“but the public can’t think strategically…”

facilitating a strategy discussion

A common refrain amongst the planning profession, even my more enlightened colleagues. But I believe this myth has no place in 21st century planning.

Over the last five years, reforms to the statutory planning systems throughout the UK have put great emphasis on community engagement. This isn’t just about neighbour notification for planning applications, it drills down through the whole system right to the strategic foundations of development planning – the preparation of what used to be called structure plans, now referred to as regional spatial strategies in England and (soon) strategic development plans in Scotland. And even more fundamentally than that, preparation of that super-strategic Scottish document, the new National Planning Framework, will also need to demonstrate effective community engagement.

Are we as a planning profession ready to sit down with the public, explain what strategic planning is all about, and really engage with them to find out what our strategic priorities should be for the next 20 years? Personally, I don’t think we are.

Are the public ready for it? For many of them, the answer is yes. OK, so the majority might not wish to engage in such discussions – part of the malaise of low electoral turnouts – but substantial numbers of people do wish to have their say on strategic issues, certainly enough to be a useful contribution to establishing a way forward.

What evidence do I have for this? This year I’ve been part of a team with yellow book and willie miller urban design and planning preparing a town centre masterplan for Dawlish, in Devon. The centrepiece of the work was a hugely successful drop-in event in a marquee on the Lawn, on a blistering late summer’s day when the town’s residents were out in force.

To see a slideshow of photos from the event, click here.

This wasn’t a case of giving them our draft masterplan and asking people what they thought of it. Using good old-fashioned talking complemented by a few simple display boards, we spend the day encouraging people to tell us the issues that they thought should be addressed – including how they wanted the town to improve over the next few years. Many of the people who came had a particular gripe that they wanted to raise – car parking, toilets, congestion, whatever – but once we got behind those immediate issues, most were only too happy to say where they thought the town should be heading in the next few years. More visitors; a more upmarket offering for daytrippers from the region; better shopping; redress the balance between cars and pedestrians in favour of the humble pedestrian; and so on. Those attending easily understood our basic premise of get the big picture (what we called the “strategic proposition”) right first of all – with help from the local community – then we go away and work up our masterplan (the “spatial proposition”) in response to that.

It took a little bit of effort to organise the event and to spend the day discussing ways forward for the town (ably assisted by our ever enthusiastic clients, the voluntary Trustees who make up the Dawlish Community Trust) – but not that much effort, or cost come to that matter either. And the event itself was immensely stimulating, not just as a rich source of ideas and guidance for the masterplanning team, but also – I like to think – for the many residents who came to talk to us.

Another example, again this year. With help from colleagues at Cass Associates, I have organised a series of public workshops for Wrexham County Borough Council. The aim has been to get local communities involved in production of the initial stage of their new Local Development Plan (the new name for unitary development plans in Wales). There was some doubt about the ability of local communities to think about the future of the Borough rather just focus on protecting the field next door to them – but those doubts were proved groundless. With careful presentation and facilitation, people easily understood what this strategy stuff was all about. During small group discussions, those present raised and grappled with a plethora of challenging planning issues – how local identity and character could promote local economic diversification through promotion of small businesses, how affordable housing should be targeted more accurately to specific local needs, and how getting the right mix of new housing in settlements is critical to community cohesion and their long term sustainability.

We won’t know until 2008 how these suggestions will be taken forward in the Council’s draft development plan, but at least the public’s input is actively being sought and will be considered. That’s a big step forward for everyone concerned.

I could give other examples – particularly from my work over the last ten years with Planning Aid for Scotland‘s award-winning community training programmes, such as Planning for PeopleTM – but you’ve probably got the message.

Let me return to where I started – the myth amongst planners that the public can’t engage on strategic issues. How has this persisted for so long, particularly amongst a profession which likes to see itself as the grandmother of all public consultation? When challenged about our commitment to community engagement, we love to remind others that planners have been doing it at least since 1969, when the Skeffington Report brought in a bright new era of statutory public consultation during preparation of development

Having thought about it long and hard, I realise there are probably many reasons. But I can’t help but think that a key reason is that we, as a profession, see it a threat. This is hugely unfortunate. In the 21st century, with planning reform all around, I feel that we should see facilitating public understanding and involvement in the planning system as a core professional planning skill. We claim we’ve been doing it for long enough, so let’s be a little less defensive and a little more open to debating what we do with the public.

The next couple of years will be interesting. In Scotland, where I do much of my work, implementation of the Planning etc (Scotland) Act 2006 and its new statutory duties of community engagement for development plans will only succeed if the old defensive attitudes are swept away, and more open and honest engagement takes their place.

Even more interesting will be how engagement on Scotland’s new National Planning Framework will be handled. This is no easy task for the Scottish Government: there hasn’t been public engagement on a truly national land use plan before in the UK. It presents big challenges – what the aims of the engagement should be, how to communicate with the public, how representative the consultation should aspire to be, how it will relate to the elected political process, and how the information gathered will inform the final version.

There are no easy answers to any of those questions: I’m watching with interest.

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