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the Big Society | what does it mean for planning?

I’m in favour of the Big Society. I like the ideas of civil society and local responsibility that underpin it, which are on the policy agenda in Scotland as well as in Westminster. But I also believe that it’s a long way from taking root. And, as a planner, I wonder how will it change the way that we plan, and the places that we live in?

The Young Foundation has been working hard to put some flesh on the bones of the Big Society. Their recent report Investing in Social Growth: can the Big Society be more than a slogan? has ten pointers on how the Big Society could be made more tangible and useful, based on what they’ve learnt through research and experience.

One particular phrase jumped out at me:

“We feel socially wealthy only if we believe that our voice will be heard. When residents are alienated from where they live because of the behaviour of public agencies, the quality of the environment, or because they are intimidated by the behaviour of a minority in their community, then they are likely to feel poor even if their income is rising.”

Why did that jump out at me? Because it links ideas that are normally considered separately: it connects “the behaviour of public agencies” and “the quality of the environment” in the same breath.

None of the Young Foundation’s ten pointers mention planning or urban design. They don’t talk in the language of placemaking. But they do talk about how to build better communities – the places that we live and work in. Not in the sense of how those places look, their aesthetics and their uses. But in the ability of people to influence and manage their communities – their places – themselves.

To me, the report makes absolutely clear that making good places is all about communities being empowered to do things themselves. And maybe this is the clue to how the Big Society might change how we plan, and our places. At the moment, planning and urban design focus on physical change – buildings, roads, how land is developed – the changes themselves. In the Big Society, I have a sneaking suspicion that planners and planning would focus less on the actual changes, and more on the way that those changes are debated and decided. We would become facilitators of community-led change, rather than the ones who decide what should change, and then consulting the local community on what they think about our decisions.

I believe that is a mature and modern way to plan. But it’s not perfectly thought through yet. There is a big gap, as a number of articles in recent editions of the Town and Country Planning Journal have alluded to. How do we plan for strategic infrastructure like sewers, schools, universities and power stations? These are expensive things that serve a number of local communities. In the Big Society, who takes the decisions about where they go? And how do they do that in a way that doesn’t cut across the empowerment agenda that is at the heart of the Big Society?

Answers on a postcard, please…


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