and flowers in memory of the site and to symbolise the “death of democracy”.

In Glasgow, vocal protests around the demolition of the steps in front on the city’s Royal Concert Hall had no impact on the council’s decision. Campaigners point out that both this development and Marischal Square in Aberdeen are in non-residential areas, meaning it can be easier for the planning processes to go past unnoticed.

Although local authorities must include consultation when it comes to planning, Taylor believes that the process excludes people. “The people that turn up are generally elderly people who have time,” he said.

“They’re often held in the middle of the day, that precludes a lot of people from turning up. A lot of people are so busy just clinging on to managing to eat that they don’t have time for that. The consultations are quite a laissez faire idea. They’re not scientific and I don’t think they’re rigorous. The thing about a people’s jury is that it is extremely rigorous.

“The people’s jury are the demographic in the city because you choose them for that. For planning issues this a relatively quick way of getting a decision.”

Although they have never been used for planning decisions in Scotland, a number of organisations and government bodies have used citizens’ juries as a form of focus group. Scottish research body ClimateXChange recently established temporary citizens’ juries to look into wind farms in Scotland.

The body put together three groups of 15 to 20 people who would listen to speakers before being asked to discuss the “key principles for deciding about wind farm development”. The juries were held in three locations; Aberfeldy, close to an existing wind farm, Helensburgh, close to a proposed wind farm, and Coldstream, which has no existing or proposed major wind farms nearby.

According to the group’s report: “The majority of the jurors thought the citizens’ jury format is ‘a good way to find out how citizens feel about issues that affect them’ and agreed that it should be used to guide decisions ‘about issues that affect communities’.”

The report concluded: “These positive evaluations suggest that citizens can engage with enthusiasm in deliberation about complex topics such as wind farm development, despite the considerable effort required by the job”

In 2007, then Prime Minister Gordon Brown unveiled citizens’ juries as Labour’s big idea.