Developing Public Planning Policy – Is there a right way or a wrong way?

Pam Ewen, Manager of TAYplan and Convenor of RTPI Scotland, discusses the different ways of developing public planning policy

Planners, as policy makers, have different ways of preparing new policies. Like most, I have developed an approach over time and sought to continually improve on it. But, is this the right way or indeed the wrong way? Is there such a thing as the right way? Or is it more about tailoring the approach to the individual and team.Policy could be a specific policy on housing, town centres, green networks etc. within a development plan or it could be a full document.

Surely an essential starting point is understanding who the policy is for, the intended audience, indeed customers. These will include elected members, developers, development management colleagues, consultants, community councils, Government agencies amongst others. These people will be of differing ages, potential investors from a multi £m development to changing signage on a corner store. Fundamentally, I believe it is about understanding who the main users are and designing policy to balance the needs and aspirations of users with the outcomes the Planning Authority is aspiring to deliver.

As any public policy maker will know, it doesn’t start with tapping into the key board a rough 1st draft. Time is needed to undertake research, consider the issues and policy implications arising from the research, and then consulting on the issues. Collaborative working is at the heart of the work I lead in the TAYplan Strategic Development Planning Authority and time is taken to listen, appreciate and respect all views. Positively using others views to challenge the early policy thinking is surely only beneficial; isn’t it?

Once a policy maker has gathered the information and discussed the issues, then let the tapping of the keyboard commence. I’m not sure about others, but for each complex planning policy there could be 25 re-drafts, of course including tweaks. Now don’t doubt that until you have counted them!

Through the testing, critiquing and rewriting cycle, different avenues and viewpoints need to be considered. The role of the Planner is to manage and create an end policy which is most likely to assist in achieving the outcomes that Planning Authority desire. That takes time, patience, respect for others and above all skill.


  • Develop and document policy principles from pre-work
  • 1st go…self-critique, bounce off colleague…
  • 2nd – 10th rewrite…think of how the policy should AND could be interpreted by different users
  • 11th-15th re-write…test through your manager and the wider team
  • 15th-20th  changes…test on key users, Government agencies etc. and policy principles with Councillors who are being asked to approve policy at a later date
  • 21st change …check nothing essential is lost in the editing
  • 22nd-25th tweaks…negotiating the win/wins so that it best meets the needs and aspirations of users and decision makers
  • 26th and final thought…perfect policy… usually after approval!

That’s not the end for the Planner in developing that policy. Most public planning policy needs approval by elected members. There are different ways I have seen Planners working with elected members in seeking approval for policy work and like others, I have learnt from the best. For me, the elected members are the decision makers. The role of the Planner is to respect, help and inform those members so they are best able to make a decision. Provide briefings to make it easier to understand what the policy is seeking to achieve.

A Planner’s skill set needs to allow them to collaborate and communicate well, being alert and responding quickly to key partners concerns. Negotiation, seeking out the win/wins. Smiley faces and happy planners! Project managing to best ensure the work is delivered within timescales agreed at project inception. And there are other skills.

So my way, may not necessarily be right or wrong, but it has worked and I continue to improve upon.

Some final thoughts from me…

  • Do your homework
  • Discuss with your team (teams) and know your policy principles before go out to wider testing
  • Don’t be shy in sharing rough drafts – respect and trust
  • Ensure you respond to suggested changes – engaging behaviour
  • Wear different hats – think of how a policy could be interpreted by a variety of people
  • Ensure it meets the legal requirements – court is expensive and slow
  • Project manage – deliver, but respect that others  within the team have their own core work
  • Enjoy and keep learning

…….and lastly, share your thoughts and learn from others. So, what are your thoughts?

This first appeared on the RTPI Blog

One thought on “Developing Public Planning Policy – Is there a right way or a wrong way?

  1. Thanks for an goo blog post about an area of planning that’s very rarely talked about. It’s interesting to delve into it.

    A lot of my work involves taking local aspirations for a place and producing a combination of actions and policies to make those things happen. I’ve been lucky enough to be involved at a number of levels, from region (like Clydeplan), city (like Glasgow City Vision) to village (like Crianlarich).

    I’d emphasise Pam’s point about collaboration. For me, the policy is the thing that pops out at the very end of the planning process. And it’s the first of Pam’s bullet points – “Develop and document policy principles from pre-work” – that is for me the most important one when I’m writing policies.

    Let me explore that ‘pre-work’ in a bit more detail.

    I believe it’s absolutely critical to engage with people at the start – businesses, residents, landowners, professionals – to ask the question: what do you want this place to be like? Once everyone has established the answers to that question (it will always be plural), the challenge is then to develop a package of policies and actions which deliver that long term vision. Done properly, that package won’t just include planning policy – it will include other public policy areas, public service delivery and actions by businesses, communities, landowners and local authorities. Planning (and its management of land use) is only one part of creating better places.

    For example: I’ve been involved in looking at the next generation rural planning policy in East Lothian. A recent rurally-focussed Main Issues Report public event explored what kind of rural communities and rural economy the area wants to see. There was strong consensus around not only the need to conserve biodiversity, built heritage and landscape quality – but also to recognise the economic importance of the countryside, the need for development and change to realise its potential economic contribution, and the need to strengthen communities. Happily, those four needs fit exactly with Scottish Planning Policy objectives for the countryside.

    Those four ‘needs’ should then set the objective for future planning policy, and other policies and related actions. It’s at that point that the policymaker can move onto Pam’s other bullet points, and starting the process of drafting and re-drafting 25 versions – with some checking-back with the original stakeholders at appropriate points.

    Why is this important? Because if policymakers truncate that crucial ‘pre-work’ (the first bullet point in Pam’s process) it won’t matter whether there are 25 or 250 redrafts: the policy won’t be working towards the right objectives. That’s why upfront collaboration is so important in policymaking.

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