Following the announcement of the Places, People and Planning Consultation on 10th January there was a debate in the Scottish Parliament. The consultation closes on 4th April after which a Planning Bill will be drafted. The Cross Party Group on Built Environment also discussed the consultation paper the following week. This blog is about them (and their varying quality) it also mentions tea quite a lot.
Anyone who knows me will be aware of my penchant for tea and will understand why my friend sent me the T shirt in the picture above. Indeed, I made a pot before I sat down to write this. I am never knowingly at an event or occasion without my flask, although sometimes it has been confiscated for security reasons. Luckily the Scottish Parliament is very understanding of tea addicts and allows me and my tea drinking receptacles through unquestioned. So, armed with the necessary refreshment, I attended the new Places, People and Planning consultation debate in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday 26th January, along with several PD supporters. It was great to have a good representation there and it did not go unnoticed. Thanks!
Planning Democracy had sent a briefing to all MSPs beforehand, so I was pleased to see the debate was pretty well attended (initially I was very surprised at the very high proportion of Tories attending, until it transpired that they were supporting the newly elected conservative Bill Bowman who was making his maiden speech. Most left after that).
Kevin Stewart the Planning Minister made his opening speech, stating that he wanted
“Scotland to have a planning system that can respond to the world that we live in today and anticipate the world that we will live in tomorrow.”
He is of course alluding to how planning can help growth and make Scotland more business and investment friendly. These are the Government’s priorities, no matter that this perpetual desire to generate growth disregards the fact that it is not delivering housing, infrastructure, health or even, for most of us, greater prosperity. But the Government continue to enthrone growth above all other outcomes, despite even establishment organisations such as the IMF now questioning its benefits and recognising the resulting inequalities it produces.
Gil Paterson (SNP) made an important intervention to the Minister saying
“We are all aware that, when it comes to developments, the developer has much more power than the community—that is not just a perception but a reality. Does the minister envisage that, following the consultation, which I very much welcome, the balance of power might change somewhat?”
To which the Minister, somewhat missing the significance and seriousness of the question, rather glibly responded
“Wise developers already have a huge amount of consultation with local communities. In this day and age, when we see technological advances, much more use could be made of things such as 3D visualisations, so that people get a real idea of what is proposed for an area.”
It is a shame that the current position of the Government relies on the goodwill of developers rather than taking responsibility for regulating the ‘unwise ones.’ And how anyone can seriously believe that 3D visualisations go any way towards tackling the current power imbalance is beyond me. Can you imagine NHS Scotland suggesting that health inequalities be addressed by upgrading the warnings on cigarette packages to graphic 3D videos of smoking related diseases? No, they recognise that “health inequalities are rooted in political and social decisions”. To address these, they suggest tackling the fundamental causes[i]. The Minister would do well to take the matter as seriously when it comes to planning our future developments and addressing the deep-seated unfairness of the system for most of us, on whom it impacts. I was grateful that there are MSPs present who do seem to understand this and are ready to challenge the Government on failing to address the real problems.
Andy Wightman from the Greens too raised the issue stating
“Put simply, the hegemony of the speculative, volume house-building industry has failed—it carries too much risk, it fails to respond to the challenge of creating high-quality places, and its lobbying power has corrupted the planning process right across Scotland. In our view, it has no future.”
Planning Democracy agree.
I was grateful to Monica Lennon, Alex Rowley and Pauline McNeil (Labour) for acknowledging our work and briefing, and raising the topic of equal rights of appeal (thanks to Monica for correcting others on their outdated language referring to communities as third parties). Alex Rowley’s amendment to the Government motion (unfortunately defeated) noted that communities had “limited rights to challenge decisions, and believes that reforming the system is an opportunity to put communities and people at the heart of decision-making” In fact many MSPs from almost all parties raised appeal rights but Pauline McNeil pushed the Minister by asking if the Government does not support a right of appeal for communities, how the current imbalances might be addressed? Some MSPs suggested removing the right of appeal for developers.
Graham Simpson from the Conservatives, although he concentrated mostly on his amendment to protect green spaces, (which we welcome), did also recognise the need to involve communities not just at the start of the process, but throughout the planning process. Importantly he also stated that “the whole direction of the proposals is about where development should take place and not about where it should not. The planning proposals still feel top-down. The approach is about Government setting targets for local government to deliver, and it is not clear at all what would happen if a council were to say no.”
Without a doubt, many MSP’s appear to be sympathetic to the situation that communities face, recognise power imbalances, many of their inputs reflected their own constituency experience, particularly where Green belt is threatened and recognised that more needs to be done than has so far been suggested if we are to properly address the issues.
Time will tell how the parliamentary process allows MSP’s to make any impactful changes to the current paper and shape the upcoming Planning Bill. Although the debate appeared to be pretty well informed, the question is, how robust are our democratic systems to alter the Government’s current direction of travel, to remodel seemingly entrenched positions and affect a process already so heavily influenced by powerful lobby groups such as Homes for Scotland?
One way you can help influence what happens in planning over the next few years is to take part in the consultation. It is an opportunity to respond directly to the Government, rather than have your views sifted through the somewhat biased filters of the planning review panel. We will, ourselves, be consulting with communities to find out how they feel about local place planning and their experiences of community planning so we can write our own informed response. If you wish to have a workshop on responding to the planning review please contact us.
Next blog post will give some indications of what we will say, but for now you can read our briefing
The scale of the democratic challenge we face came into relief the following week, when once again, armed with my flask of tea I attended the Cross Party Group on the Built Environment. Recently a number of people have advised PD to attend this forum to try to broaden out the current debate. So, as the agenda was all about the planning reforms I signed up. However, as it turned out, this was an occasion to see democracy reduced to theatre, rather than an opportunity to have an open and frank discussion with people holding a variety of opinions.
Confusion could arise as to why it is called a cross party group, as there was political representation from just the one SNP representative (as well as the Chair Linda Fabiani). The format consisted of presentations from the usual cosy establishment inner circle (PAS and RTPI), followed by a question and answer session with the panel and Minister for Planning, Kevin Stewart, with most answers being given by the Minister himself. The skill at which politicians manage to side step genuine questions is frequently demonstrated on TV debates and programmes such as Question Time. This was a masterclass in obfuscation and avoidance. Despite having plenty of time, the Chair hurried us along, the emphasis being on keeping questions short rather than encouraging discussion and Paxman like, demanding real answers. In frustration one architect in the audience stated that, as he could not reduce his question to the required one liner, he chose not to ask it at all. He added that such a necessitated stance reflected the level of the current consultation, frankly not good.
After the debate, there was plenty of time for informal chat as the session closed 25 minutes earlier than the agenda stated. I stood and talked with various others who had attended. It became apparent that it wasn’t just me who was picking up on the them and us vibe between the closed establishment shop of the panel and ourselves, there were some shocked by the glibness of the answers, others who felt angered at wasting our valuable time and being treated disrespectfully.
But now here is the thing. The Minister at the end of the session said that we could email him personally, even though his personal secretary would apparently be furious at the influx of correspondence. I wondered if perhaps that emailing him direct might produce a different, more reflective response, or whether it would be ignored as all our requests for meetings and invitations to PD engagements have been so far. He also asked us to encourage a wide a range of stakeholders to contribute to the consultation.
Which leaves me in a bit of a quandary.
Keen as I am to encourage people to get involved in planning I have no wish to lead people up the garden path, to encourage people to spend hours on consultation responses only to have their input dismissed, their time wasted and more importantly their faith in democracy dampened any further than it might be already.
In our dissection of the Cross Party Group afterwards several people raised the question ‘should people boycott the planning consultation altogether’? After all, if no-one takes part we take away the Government’s ability to justify their proposals with figures declaring how many people they consulted (obviously missing out the bit about how many they ignored). Perhaps Government consultations should come with a health warning that they may seriously damage your faith in democracy. Why should people engage if all they get in return are platitudes and evasion?
Having thought about this I have decided, it’s because we can’t afford not to. If we don’t, we won’t have a strong case to make during the Planning Bill process. We need people to tell the Government how they feel about their experiences of planning, what they think is needed to make better planning, how to regulate the developers, how to address the deep- seated inequalities and how to make sure that if people engage in local place planning their input is taken into account.
Over the past two weeks, having been involved in Scottish political debate of varying quality, set in the wider context of global politics, it makes you aware of how damaged our own democracy could become. With the insidious onset of post truth politics, where gradually political debate is reduced to parody, people eventually become used to the irrelevance of facts and arguments and well, we all know what that can lead to.
We need to call our own political representatives to account and demand proper answers. We need to use whatever mechanisms are available to us to ensure that our own politicians cannot ignore the facts we present. Democracy requires a citizenship that meets, deliberates and interacts. It requires forums that give people a voice and a feeling that they have a stake and some influence in the system. It also needs public spaces and debates in which people interact meaningfully. Currently we have these forums and spaces but they are often sadly lacking as the cross party group demonstrated, we must demand better quality democracy, we must responsibly engage ourselves, the stakes are too high not to.
Right that’s it. Time for action. After all I have just finished my tea……..
PS If you do boycott the consultation then tell the Government that that is what you are doing!