Clare Symonds of Planning Democracy addressed delegates at the Scottish Planning and Environmental Law (SPEL) conference in September 2011.
Thank you for inviting me to come here and discuss the issue of community engagement with a distinguished audience such as yourselves. Its a great opportunity for Planning Democracy to have this discussion.
Planning Democracy is an organisation campaigning for a fair and inclusive planning system in Scotland. We do this through practical and academic research and by campaigning for change.
Fundamental to our work is a belief that people have a right to be able to actively participate in planning. It is an essential pillar of democracy to be able to scrutinise policies and plans and hold decision makers to account.
Our practical research includes workshops and interviews with people affected by planning. It shows us that many people feel that the promises made in the planning reforms to get better public engagement have not resulted in any real change.
We talk to people like Tommy and Harry who for 15 years have lived in south Lanarkshire surrounded by open cast mines. They have faced application after application after application in their area….. they feel robbed of a voice once more, as a recent application that contributed the cumulative negative impact on their environment and receive hundreds of objections, are approved without a public local inquiry. Despite being within 500 m of a local community.
Already their faith in the system was low, due to a host of issues but has the new planning system with its reforms and promises to improve public participation come any way close to helping regain their trust?
They have had years of experience of engaging with the planning system but they feel the reforms have set participation back years.
They like many we speak to feel alienated from the system and mistrustful of its workings. The impact on people like these is a huge psychological and emotional toll, which creates disaffection, disempowerment and a disconnection from power.
I ask you, is that how a healthy democracy works? Is that how the system is supposed to make people feel?
And what if you do put aside your cyncism as the people in North Airdrie did.
So here we have a community who had aspirations and well thought out plans for how waste should be dealt with, informed by years of living next door to Europe’s largest landfill. They acted appropriately and showed a great deal of foresight and responsibility by engaging with the system at the earliest opportunity. Their ideas were given a place in the structure and local development plans.
And yet a major application that hadn’t been considered during this development plan process was approved despite being contrary to the Development Plan and local community opposition. The community input was never acknowledged by the system or politicians and they were refused a Public Local Inquiry.
I ask you what incentive then is there for people to get involved early in the system? Without the right to challenge a development at a later stage, a front loaded system of engagement is a weak form of democracy.
We have supported Marco McGinty in his judicial review of the National Planning Framework. Here is a shy birdwatcher, who for most of his life has daily visited Southannan Sands to study and understand the wildlife there. He has a deep connection with the area He is incensed by a system that allows it to be threatened, but denies him a voice. He didn’t know about the NPF or Hunterston’s late inclusion into it thus giving it national development status which has denied him the opportunity to object to the need for development at the application stage.
So he took the only option of justice available to him, an expensive intimidating court case. This throws him into the unfamiliar legal world, where the language and culture is alienating and foreign. He has had his finances delved into put in the public domain but despite being jobless or taking a case in the public interest he is not eligible for legal aid.
I ask you is this a democratic equitable system of justice?
There are significant power and resource imbalances within the system to many it remains opaque and unaccountable and their influence in decisions is far from clear.
People talk about the tension between the key aims of the reforms. There is a tug of war between making the system more efficient or making the system more inclusive?
What we are asking is what kind of a society do we want to live in? One that values economic growth over democratic values and principles? Is planning in the public interest about facilitating development or is it about democratically deciding what kind of development is needed to enable people to live sustainably?
We have identified several aspects of what we call active democracy that we think will help to support a fair and inclusive planning system in Scotland: I would welcome a discussion on how we might achieve these aims and help strengthen our ideas.
We propose to launch the results of our thinking in our own conference next March we welcome you there too.
Presentation delivered at the Scottish Planning and Environmental Law (SPEL) conference ‘Changing policy and practice in a new planning era’ on 8 September 2011.