I recently heard Alex Neil MSP (Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Rights) speaking at the Built Environment Forum Scotland’s annual public lecture Planning for Wellbeing about the role ‘place’ has in creating a Fairer Scotland.
Emphasising the importance of communities being empowered to lead the place-making agenda he called on communities to become more involved with the planning system, rather than just planning decisions, and cited the government’s current Review of the Scottish Planning System as an opportunity to do just that. As part of the review an online discussion forum has been established to give members of the public and community stakeholders the chance to discuss their ideas for improvement to the system (open until 29th February). Looking at the contributions so far however, most seem to be from people already interacting with, and in many cases suspicious of, the planning system… yet really this should not come as much of a surprise.
For the majority of us our contact with the planning system is limited to making (or opposing) a local planning application. Unpopular planning decisions can however be one of the strongest mobilising forces within local neighbourhoods, capable of bringing together previously fragmented communities to protest developments seen as having a negative impact on their quality of life.
While it can be easy to downplay this type of reactive engagement as NIMBYism, when communities do band together like this (whether to resist incursions into the greenbelt, oppose increasing demands on overstretched services or, yes, in some cases, to preserve in aspic a comfortable status-quo) it does demonstrate that people are genuinely interested in their ‘place’. The question therefore needs to become – How can the energy generated when people feel their sense of place is threatened be harnessed to drive a wider place-making agenda and engage more positively with long-term development planning?
To give the planning sector across Scotland its due, the fact that this is still a question they are struggling to answer is not necessarily through want of trying. The current Scottish Planning System front-loads the need for community engagement. In response techniques like Charrettes, Planning for Real, Place Standards and Living Streets Audits are increasingly being used to engage people in designing more economically and socially sustainable futures for their neighbourhoods, town centres and city regions. Despite this most practitioners would agree that securing, and even more so maintaining, the involvement of the wider community is an ongoing challenge.
Part of the problem here is that the Planning System is necessarily complex: framed (or constrained?) by a wide range of policy expectations from Town Centre First Principles, Sustainable Development Goals and Housing Land Requirements to name but a few.
While the system may front-load the need for engagement, what it doesn’t seem to do so well at the moment is front-load the ability of planning authorities to be seen to react responsively to community concerns by fostering a wider appreciation of the parameters in which decisions can be made. Using a Charrette (or any other deliberative processes) can help overcome this by creating space to develop a shared understanding of both planning and local contexts – but they are not a simple panacea.
When processes like this work well they bring together community representatives, planning officials, elected members and other local stakeholders (eg business associations or conservation groups) to engage in a constructive dialogue that can result in, for example, a masterplan being agreed for a struggling town centre; one that effectively addresses traffic congestion, improvements to public space and economic development in ways that satisfy all parties. They can also often begin delivering small-scale improvements pretty quickly. But what if the plans to mitigate traffic congestion depend on building a town centre bypass? Everyone might agree it is both an ideal and achievable solution yet, while a 15 year delivery timetable is nothing in a development planning context, it’s almost a generation in the life of a community. What if the delivery plan also depends on Section 75 contributions from developers? Drawing this down might require 1000 new houses being built first – 1000 new cars clogging up the existing roads before the situation improves!
Regardless of how robust and effective the process may be the reality is that the immediate output of most development planning engagements is fundamentally a Plan and, hopefully, the intent to deliver. It is easy therefore to understand why community members might become disillusioned, and reluctant to further invest their time and energy, if the only tangible outcomes they can show their neighbours as a result of their efforts are a document, a promise, and a couple of, seemingly ubiquitous, new decorative planters.
Until communities have the chance to become used to being engaged in systematic and ongoing ways it is difficult to see this situation changing quickly, but that doesn’t mean that we should stop trying. Transforming the way that communities and public authorities interact with each other is at the heart of the public service reform agenda in Scotland, but it isn’t just about public services embedding opportunities for participation and power-sharing into the way they operate. As a wider culture change project, success will depend just as much on communities themselves being able to recognise and then embrace this changing relationship to shift their own expectations of involvement.
Viewed in this context the current review of the planning system, aspiring for increased transparency and greater engagement not only as its policy goal but in its process as well, is clearly a step in the right direction. We will have to wait till summer however when the review is completed to find out how much more it will add to the bigger challenge of re-defining how citizens and government can work together to plan better futures for communities across Scotland.
Picture Credit: Chewk