Watching The Developers
In response to the Government’s 10 point plan of action following the planning review, Planning Democracy have developed our own priorities for the future. Some of these will not surprise you as many people are familiar with our arguments for better engagement in planning, and how it can lead to a richer participatory democracy, that is well-anchored in more legitimate representation and effective management.
However, you may be less well acquainted with our arguments for better regulation of developer behaviour, and our call to question what kind of a development industry we want in this country. We can already hear the claims from our detractors that we are just an anti-development lobby. The problem, they cry, lies with those NIMBY’s who just don’t understand the issues, and will cause the economy to stagnate with their obstructive ways. Why, it is the PUBLIC who need to behave in a reasonable manner and get educated in the ways of planning. Once communities are well versed, they can engage better and will understand that their tendency towards resistance is a product of misinformation and misunderstanding on their part. After all the developers are working in the public interest. No question.
We argue back that this paternalistic view of engagement is misguided because it rather conveniently, overlooks the real cause of much conflict in the planning system. The Government seem to have taken at face value the review panel’s argument’s that the solution to better engagement is more of it, earlier on, using various gimmicks such as 3D technology.
But we argue that the measures required to make participation really fair and effective is to tackle the entrenched inequalities of power between different actors.
Communities and individuals often complain to us about developer behaviour. The kinds of things that we hear about are: developers making unsubstantiated legal threats towards individuals, partaking in aggressive campaigning, naming and abusing of opponents, making inflated claims about the benefits of development, being deliberately inaccurate with facts and figures (for example changing place names so as not to alert locals), failing to fully disclose information in a timely fashion, and using hidden channels of political influence.
There seems to be much less concern about this kind of behaviour. Despite claims that the planning reforms of 2006 would create a culture change in planning, very little attention has been focused on the development industry and its role in creating a fairer and more effective planning system. We don’t believe it’s ok for developers to hide behind ‘the market’ as if it’s some kind of natural law where profit is the only justification they need. Instead, we think it is time to ask whether Scotland has the development sector it needs to create better places in more democratic ways.
So we are putting out a call to publicly scrutinise the behaviour of the development industry – not because we are anti-development but because we believe the planning system can and should be interested in promoting good developer behaviour and good development and should actively discourage bad behaviour and bad development.
The planning system provides developers with considerable benefits. When society allows a developer to make a profit from land, without doing any more than applying for planning permission, we are granting them a social license to develop. The assumption behind this is that there is a public benefit to a proposed development going ahead. The granting of that social license brings considerable certainty to developers that helps to guarantee their profits. It should also come with clear responsibilities and expectations about the kind of behaviour communities can expect and that the development will benefit society. The planning system provides some degree of certainty and security in volatile property markets for developers and, lets not forget, also currently allows them to keep unearned profits from the increase in land value that planning permission typically bestows. In return we think it is only right that the development sector behaves in a socially responsible manner.
Planning Democracy believe that there needs to be acknowledgement of the underlying causes of conflict in the planning system. We believe this boils down to a fundamental inequality of power and benefits. At present the considerable benefits that developers enjoy compared to those affected by development are glaringly disproportionate, from access to information, time, resources and of course appeal rights. However perhaps the most significant and symbolic is the continued denial of these inequalities and the lack of action to address them. You only need to look at the Government’s 10 action priorities to realise that addressing these inequalities is off the current agenda. It is particularly telling that one of these action points is to stress that no action is to be taken on addressing community appeal rights.
We think one of the priorities of planning reform needs to be discussion about what we think a good developer looks like and how they would approach planning in a democratic way. We need to ensure that there is an open dialogue about what that means, and reciprocal moves to ensure that responsible developers are allowed to flourish and those that behave in socially less responsible ways are not. This means highlighting cases of poor behaviour to make the case that there is a problem and pointing to the way that the system could better regulate and shape developer behaviour so that problems can be addressed.