What should I call you?

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I’ve heard of plenty conferences in Edinburgh discussing how the 2006 planning reforms are ‘bedding down‘ for local authorities and affecting developers. But I, and Planning Democracy, are interested in how the reforms are affecting the large group of people somewhat dryly referred to in the planning system as ‘third parties’, ‘communities’ if you’re lucky, or ‘stakeholders’ if you are less so.

None of these three terms satisfy me. Above I’ve suggested ‘communities’ is best but it rankles. It sounds like government-speak. Hundreds of policies and consultations have come and gone focussing on community but my gut feeling is that nothing has fundamentally changed in the power relations between (and within) third partners, developers and planner authorities.

For the past year I have been writing case studies and contributing to Planning Democracy’s vision for the Scottish planning system and how we might get there. Every time I come to refer to the people who give their time and effort to participate in local decision-making I stumble. They (we) are normally referred to as communities but I’ve already said this doesn’t work for me – so I’ve always plumped for the least bad ‘members of the public’. When describing our conference happening this April, which will specifically be looking at the experience of this group of people, we even fell back on describing it as ‘from a community perspective‘.

Today I was fed up and thought we must be able to do better so started a mind-map, ok a doodle, on the subject. Turns out we can, it’s so blindingly obvious – ‘citizens’. Why haven’t I thought of this before? I must be slightly dimmer than I thought!

Why do I think using ‘citizens’ to refer to this group is good? Well for me at least it evokes the idea that members of society have certain rights and responsibilities – citizen’s rights.

Many thinkers across the world see a rights-based approach to participation in local decision-making as the only way to successfully challenge existing power structures and enable a fair process. In fact the Scottish government’s white paper on planning reform spoke of people’s ‘right to be involved in a fair and transparent system‘ before being watered down in the final legislation (I’m planning a future blog post on this).

Planning Democracy also talk about an ‘active democracy‘ – a combination of participatory democracy, where people are directly involved in decision making, and representative democracy, where elected officials make decisions. The origin of this concept here is ‘active citizen‘ with its many interpretations.

I would contest that people do have a right to be involved in a fair and transparent system and centrally that’s what Planning Democracy exists to promote. I think ‘community’ or ‘member of the public’ are useful terms is some cases but that ‘citizen’ (try not to think Kane) is more suited to our vision of rights-based participation in local decision-making.


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