The Place Standard Tool – Sharpening Front-loaded Engagement?

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In their recommendations for planning reform in the upcoming Scottish Planning Review RTPI Scotland has proposed streamlining the Local Development Plans (LDPs) preparation process. To allow communities more meaningful input into LDP preparation, RTPI Scotland supports a more visionary and positive frontloading of community and stakeholder engagement. One current initiative to improve community engagement with the planning system is the use of the Place Standard tool – launched by the Scottish Government in 2015. The Place Standard tool provides a framework for stakeholder engagement emphasising both the physical infrastructure and the social assets of an area through a set of 14 themes. Recently, I had the pleasure of helping Edinburgh Council out with some Place Standard events in the Southside area of Edinburgh. The sessions took place on two separate days at the Southside community centre with an additional event scheduled for the local mosque. As wellas the face-to-face consultations, an online platform was provided by the council.

As a novice facilitator myself, a second rendition saw marked improvements in my performance. Initially, I sometimes over-relied on the supplementary questions, but later found that using them as prompts to keep the discussion flowing was more effective. Fortunately, I was well acquainted with the place which was particular useful when helping capture the issues at hand. It became clear that if facilitating in an area less familiar to me I would scratch up on the area beforehand. The questions themselves were broad-reaching and reflected in both lively and comprehensive discussions. Contentions were voiced – amongst other things – about housing and the large, transient student population in the area. However, something I recognised is that the Place Standard tool is not just a vehicle for voicing discontentment within an area but a means of celebrating and accentuating the positive attributes as well. In particular, conversations touched on the exceptional natural space and play and recreation facilities in the area. This framework highlights planning as a means of mediating tension between stakeholders in the community but also as a mechanism in which to accentuate and celebrate positive elements of an area.

Ultimately the underlying goal of participative exercises is to achieve collaboration amongst stakeholders. The collaborative process relies on the exchange of values, problems and strategies in an environment of consensus building and mutualistic understanding. I observed that when agreeing on a rating for the various categories within the groups, collective decisions were achieved with remarkable diplomacy and pragmatism. The outputs from the events displayed quite clearly shared values across the groups and sessions:

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There was a steady turnout for the events on both days, but a notable lack of diversity in the demographics of the attendees. It will be an interesting challenge going forward into how events can capture a larger variety of stakeholders brought together. Of course, the future of technology holds great potential for community and stakeholder engagement. To do this planning technology must be reformed from providing access to neutral information to enabling social enquiry and democratic discourse – the Place Standard tool could make a useful contribution to this. There is a concern with the current format of online participation could lead to a reduction in face-to-face exchanges, and thereby limiting opportunities for learning and mediation I witnessed in the Southside events. In planning situations, consensus building has been shown to break deadlock on key issues but additionally the process itself can produce innovative, creative solutions (1). Some thought needs to be taken into how we can open up the discourse on the online forums, to encourage this exchange of values and avoid creating digital ‘echo chambers’. The goal will be to produce a system where participation is both accessible and convenient whilst retaining it function as a means of collaborative value exchange. Further opportunities lie in how these outputs can then be assimilated in a meaningful way into LDP preparation and for use in various departments within local authorities.

  1. Innes, J. E. and D. E. Booher (2010). Planning with complexity: An introduction to collaborative rationality for public policy, Routledge.

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