There seem to be more and more seminars and workshops about community engagement in planning. A common theme, to me, is that we know that we have to do it; but we not quite sure how. We’re struggling to engage communities successfully and consistently, in ways which don’t simply meet the requirements of planning legislation, but actually build trust with communities and make better plans and proposals.
The most recent of these seminars was a Planning Interchange event on 3 February, organised by theImprovement Service, Planning Aid for Scotland, the Royal Town Planning Institute Scotland, Biggart Baillie LLP andHomes for Scotland. Edward Harkins and others have produced an excellent summary of the breadth of the discussion on LinkedIn.
neighbourhood planning, Scottish-style?
During one discussion session, Les Huckfield noted that neighbourhood planning in England – part of the coalition government’s localism agenda – offers the possibility for communities not simply to be consulted on plan-making for their area, but to take charge of it.
Neighbourhood planning doesn’t exist in Scotland. There is no legal mandate for communities to produce a plan for their area in that way.
But what Scotland does have is something which could achieve the same result – and which is ready and waiting to be used out across every community in the country.
That system is the new planning system for preparing Main Issues Reports and Local Development Plans, which is now being implemented in every single community in Scotland as a result of the Planning etc. (Scotland) Act 2006.
local authorities paving the way
A number of local authorities are paving the way by engaging with local communities (as well as the development industry and key public agencies) before they even start to produce their new Local Development Plan covering those communities. West Dunbartonshire, East Dunbartonshire and East Lothian are the Councils that I have been involved with – there are others too. Each of these authorities has, laudably, decided to ask people to tell them the main issues the Local Development Plan for their community should be tackling. So, before the Main Issues Report is published – let alone the draft Local Development Plan – the Council is asking local people what the plan should be saying.
This isn’t just an exercise in appeasement and box-ticking. I have seen that it produces a clear sense of local issues which should feed into distinctively local Main Issues Reports.
In West Dunbartonshire, for example, there was strong consensus that the main issues included how to attract more people into the area, and how to derelict industrial land into productive use – whether that be for building or greenspace. Just over the boundary in East Dunbartonshire, there was a different mix of priorities: for instance, how to enable people to stay in the area rather than be forced out by house prices and lack of supply, and how to provide more local employment and facilities within communities. Town centres were a shared priority in both areas.
In East Lothian, where Planning Aid for Scotland are currently working with the Council to provide a pioneering programme of pre-Main Issues Report engagement across communities and sectors, other issues are emerging which will enable this summer’s Main Issues Report to respond directly to the issues that local residents, businesses and developers say affect them. Isn’t this what good planning should be about?
(Personally I would prefer that Main Issues Reports had the word aspirations in their title, so that they are seen as positive and ambitious rather than simply addressing issues… but one thing at a time.)
responsive to local aspirations
My point is quite simple: that by engaging locally before preparing Main Issues Reports, we are on the road to preparing plans which genuinely respond to local people’s issues. Of course, they must also take account of anticipated population change, infrastructure constraints, nature conservation, developer interest and all the other things that plans and planners must balance.
To my mind, that actually makes plans stronger: they can be founded in local communities’ aspirations for their places, whilst taking account of the technical and economic realities of delivering development and services.
We now know that the approach being pioneered in the Dunbartonshires and East Lothian is successful in two ways. Firstly, we know that it gives local authorities a clear understanding of the main issues that their Main Issues Reports and Local Development Plans should address. Secondly, it builds trust between people and planners.
The question for me is: how we can roll this out as part of a wider programme so that it builds that trust not just between with the handful of people who attend the workshops, but more widely across all of our communities?