Please send me SCA's fortnightly briefing:

January 25, 2017

Everything to plan for

When Scottish Government announced in 2015 that it had invited a panel of ‘experts’ to review the planning system and come up with some ‘game changing’ ideas to improve it, it wasn’t entirely clear what they had in mind.  Based on the Panel’s recommendations, a new Planning Bill is in the offing. Proposals have just been published and these are now out for consultation. While the Scottish Government remains steadfastly opposed to communities having access to any sort of appeal, the intriguing prospect of a community right to plan has been seriously mooted. Consultation ends in April.


Planning Democracy

Extract of a blog from Planning Democracy in response to the Scottish Government launch of Places, People and Planning : A consultation of the future of Scottish Planning System

Getting More People Involved in Planning.

This section starts out by recommitting to the goal of ‘front-loading’ or early engagement. This is unsurprising since the Government have consistently promoted the idea. It’s also a decent principle but the debate about it is infuriatingly evidence-free: this is another example of a change that has been consistently promised for nearly fifty years but never actually delivered, and yet there is no attempt to question what might be learned from all of that experience or what might need to change to make it a realistic goal.

The most broadly positive suggestion is to develop a system of local place-plans capable of being afforded statutory weight as part of the development plan. This mirrors provisions for ‘neighbourhood planning’ in England and could, as the consultation suggests, provide a proactive way of engaging people in the development of their local area, in keeping with the wider community empowerment agenda.

The details of any such scheme will matter a great deal. In England more legal boiler-plating (there’s another theme emerging there) has produced a long, slow and expensive system that is inaccessible to many communities who do not have the requisite levels of social, cultural and financial capital to last the course. This needs somehow to be avoided. Likewise, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that local place plans would be better as a single expression of a community’s aspirations, rather than land-use plans duplicating existing and emerging processes in relation to community planning, community land rights etc.

Throughout, there is a distinct and disappointing note of skepticism about the role that community’s play in the planning system. This is evident when the consultation talks of avoiding ‘unreasonable protectionism’, and only welcoming the engagement of those who back development and growth. This smacks of a willingness to get people involved provided they agree to pre-approved answers: a strangely bowdlerized version of public participation and democracy.

Another potentially promising commitment, to community capacity building and innovation in engagement techniques, does little more than reiterate existing government support for the charrette programme. Charrettes are not necessarily a bad thing. They are, however, expensive, principally expert-led and were developed to find design solutions (less ‘do we need a power station?’ and more ‘would it be better if we used a different render on the façade of the power station?’). There is a real danger that continued commitment to charrettes is blocking wider experimentation with alternative deliberative and participatory techniques that could be both more effective and better value for money.

The third proposal in this section is entitled ‘getting more people involved in planning’ which would obviously be a great thing. Oddly the consultation tells us we need to wait for the results of recently commissioned research into barriers to engagement before saying too much- if this research and the issue itself are important why didn’t the consultation wait until it was complete? Beyond that there is a strong and slightly peculiar focus on how to engage children better in the planning process. We have nothing against this aspiration, but it seems like a potentially nice extra rather than a core issue and does nothing at all to address the huge inequality of arms that exists between concerned citizens and the highly-professionalised planning and development processes. It also distracts from the massive challenges involved in empowering people to understand and engage effectively with how plans and decisions affect their lives. Sadly such issues are barely even acknowledged, let alone seriously addressed.

Suggestions for increasing public trust in the system offer some welcome acknowledgement of the problems communities face when trying to engage in plans, including when faced by repeat applications or failures of enforcement. These are both issues PD raised during the review. Having said that, the proposed solutions don’t suggest any desire to radically improve accountability to the public or the accessibility of planning processes. Moreover, the consultation goes on in the next recommendation to reject the introduction of an equal right of appeal – the key mechanism PD and others have campaigned to see introduced.

This was not unexpected. The Government already took the extraordinary step of listing a commitment to not introduce ERA as one of the ten key ‘actions’ promised in their initial response to the panel’s report last July.

Familiar and entirely unevidenced arguments are trotted out to support this position: ERA will undermine frontloading and the role of locally elected decision-makers; lead to delay and scare off investment; centralize decision-making. We have consistently presented evidence and arguments that illustrate why these claims are without foundation. We won’t repeat them here, you can read them for yourself if you haven’t already done so. Interestingly, the consultation goes on to immediately propose a means of dealing with its own objection about centralisation of decision-making by proposing to extend the use of Local Review Bodies (though it stops short of considering how community representatives might be incorporated into such bodies, or even into nationally heard appeals). 

Ultimately what all of this serves to reveal is an underlying view that people get in the way of planning decision-making and the workings of the development sector and should not be given equal rights to participate (meaning PD’s work is not yet done and our volunteer staff aren’t going to be able to take early retirement any time soon).