Last month the Government launched a consultation on its proposed Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill floating lots of interesting ideas. On Twitter today the consultation team asked for our views on the link between the Bill’s aims and planning; we’re happy to provide.
At Planning Democracy we campaign for an ‘inclusive’ planning system – what we mean is a system where people are empowered to have a fair influence over what does and does not get built in their community. By a ‘fair’ we mean that there is a level playing field between the public and other stakeholders.
The consultation makes an interesting proposal to do away with lots of existing duties on public bodies to engage and replace them with on overarching duty to “ensure effective community engagement”.
My first thought was this would water down all the specific requirements in planning legislation to advertise locally, hold public meetings etc and give loads of wiggle room for public bodies to engage in any way they wanted. However the main criticism we hear of public engagement in land-use planning is that people feel they are not listened to and that the important decisions are already made. This is largely because there’s a problem with the culture (as opposed to legislation) of the system which values efficient (e.g. speedy) decision-making over democratic (e.g. participative) decision-making.
So it’s primarily the culture we need to change to deliver a more inclusive planning system. Culture change is a difficult thing to deliver but maybe a general duty for effective engagement across all public bodies is the foundation that’s needed for more democratically mandated development decisions.
Any general duty to engage would not itself be enough. It would need to be backed up with standards and independent oversight. The consultation floats the proposal that the National Standards for Community Engagement might become compulsory; this would make an excellent set of standards already adopted on a voluntary basis in the planning system (PAN 3/2010) and by other public bodies.
That leaves independent oversight. Imposing a general duty would need an independent body to provide advice and assistance on interpreting national standards and could provide confidence to a public body that they are fulfilling their duties with the power to approve or reject their community engagement plans.
Imposing a general duty like proposed wholesale on the quasi-judicial planning system could be a big change. Much of the system’s timescales and structure would have to remain but some requirements, e.g. to advertise in a local paper, hold one meeting in the locale, might (but not necessarily have to) disappear to be replaced by the duty. This would only improve our democracy and empower communities to achieve their own goals and aspirations if it precipitated a real change towards a more inclusive culture in planning, something I can only see happening with the oversight of an independent body with the teeth to act as a champion for public engagement, run inquires and investigations of its own and challenge those who are failing to open up their decision-making structures.
A proposal needing careful consideration but it’s a thought worth having.