Championing Community Rights at Holyrood Conference. With no struggle there is no progress.

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Planning Democracy’s Community champion Mike Adams recently spoke at the Holyrood Conference on Scottish Planning Policy in Edinburgh. He was there representing Planning Democracy and aimed to represent communities across Scotland. Discussion centred around the Scottish Government’s Independent Planning Review set to be published next week and what it might contain.   This is what he has written for us.
Earlier this week I was fortunate to have the opportunity to speak at the Holyrood Conference on Scottish Planning Policy. The event included representatives from, amongst others, the Scottish Government, a range of local authorities, legal firms, the mediation sector, Shelter Scotland, the RSPB and the developer lobby group the Scottish Property Federation.
The event was chaired by Petra Biberbach, chief executive of Planning Aid Scotland and a member of the government’s independent review panel. While there was much anticipation that the review would have been published in the lead up to the conference, this was not the case. We are still today waiting for the panel’s report to be released by the government.
The event started with a reflection on the planning system by Craig McLaren, Director of the Royal Town Planning Institute. He walked through the RTPI response to the planning review, which focused on ways to better resource and empower planners. Following Craig was David Melhuish, Director of the Scottish Property Federation. Again he focused on the response that the SPF had submitted as part of the planning review. Being a group that lobbies for developer interests it was not surprising that the tone of his presentation portrayed developers as those wanting progress, efficiency and reform and communities as those who cause the problems.
If we are to move forward and make positive, progressive reforms to our planning system this attitude must be shed. Community engagement is a fundamental part of our planning system, and is the spirit in which the system is designed to operate. I strongly believe that the true champions of reform in Scotland are communities, those who want the best for our neighbours and future generations. However I will address this more a little later on.
Mr Melhuish went on to try and predict some of the potential outcomes of the planning review, commenting that the review will most likely focus on improving efficiency and not far reaching reform. However it was at this point that Ms Bieberbach raised an eyebrow as if to say…wait and see. Of course I hope that her insinuation is true, that the review will recommend positive and genuine reform, but I will reserve judgement until next week!
Following the two early speakers was an interactive session with John Sturrock QC. John is a Harvard graduate and one of Scotland’s top mediators and legal minds. He is the founder and chief executive of Core Solutions, a mediation firm often involved in sensitive discussions between developers, local authorities and community groups.
John’s presentation was strongly affirming in his message that to deliver change, progress or reform we must work together in a positive environment. The very nature of planning often results in confrontation and conflict. Many people, myself included, do not get involved in planning until a controversial issue has arisen. However his message was that if we are to move forward toward genuine reform, then the group of stakeholders (communities, local authorities, government and developers) must do so collaboratively.
This is quite the task.

Currently the development industry has a monopoly on lobbying and influencing government policy and decision making. They are expert and well funded, with the connections to match. This has led to an increasing shift of influence into the hands of developers, through central government. Reform is needed, but can it happen while developers continue to exert this influence? And, if we are to progress in the collaborative way that Mr Sturrock rightly championed, what needs to change?
This leads neatly to the part of the day where I was able to speak in front of the conference as part of an expert panel discussion. My role as an expert could certainly have been disputed, but my enthusiasm for community rights could not!
We were each expected to make opening remarks setting out our opinions of the planning system, with a general focus toward equality and reform. Having not been aware of this portion of the debate I spent a few minutes scribbling down some notes as to what I might say.
My views on the planning system were forged in the same fire as many others – fighting a wildly inappropriate planning application, outwith our local development plan, against a well funded and well connected developer. For me this process started in 2013 and continues on today, however I quickly decided that I wanted to not only fight for local justice, but wider justice and equality for all of those in Scotland who are affected by planning (which is, like it or not, all of us).
And so arrived my slot for opening remarks.
Who are Planning Democracy and what is a community champion? Why is a champion of communities even needed? And why is community sometimes a bad word?
I explained that we, the people who are currently engaging in the planning system, are unfortunately in the vast minority…and are usually engaging too late. An overwhelming number of people have no awareness of what local development planning is, let alone how or why they should get involved. There is a huge imbalance between the expertise, time and money available to developers and that which is available to communities. Communities are time and time again being surprised and blindsided by major planning applications that had no mention in the LDP. Once they engage and start to overcome some of the hurdles placed in their way they are hit by repeat applications and tested “wear down” tactics. Even the word “community” is often used to portray a small and insignificant group of people. They are faced with a system that allows a developer to appeal every rejection at every step along the way, even if those rejections are entirely just. And finally, even if they manage to fend off an inappropriate application, in comes the central government with an option to approve it outright.
Worst of all? After all of that battling, if a community has faced a true injustice their only option of recourse is a complex, lengthy and often vastly expensive judicial review.
Planning Democracy are to thank for the introduction of Protective and Restricted Expenses Orders which can limit these costs, however the barriers to general public engagement in the judicial review process remain.
I must admit it took a little more than 5 minutes to talk through my points, but Petra Biberbach was happy to let me speak and many delegates sat enthusiastically nodding in agreement as I explained our perspective.
The floor was then opened for questions with most focused on community rights and engagement. We discussed the lack of public knowledge of the planning system, how to combine residential and  infrastructure planning and ways to increase community engagement. The best question of the day however came from Mr Sturrock QC who asked me – what tangible things do we need to change in order to reform the planning system?
This question gets to the heart of what we face in Scotland. Each corner of the debate expresses how they want the system to be, but we must take the lead in promoting the tangible changes the government can actually make to bring about the reform we need.
My answer?
There are many tangible ways in which to greatly improve our planning system. Planning departments must be given increased funding, application fees must be increased to cover the cost of dealing with those applications, larger community engagement teams need to be created within local authorities possibly utilising community volunteers, the LDP must be protected from continued attacks from developers through stopping the process of submitting major applications on unallocated Greenfield sites, and the rules on appeal must change to restrict the cases in which developers can appeal and match that with an equal status for communities.
But it certainly got me thinking. The planning review will be published in the coming days or weeks and with it a list of recommendations for the government to consider. These recommendations may well focus on the arguments often presented by developers, or they may in fact champion for a fairer and more equal planning system. In either case we, the people for whom the planning system and government is meant to serve, must enthusiastically campaign for the government to adopt any and all positive recommendations in the review…and quite possibly a few more.
There is a growing chorus in Scotland that is on our side and communities must continue to be a leading and positive voice in that call to action. Our newly elected government have committed to “empower individuals and communities in Scotland” this week stating “we know that it is only by empowering individuals that we can achieve our shared ambition for a fairer and more prosperous nation.”
Let us hold our government to that commitment. In meeting with our newly elected MSPs, local Councillors and community groups we can continue to grow the movement toward a fairer and more equal planning system.

Write emails, letters and facebook posts. Be positive in our fight for change and open to discussions with people from all corners. If there is no struggle, there is no progress!


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Clare Symonds

Clare Symonds is the Chair of Planning Democracy.

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