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Strategic Development Planning | making it interesting

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Strategic planning has been one of Scottish planning’s success stories – from the wealth of good work done by Strathclyde Regional Council’s structure plan team in the 1980s & 90s to TAYplan Strategic Development Plan team winning the RTPI Silver Jubilee Cup in 2012.

Scottish strategic planning was radically reworked in 2006. Strategic Development Plans (SDPs) replaced the old Structure Plans in the four big city-regions; elsewhere, strategic planning was incorporated into the Local Development Plan (LDP) process.

To find out whether the post-2006 system is fit-for-purpose, the Scottish Government last year commissioned a review of Strategic Development Plans from Kevin Murray Associates and Urban Studies at the University of Glasgow. Their report is now available and makes interesting reading; the Scottish Government is due to announce its response later this month.

engagement in strategic development planning

I’d like to focus on one particular theme that the Review was asked to look at: stakeholder engagement. This theme is in the forefront of my mind at the moment as I’m currently working with two of the four Strategic Development Plan teams.

Let’s scotch one myth right at the start – that the strategic development planning is too complicated or abstract for the public. I wrote dismissing this contention back in 2007, and I’m delighted to see that the Review refers to theSESplan team as saying that “communities and individuals are certainly capable of engaging more effectively at the strategic level, particularly if the SDP role and purpose is communicated properly. Engagement was viewed as a matter of culture, not ability, even though people are more used to engaging on local rather than strategic issues.”

What the review does highlight is this more fundamental point:

General understanding of the nature of strategic development planning, and the role that it plays, has been poor, indicating a need for greater effort in communicating the purpose of the plan. SDPA staff felt that communities often did not engage until the local LDP level because this deals with more immediate and specific concerns.

A lot of time and money is invested by planners on consultation events for the public to come and find out about strategic development planning. This is a noble cause which is entirely in line with the Scottish Government’s aspiration for greater community engagement in planning. My experience of these events is both positive and negative. Positive because those involved – public and planners – learn a huge amount from each other. But negative because the numbers of people who come are usually low.

Let’s take it as a given that engagement makes for better plans and delivery – it’s a legislative requirement anyway, so there should be no debate. The question for me is how can communicate strategic development planning in a way that engages more people?

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five suggestions for easier engagement

1. Focus on the place, not the plan. As planners we tend automatically to think about the plan or project that we are working on. But the public probably aren’t that interested in our plan. They’ll be more concerned about their place – how it might look and feel in the future. So rather than ask them about our thing (the plan), let’s ask them about their thing (the place): how should their neighbourhood change in the future? Our job is then to translate those aspirations into the plan.

2. Making it real: illustrating the impacts of different options. Main Issues Reports for SDPs and LDPs have to put forward options for change. You can bring those options to life by illustrating what their impacts would be on places and lifestyles – making it real for people. The graphics in Megacities on the Move are a good example; they illustrate the kinds of places and lifestyles that would be created from four different scenarios for sustainable urban transport. The point is simple: show the impacts of different options on people’s neighbourhoods and lifestyles.

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3. Combine consultations. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t consult separately at the pre/MIR stage of LDPs and SDPs. We would do them together – and we would link in with Transport Strategies, Community Plans, economic development strategies and all the other plans and strategies that affect the future of places. This is an extension of consulting about the place, not just the plan – my first suggestion. For more on this, see my previous post onengaging policy-making.

Of course there will be difficulties of timing between different plans, but that shouldn’t prevent there being at least some joint consulting. Tactran (the Tayside and Central Scotland Transport Partnership) recently joined forces with the TAYplan Main Issues Report consultation, for example, to inform their next Transport Strategy. Sharing consultation in this way is helpful for the public, shares costs, and gives useful intelligence for plan-making.

4. Don’t be constrained by consultation periods. Consultation and engagement don’t need to start and stop with formal consultation periods. In the same way that Pre Application Consultation regulations set out minimum requirements for public consultation on Major planning applications, so the legal requirements for development plan consultation should be seen as a minimum. Taking every opportunity to engage with the public can only help improve plan-making and build trust, and needn’t cost a lot of time or money – such as the Tactran example in the previous paragraph.

5. Build awareness of strategic planning. The high level nature of strategic development planning means that it’s always going to be difficult to persuade large numbers of people to turn out to consultation events or fill in representation forms. So perhaps we should change our expectations and focus more on simply raising awareness. This would allow us to put our limited resources into public contact that would explain strategic development planning (and consultation opportunities) efficiently to large numbers of people like newspaper editorials, radio coverage or even leafletting.

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is the public interested?

Let’s return to the question I posed in the title: is the public interested in Strategic Development Planning?

A few people are. But far more should be, if they realised that the big decisions about the long term future of their community are decided through strategic development planning (assuming they live in one of the four SDP city regions).

The five suggestions I’ve set out are my thoughts on ways of reaching more of the public, which is what I believe we as planners should strive to do. What do you think?

Thanks to Eric Dawson of Architecture + Design Scotland for his excellent graphics. You can see them in their full glory in this Scottish Government leaflet explaining Strategic Development Planning.


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