The Royal Town Planning Institute’s 2007 Young Planners Conference was held in Glasgow. Being chairman of Planning Aid for Scotland was apparently enough for the organisers to invite me to contribute a piece to a panel session entitled “Climate change: making a difference”.
Taking a broad definition of climate, here’s what I talked about to an audience of 100 young, keen planners…
I’m a strong believer in community engagement. But my philosophy goes further than that. I believe that all stakeholders should engage effectively, and take responsibility for their actions and decisions. Particularly, I think, those who make a living from planning – local authority planners, developers, consultants, civil servants, politicians… including me and the other conference speakers.
The benefits of community engagement are well documented elsewhere, so I’m not going to repeat them. Suffice to say that it helps build openness and transparency, consensus, and results in better plans. Quite apart from now being a legal requirement under the recent planning reforms.
So… who can make a difference?
The answer: all of us can. Not just the young planners in the audience, but me and my fellow speakers too. We can all make the planning system work better and be more respected, thereby building the credibility of the planning profession and helping it to blossom.
To illustrate this, I’ll focus on three of four different stakeholders in the planning system – but focussing mainly on planners, since it was planners at the conference.
We can make a huge difference by the way we interact with other stakeholders, particularly the public.
One project I’ve worked on is facilitating neighbourhood sessions for a local authority’s long term planning strategy. Most of the sessions went very well. But in one particular area, a number of people felt that the Council hadn’t listened to them for years. Relationships are at rock bottom. Trust is non-existent. Local residents have even set up a blog against the director of planning.
I’m not judging who’s to blame. But something is needed to break the cycle.
Needless to say, that workshop went very badly. The “anti” local residents questioned the worth of the exercise.
But something very positive came out of that bad experience: the Council was jolted into taking more responsibility at the rest of the workshops. They engaged and they listened. And people responded very positively.
Local politicians didn’t emerge well from that example. They had approved the draft that was being discussed in the sessions – but declined to introduce a re-run of the one disastrous session. I can understand their desire not to lose votes, but avoiding responsibility for decisions does not help the credibility of the planning system.
Developers and their advisers
This includes me, on occasion. We have to take more responsibility.
Many developers and consultants do already. There are good examples up and down the country, such as those highlighted in the Scottish Government’s recent best practice Planning Advice Note 81: Community Engagement in Planning.
But many more developers don’t behave responsibility unless they are compelled to. It’s our responsibility as planners, in both public and private sectors, to urge them to behave more responsibly.
Local communities are increasingly urged to take time to understand the planning system, to get involved in development plan preparation, and to couch their representations in planning terms.
Personally, I think this is the wrong angle. Residents and community groups are lay people. They don’t get paid for wanting to have their say in the future of their local area.
Is it really reasonable to expect them to learn all about this highly complex system in their spare time, unpaid, in order to engage in the planning system ?
The issue is that the playing field is not level between communities and other stakeholders in the system. The balance of power and resources is stacked up against communities, and always has been.
So, to encourage communities to engage more effectively with the planning system, we as planners have to help them do that. We need to take time to explain things to them. We need to help them understand the planning system, what they can realistically hope to get out of it, and how to do that. Above all, we’ve got to have the right attitude when we engage with them.
To, return to the title of this piece, planners can make a difference. We should all take responsibility for our actions, and not be afraid to lead by example.
This doesn’t just mean people at the top of the planning profession, important though that is. Every day of our professional lives, each and every one of us can make a difference – even if it’s as simple as the attitude we have chatting on the phone or the tone of our emails.