A more devolved system is the answer to planning ills.

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Before we introduce a guest blog post we would like to wish you all a happy Christmas and New Year. It has been a really successful year for Planning Democracy one in which we have really developed our networks with people like you. Thanks to everyone has generously donated and taken part in our conference and other events. Thanks also to everyone who has become a champion for Equal Rights of Appeal and are helping us to progress our campaign. We will make a difference, it is going to take time and possibly quite a lot of patient persistence, but with your help we will soon get recognition that the public deserve the same rights as others in planning.

So without further ado here is a guest post written by Jim Johnson in response to our post of 7th September where we argued for the acceptance of a more adversarial planning process, accepting that in many cases consensus is unlikely to be achievable. Jim is an architect and was director of the Edinburgh Old Town Renewal Trust 1986-95, now a (voluntary) director of the Edinburgh Old Town Development Trust which was formed by local residents who were involved in the fight against the original Mountgrange, Caltongate proposals (now being built but called “New Waverley”). This post reflects the views of the author and is not a Planning Democracy post.

 

 

My own experience from joining others to object to a number of planning proposals in Edinburgh in recent years leads me to believe that tinkering with the mechanisms of planning is no longer adequate; we cannot ignore the political and financial climate within which planning has to operate. Political issues, especially their effect on local authority finance, are of overriding importance. Cash-strapped authorities are in no position to reject developer’s offers for sites owned by the authority, however detrimental to the urban environment. To paraphase a councillor a few days ago “If we don’t get the capital receipts we expect from this land sale we cannot build a badly needed new school.”

 

The reasons for this are obvious; cuts from Westminster, council tax freeze from Holyrood, financial mismanagement by individual authorities (the Edinburgh tram episode is but one example). When added to the market-driven context for national planning, local authority financial expediency leads to the situation where justified concerns by planners (and citizens) over the quality and impact of major development proposals are overridden by councillors on planning committees. This has happened recently in Edinburgh over the new St. James Centre.

 

I suggest that citizen’s problems with planners and the planning system cannot be solved within the context of planning; appeals for better local plans or more comprehensive briefs for development sites are inadequate. We should look instead to the current lack of real democracy in the way the UK is governed. Too many decisions are taken centrally in both Westminster and Holyrood, and too little power and resources are devolved to local authorities. And it has been argued by Andy Whiteman amongst others that our existing local authorities themselves are too big for citizens to feel they have any influence (let alone control) over their actions. In a series of events Nordic Horizons has demonstrated that Scandinavian local authorities represent much smaller areas and populations than in Scotland, and have more control over their own finances.

 

There is one example from Scotland to illustrate this point. In the early 1970s Glasgow’s programme of slum clearance and building new dwellings was plagued by financial pressures and widespread dissatisfaction with the products of the re-housing programme. In a small area of decrepit tenements just outside Govan Shipbuilder’s Yard a pilot rehabilitation project was started by the local community aided by some young architects. Using area improvement legislation and grants, the project demonstrated that the tenement flats could be given basic repairs and facilities, such as internal bathrooms, for minimal costs which were affordable by the owners. Problems posed by the mixture of owner-occupiers, tenants and absentee landlords were solved by setting up a local Housing Association run by a voluntary committee of local residents (and eventually composed of tenants of the Association).

 

The success of this pilot project led to the same model being adopted across Glasgow in other tenement areas. What became known as Community Based Housing Associations (CBHAs) ran a programme which rehabilitated thousands of tenements in the city from 1972 onwards, all under the direct control of the people who lived in the houses. This was an unprecedented devolution of resources, accepted by a reluctant city council, and funded nationally by the Housing Corporation.

 

In the early days each local Association appointed its own architects and contractors, and organised the rehab to the standards it felt were appropriate and affordable in the area. This was a kind of honeymoon period when local autonomy held sway. As the city-wide programme gathered momentum and the levels of public funding grew in scale so also did the levels of control. Standards were increasingly imposed from the centre by the Housing Corporation and the Scottish Development Department; standards which in many cases were felt to be unnecessarily bureaucratic. They were seen as a distraction, slowing the pace of the programme. In 1978 a Practice Note was issued by the Housing Corporation which provoked an acrimonious meeting at which the CBHAs said to the Housing Corporation in effect “you know you can trust us, so give us the money and let us get on with the job”. However public money being involved the authorities inevitably won the day, but the programme proceeded steadily despite ever increasing levels of centralised control.

 

The success of the CBHA programme in Glasgow lay not only in improving housing conditions but also initiating a new sense of pride in the city which arguably helped the transformation of its image from that of a post-industrial wasteland towards its designation in 1990 as European City of Culture. The judges for that award were taken to visit some of the CBHAs, their achievements demonstrating the broad basis for the city’s social and cultural revival.

 

This example shows that devolution of resources to a very local level can lead to surprisingly successful results. It also demonstrates the reluctance of centralised authorities to relinquish their customary control. Politicians and local officials have short memories. What was achieved in the 70s could and should be replicated. I believe such fundamental change is the only way to mend our broken planning system.


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Clare Symonds

Clare Symonds is the Chair of Planning Democracy.

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