£300: A step in the right direction or a token gesture?

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A step in the right direction, or a token gesture, community councils in Edinburgh to receive up to £300 to help deal with major planning applications.

Community councillors across Scotland are expected to play an active role in the planning system – influencing development in their area and representing local opinion. This is a mighty task for chronically under-resourced volunteers.

Yesterday, City of Edinburgh Councillors were discussing ways to support community councils, including a new fund that provides grants of up to £300 in the run up to major planning applications (MPAs). This certainly looks like a step in the right direction and we welcome the recognition that communities require more resources than they currently have in dealing with planning issues. But will money alone lead to genuine improvements, or is the Council’s move misplaced?

Last December we posted an article lamenting the loss of Edinburgh’s Old Town Community Council. After years working to represent their community’s interests, OTCC’s members resigned en-masse in protest because despite very proactive work and having tried to engage in the system their efforts were not recognised and they felt ignored.

As they explained, a key issue leading to their resignation was the total lack of support from the council when dealing with MPAs. Sifting through thousand-page documents, with only a few weeks to come up with technical recommendations on complex developments that the community councillors felt would likely be ignored anyway, was placing an increasingly overwhelming burden on members. This is a feeling shared many other community councillors who have spoken to Planning Democracy.

With this in mind, perhaps we should be heartened by the council’s steps to redress this situation, the financial assistance up to the value of £300 is there to help mobilise local communities in the run up to MPAs. Indeed, the money may go some way to helping address the public’s engagement that many CC members see as a major hurdle in achieving community-centred progress. Nonetheless, as anyone who has ever faced a major development in their area can testify – £300 is simply not enough to provide any real benefit. This is especially true if one considers the time, resources, expertise and access to planning officers that developers generally have at their disposal when placing applications.

Ann Coleman (MBE), an active member of Greengairs Community Council and a long term member of PD, expressed her cynicism at the move, which she feels seriously undervalues the scope of the work and efforts of CC members. She gets “angry about what is expected from people who don’t have the relevant expertise, who do it all in their own time with no payment and the difficulties caused by trying to work out details and implications of plans and convey them to the local community to find out their reactions.

The CEC’s move, although well intentioned, fails to address some fundamental issues. Members of the public face a number of substantial disadvantages when they try to engage with the planning system. A real solution would be to address community’s lack of technical expertise, experience, time, access to information and influence, unfortunately a problem not solved throwing in a few hundred quid.

Are you a community councillor? What support does the Council in your area provide when there is a major planning application in your area? Feel free to add a comment below.

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8 Responses

  1. Sean Watters

    This article displays a fundamental lack of understanding about what the primary role of a Community Council is, albeit a lack of understanding that many Community Council’s seem to share. They don’t exist for the purpose of “sifting through thousand-page documents, with only a few weeks to come up with technical recommendations on complex developments.” There core duty is to find out, and articulate, what the views of the community they represent are, and that doesn’t require detailed or technical planning expertise. It does require a bit of effort to inform, engage with, and consult local people, and that can be challenging in terms of time and resources, but that’s what the focus of Community Councils should be, not setting themselves up as pseudo-planning experts.

    1. iainpd

      Hi thanks for reading. But if it’s the community’s general view (after a CC has engaged and consulted) that a development proposal should be altered in some way or not consented, then who is going to represent and communicate that view? Surely the CC? In the current system that requires planning expertise.

  2. Sean Watters

    Representing the views of the community requires no planning expertise whatsoever. What’s required is the effort to actually find out what those views are, something too few Community Councils take meaningful steps to do. The statutory purpose of a Community Council is to find out and express the views of their community, not undertake technical assessments of planning applications.

    1. Rurigdh

      Hi there Sean, thanks for your continued interest.
      When it comes to planning the view of the local community may only be accurately expressed in reference to, and with understanding of quite technical matters, at least if it is to be given the due weight it deserves in the Planning world. Consulting communities on proposed developments in the first place will require an understanding of technical aspects of the application, as well as their potential ramifications. While as Iain points out, representing those views (for example in PLIs) will require considerable understanding of the factors involved, and the legislation in place.
      Walter Inglis, a former Grangemouth CC member who represented his community in a public inquiry over a Bio-Mass Energy plant in their local area, had this to say of the lack of support for CCs:

      “The volume of information and its technical nature has to be read and understood in order to make meaningful comments and or objections. Given that in the main community councils are populated by laymen and women we feel that additional provision should be made to facilitate access to expert independent opinion.”

      You can read more about Walter’s story here: http://www.planningdemocracy.org.uk/2013/an-emotional-insight-into-planning-inquiries/

      In the meantime we look forward to your continued engagement with our work.

  3. Sean Watters

    Well the principal role of a Community Council is to reflect the views of the community it serves. It’s a relaying of opinion, hopefully to give an accurate picture of what local people think. If the community isn’t expressing itself in complex technical terms, there’s absolutely no reason for their Community Council to be doing so. There supposed to be articulating the views of the community, not making technical planning assessments.

  4. Sean, I don’t see how a community can form a measured opinion about a development without understanding properly what it’s about. For a start how do you get a community of 500 or 1000 people to express a single opinion? If one person thinks the community needs, e.g. a proposed housing development, another might worry about the social and environmental impacts. As soon as a community councillor asks local people for their opinion, they will ask questions, which may (or may not) be answered by the the environmental impact and housing needs assessments for the proposal. Individuals don’t have time to read all these supporting documents, so the first job of the community council must be to assimilate, summarise and disseminate to the community simplified but accurate information about the development. A community council is not doing its job properly if it cannot answer questions about a proposal. Individuals can then start to form an opinion; a public meeting can be held; and a community opinion might be the outcome. That’s how the process could work, if it was properly funded.
    £300 might pay for an information leaflet and a public meeting, but little else.
    I think that developers with MPAs should pay a community participation levy as part of their application fee, which the planning authority either uses to facilitate a community participation process or passes straight on to the community so they can do it themselves – £1500 might pay for some much-needed technical advice. Some of the money currently used as ‘community benefit’ for onshore windfarm projects could be diverted up-front to enable the community to participate effectively in the planning process.

  5. Sean Watters

    Why would you want a community to express a single opinion? A community council should be there to fairly express the range of views, and divergent views, should they exist within a community. That requires consultation to find out what those views are, not planning expertise. All too often Community Councils already have “planning committees” that take a view of applications without making the slightest effort to find out what the views are within the community they’re supposed to be representing. And let’s not forget that for the most part these “community representatives” are entirely self-selecting given the large absence of actual elections for Community Councils.

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