Delivery vs Engagement – A way through the tension?

Nick Wright gives his take on how to reconcile two potentially conflicting aims of the Planning Review: Better community engagement, and more efficient delivery.

These are the views of the author.

A constant tension has been present in the Scottish Government’s Planning Review since it was announced in 2015: how can planning deliver more homes AND give communities more influence over their future?

True, the tension between community aspirations and delivering development doesn’t exist everywhere in Scotland.  But there are plenty of places where there are vocal lobbies against new development.

The government is consulting on proposals for the future of the planning system. I’m concerned that those proposals won’t resolve this fundamental tension between more community engagement and more development.  Others have concerns too: this well-considered article on the Planning Democracy website also suggests that the consultation paper’s proposals have some way to go.

Let me explain my concerns about the proposals – and a simple way of making them more effective.

front-loading: wishful thinking?

Don’t get me wrong: I support the government’s proposal to “front-load” community engagement (which means more community engagement early in the preparation of Local Development Plans, so that communities have greater influence).

Plans should better reflect community aspirations than they do currently, and “front-loading” will be a good way of achieving that.

But I am sceptical whether “front-loading” will succeed in its other objective of reducing objections, challenges and delays when planning applications are eventually submitted, possibly some years after the Plan is published.

We all know, really, that the public won’t all get involved in influencing Local Development Plans, however engaging and accessible we make that process.  But submit a planning application to build houses on a green field, and the objections will flood in.

Will objectors politely withdraw their objections when they’re told that site has been allocated in the Local Development Plan, maybe five or more years previously?

Of course they all won’t – and quite understandably. Maybe they moved into the area after the Plan was prepared, so couldn’t influence it. Maybe they were engaged with the Plan, but didn’t agree with it. There are lots of reasons to expect that there will still be objections, challenges and delays, even with more front-loading.

“The public” – which means you and me – don’t have to behave like an organisation which takes a decision and can then be held accountable for changing its mind. We, “the public”, can do what we want. And there are millions of us, all acting individually. I’m concerned that the consultation paper’s proposals don’t recognise that messy reality.

So, I think there’s a big risk that “front-loading” is wishful thinking when it comes to reducing delays later in the process.

clarity of purpose

But I believe there is another way of resolving the tension between delivery and engagement. It’s about clarity of purpose.

The consultation paper suggests giving “a stronger role for communities at key stages of decision making” in Local Development Plans (paragraph 2.15). But it’s not clear about the purpose of that stronger role.

Local Development Plans and planning applications are all about making decisions. Not everyone will agree with those decisions, however much “front-loading” we do, as I’ve explained already.

I think it’s “make-your-mind-up” time for the Scottish Government:

Is their proposed “stronger role for communities” really about empowerment?  That’s a strong word.  It would mean that local views could trump national or regional development aspirations.

Or does the Government propose to retain community views as one of a number of influences alongside environmental and wider strategic concerns? (albeit with more community influence in decision making than at present)  That’s community involvement, not community empowerment.

which is it to be?

As a planner, I believe the purpose of public engagement in planning should be community involvement, not community empowerment. Planning needs to listen and respond to communities better, but it also has to more openly balance their aspirations with wider environmental and strategic concerns.

I struggle to see how development planning and development management could ever really be seen as community empowerment, precisely because planning has to balance local people’s interests with wider environmental, economic and strategy interests.

But there are plenty of people, including many community activists, who expect the new planning system to be a tool for community empowerment. Indeed, section 2 of the the consultation paper raises that expectation in relation to the proposed ‘local place plans’.  But the reality is that ‘local place plans’ and better engagement in development planning/management are really about more community influence, not community empowerment.

(‘Local place plans’ are a great idea, as is requiring them to fit with the Local Development Plan.  But the proposed requirement for communities to ask local authorities for permission before they can prepare a local place plan?  That’s a long way from empowerment!)

The government’s reforms need to be very clear on the purpose of engagement, particularly if they are to achieve the objective of improving public trust, the consultation paper’s laudable Proposal 8.

At the moment the proposed reforms are ambiguous, with the attractive notion of community empowerment dangling as a temptation. If that ambiguity finds its way into legislation, we are laying the ground for another decade or more of confrontation and mistrust between communities, planners and developers up and down the country – because each will have different expectations of community engagement.

That could and should be avoided with a clear and honest statement of the purpose of community engagement in the new legislation: more community influence as part of balanced decision-making, but no community veto.

in conclusion: what’s needed

Let’s not kid ourselves that the basic tension between community engagement and delivering housing will remain for years to come in many places. The principles of ‘local place plans’ and front-loaded community engagement are excellent ways of giving communities more influence in planning. But they are a long way from community empowerment, and they will not magically remove objections and challenges from the planning system.

Planning is about making decisions that balance community, environmental and strategic interests.  Planners and the planning system should give communities stronger influence, but the new planning system needs to be very clear that community views must sit alongside other factors in making good planning decisions.

Here is a golden opportunity for the government to resolve that constant tension between community engagement and development delivery. Let’s not perpetuate it.

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