Monday, 10 December 2012

Where’s the community gone?

Back in 1999 and devolution to the Scottish Parliament and government, one of the most impressive range of powers that wasn’t reserved to Westminster was land-use planning. It took them a while to use these powers fully. The problems over the Lingerbay super quarry application seemed to make the first parliaments very cautious so in the end they spent years consulting over the reforms introduced in 2006.

One of the big issues that came up in the consultation was Third Party Rights to Appeal – that is the right for the community, or another body who are not the developers applying for planning permission, to appeal a planning decision. The Lib Dems in coalition at the time were quite keen on the idea and there was a lot of murmuring about it, so there was a specific consultation on TPRA. In the end it was rejected and Modernising the Planning System which became the 2006 Act reached this compromise – a refreshed plan-led system would engage communities much more in the plan development cycle, which would include neighbour notification of major developments included in the plan. Developers would also have a duty to engage local communities on major developments. By the time I was doing my MSc in Urban and Regional Planning this was the planning policy zeitgeist – not only would communities feel listened to, but the streamlined system would ensure good developments were brought forward speedily. The focus was the community.

In 2007, when the SNP won their first election victory to the Scottish Parliament, there was some concern that their focus on “sustainable economicgrowth” would mean a complete revision of the 2006 Act for a neo-liberal development free-for-all. Luckily, John Swinney was won over to the merits of the reformed system and implementation ploughed ahead. A week ago I was at a two day session with a group of planners at the Scottish Government to learn how things had gone. It was a very good session and, any planners reading this, if you get the chance to attend I would recommend it, however…

Two things struck me. Firstly, and I said this at the time, the community has vanished from Scottish planning. The “line to take” among Scottish Government planners now is that “in these difficult economic times” we must deliver “sustainable economic growth”. To be fair, this focus on delivery economic development through planning (rather than, say, enhancing our natural environment, or engaging communities) in Scotland is a lot more pro-planning than it is in Westminster (HT @Bristol21). The planning system is still seen as a good and effective way to deliver development. However, I’m pretty sure that six years ago the focus would have very much been on engaging the community in the development process, whereas now it is very much planners delivering a “good” plan on time and then helping to deliver development.

This leads me onto the other thing I always find when I go to events with practising planners. As they work within the planning system they are utterly obsessed by it. There’s definitely an actor-network theory study to be done in how the “planning process” is reified by planners into the enabler or thwarter of all development. I think this is why practitioners and academics often talk past each other in land-use planning. While I find the fascination with process interesting in an abstract sense, the actual working of the minutiae of planning law in practice bores me to tears. I’m interested in the abstract theories that lie behind the whole planning system – the sort of stuff that answers the questions “why do we plan”. Reflecting on this on the hoof as I write, I suppose one need for us as planning academics is to highlight how this theory explains why planning processes are the way they are – you’re essentially trying to make a decision (in most cases) weighing up all sorts of difficult ontological and epistemological questions that cannot be answered with a “good” plan or a model policy.

But the process does matter. Previously I’ve blogged about the disaster of Leith Docks and why I chose not to attend a consultation event for a decision that has seemingly been made. A recent contract call from Scottish Enterprise furthers my cynicism. The future use of Leith Docks was, as I understood it, an issue to be discussed in the Main Issues Report of the next City of Edinburgh Local Plan. It seems that the issue has already been decided for us by Scottish Enterprise.

The state of land ownership in Leith Docks, again recently in the news because part of it is not owned by a company based in the tax-haven of the British Virgin Islands, and the mess of the development process really highlights how the process does matter if we want to deliver good development. However, the process does not need tinkering to get away from quirks of law that aren’t working right, it needs much more dramatic reform to place the public interest at the heart of planning. And these reforms, including to land law as well as planning, need to prioritise development where it needs to and should happen, for example in deprived neighbourhoods. But neither is the prioritising of the community’s views over all others a proper aim for the planning system – that way we run the risk of empowering the powerful and producing fruitless debate about development – as some recent development processes in Edinburgh are showing.

With these vague ramblings in mind, I’d advise you to go and have a look at the draft manifesto (PDF) of the Planners Network UK  – a really good statement of positive planning principles at all spatial scales.


  1. As a bored and frustrated planner working in the public sector, I found this to be an absorbing read.

    Not so long ago, I was an MSc student at your fine educational establishment. I was somewhat of an oddity amongst my fellow students, as I was (and still am) fascinated with the theoretical and political underpinnings of the planning system in Scotland; i.e. what makes the establishment plan, how this shapes where we live, work & play and how inclusive is the planning system really? Etc, etc….

    Now that I’m a ‘professional’, my bread and butter in a working sense is ‘engagement’. I wholly believe that engagement should at the basis of all we do in the planning system. If done correctly this will lead to better development plans, better decisions and generally better place making for all people and purposes.

    In these testing economic times, I genuinely fear that the recession can be (and arguably is being) hijacked by those wishing to refocus the neoliberal agenda under the guise of ‘sustainable economic development’. Theoretically ‘growth’ and ‘engagement’ can and should coexist.

    However, as development continues to stagnate and planning application levels continue to fall, there is now an introspective mode of thought amongst planning professionals to consider what can ‘we’ do to stimulate development and growth. The new PD regs came around as an attempt to speed up the planning system at the lower end of the scale.

    On the larger end of the scale there are now murmurings amongst developers that perhaps further deregulation is required. Whilst as a country we do need to encourage growth, it should be not be at the cost of the integrity of the planning system. The road to economic recovery is going to be long and slow, however the planning system and engagement should be seen as a tool to aid this recovery and encourage growth rather than being a hindrance.

  2. Thanks for this lengthy reply Cynical Planner. I couldn't agree more, and glad that this post had resonance for someone in practice. The other thing the planning system needs to be focused on is creating the vision for long term economic reform as well. Lots of cheaply-built houses now are not sustainable economic growth.