Why is public involvement in planning important?

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Six reasons why we think the public should be more involved in planning decisions.

Public involvement helps to make the right decisions

The planning system covers a wide range of issues which touch on many different aspects of life. The granting of planning permission often involves consideration of big issues. For example a planning decision about an incinerator requires decisions to be made about what we should be doing with our waste – should we burn it? Put it into landfill? or simply create less of it?. Many planning decisions must grapple with complex problems that have multiple causes such as climate change, crime and homelessness and urban decay. These are not straightforward problems, they have no right or wrong solution, they are often political and value-driven not technical.

A strong democratic planning system can help to make sure that the decisions that are made are the right ones. An inclusive process allows decision makers to take account of differing opinions, values and world views. They have the chance to explore assumptions, question definitions, contest facts and findings and promote understanding of the issues. This kind of approach creates better understanding of the issues. It probably won’t lead to a perfect outcome, and there will still be winners and losers, but, ultimately, it helps to decide on the best available course of action, best for society, best for the environment.

It is more accountable

Democratic decision making means that every perspective is looked at, difficult issues are aired and discussed, and potential or real problems are addressed rather than hidden away. If the decision making process is open, it makes it easier for mistakes and problems to be identified and rectified,. Openness makes it more difficult for people to be manipulated by powerful interests. Ultimately openness is also more efficient. Decisions might sometimes take longer to reach but they are legitimate and the trust that is built through them results in co-operation and a willingness to tackle issues together.

It develops skills and understanding

Involving people in resolving the issues that we face as a society can be time consuming and expensive. However it also means that everyone learns more, people develop a sense of civic responsibility and come to better understand the reality of what can be achieved by decision makers. The knowledge acquired during a participatory process (one that includes people) generates new insight and helps people understand the changes that are required to resolve today’s complex problems. It helps to build a stronger society by equipping people with a fuller understanding of both government, and their fellow citizens.

It helps co-operation

Traditionally complex problems have been left to “experts”, or small numbers of influential interests who have claimed the authority to deal with them. But this approach has proven inadequate, their solutions have been simplistic and ineffective, they have often succeeded only in generating conflict. What is needed is a more co-operative approach, one that is able to consider a wide variety of different views, and solutions.

It encourages long term thinking

Our democratic system allows for regular changes in government, which can lead to a short term focus for policies. Involvement of people in decision making leads to a longer term approach, which often has benefits for the environment and society.

It makes our democracy more successful

Democracies are more likely to be successful if they include people in decision making. This creates better checks and balances on power, protecting people and the environment and making society stronger. This requires Governments to act as enablers as well as enforcers and regulators. Peace and harmony are far more likely to prevail in countries that achieve meaningful participation. Involving people in planning is one way that this can be achieved.

How people most often get involved

Currently the way most people get involved in the planning system is when a planning application is put in and people in the area close to the proposed development suddenly become aware of the fact that someone wants to build a house/factory/incinerator/windfarm or extension. This results in people being forced to ‘object’ to development if they don’t want it. So they write a letter of objection to the council and that may (or may not) be taken into consideration when the planning application is approved or denied (and only if the objection is considered a valid planning reason).

This is a very reactive way of doing things. It puts pressure on people to react hastily (because they have to respond before the decision is made) and often negatively (because they are having something potentially imposed on them that will change their lives and may alter their quality of life). It is often a very unpleasant introduction to the planning system and doesn’t encourage a positive relationship between the public and those required to make the decisions. The whole process is often also bureaucratic, and filled with complicated seeming jargon that is unfamiliar to people (many of whom have never come into contact with officialdom before). In short, the whole process tends to alienate people.

Community councils are bodies made up of local people who often have a committee that responds to planning decisions. Although they are more used to dealing with planning issues they are also required to react quickly in order to respond to planning applications. Many only meet monthly and yet have to respond within 21 days of an application which causes problems. As community representatives they have to make decisions for the community largely because the system doesn’t give them time to discuss the applications with the people they represent.

See how community consultation can be done in this award winning project on the Cowley Road, Oxford.

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2 Responses

  1. William English

    Hi I liked this article.
    My experience with Lomond quarry is that I have spent months going through some extremely complex documents in EIA etc. I am no expert but I see areas that look to me like avoidance of rules that would stop the permission and rules that are not yet in force used to get the permission through. The elected councillors and the planning departments (just human beings) have a lot more to deal with than just quarries, so I believe that they rely heavily on the EIA reports etc that are produced by the companies hired by the applicant who wants the application to go through. If the application is refused will these companies that write the reports get further work from the applicant ?. To get unbiased EIA and other reports the Council should hire the companies to do the EIA reports and then charge the companies the price it cost the council. Would this give the public more confidence in the council.

    1. iainpd

      Thanks for your comment, and sorry it took so long to publish – we’ve been getting lots of comment spam but have fixed that now!

      Agreed the developer-commissioned EIAs can be a problem, their certainly percieved as a problem by lots of people we’ve talked to. They’re also so thick and complex, as you have found, they are not necessarily useful. I know the Scot Govt is attempting to slim them down, and, I think, recognises one of the reasons they have grown is because the companies have an interest in very detailed reports.

      Getting the council to commission the EIA’s would definately address the percieved conflict of interest, but admin heavy I imagine and would still require much input and info from the developer. Difficult one! Slimming them down to key issues so that it’s harder to bury the controvertial aspects would probably help.

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