Do the newly published NPF3 and SPP documents show a real commitment to innovative, democratic planning?

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The Government has today published revised versions of two key documents that guide the development of Scotland: the third National Planning Framework (NPF) sets out key priorities for development and tells us where it might go, whilst Scottish Planning Policy (SPP) explains how the planning system should work.

Reviewed in parallel for the first time, these documents are essential reading for anyone who wants to know what’s what in Scottish planning.

During their preparation the draft SPP and NPF have been subject to public consultation and parliamentary scrutiny. As a result there are relatively few surprises in the final versions.

After the lack of transparency last time around led all the way to the courts, Planning Democracy generally welcomed the Government’s attempts to improve consultation around the NPF. It was also good to see public engagement with the planning system was of real concern to the Local Government and Regeneration Committee in the Parliament when they considered the SPP and NPF.

Beyond these glimmers of hope, however, it’s clear we still face an uphill struggle to convince people of the need for real change to make planning more democratic.

This was apparent in the Minister’s response to the four committees who considered the review, they were told in no uncertain terms that he does not “currently expect to take further actions” to improve public engagement or to consider how parliamentary scrutiny of the NPF (a statutory 60 day period) could be extended or improved.

This suggests that the government does not believe there is much of a problem with the status quo, something that’s hard to reconcile with the views of the many communities around Scotland that Planning Democracy continue to hear from.

So what is wrong with the NPF and SPP?

The NPF is an important symbol of Scotland’s approach to planning – it should showcase a real commitment to innovative, democratic planning for Scotland’s spatial development. At the moment, however, this just doesn’t happen.

In our consultation responses and discussions with civil servants we have suggested that the Government should experiment with new deliberative mechanisms to generate debate about the plan and its impacts. We have also suggested ways in which this might be done to complement the work of MSPs in the committee system. To date, however, aside from some limited attempts to make consultation more user-friendly (largely it seems by holding events in shopping centres and using more maps), the Government has not acted as though they share our vision.

Whilst there are some worthwhile principles elsewhere in the revised SPP (e.g. on place-making), current problems with public participation haven’t been recognized or addressed here either. The key principle guiding the section called ‘People make the system work’ is little changed and suggests that:

Throughout the planning system, opportunities are available for everyone to engage in the development decisions which affect them. Such engagement between stakeholders should be early, meaningful and proportionate. Innovative approaches, tailored to the unique circumstances are encouraged, for example charrettes or mediation initiatives. Support or concern expressed on matters material to planning should be given careful consideration in developing plans and proposals and in determining planning applications.  (Paragraph 6)

As with the language of so much policy, on a first reading it’s hard to work out exactly why you might disagree with any of this. It might be that there is no attempt to define what meaningful and proportionate actually mean. Or it might be the failure to acknowledge that these things are likely to provoke tensions. For example, helping most folk make meaningful representations on “matters material to planning” is likely to require time and resources that others might consider disproportionate; whilst for engagement to be meaningful it often needs to occur close to where decisions are made and people are most likely to be interested, generally late in the process.

The idea of ‘innovative approaches’ is a new addition that should be cautiously welcomed, particularly as it chimes with our call for the Government to investigate the use of ‘innovative techniques in preparing the NPF3. The idea that charrettes or mediation should be highlighted as examples of innovative public consultation is, however, more worrying. Both techniques are generally used to make the details of development more acceptable to people, not to allow them to debate whether the principle of the development is itself a good idea (i.e. ‘what colour do you want your power station to be?’ not ‘do we need a new power station?’).

Whilst the guidance goes on to suggest a number of different reasons to promote engagement:

Effective engagement can lead to better plans, better decisions and more satisfactory outcomes and can help to avoid delays in the planning process. (Paragraph 6)

It doesn’t acknowledge that engagement to avoid delays may look very different from engagement that aims to improve plans and decisions for affected communities. Moreover, none of these reasons recognizes that there might be an intrinsic value to encouraging high levels of democratic participation in deciding how land is used and developed.

This leads us to wonder what the government means by ‘constructive engagement’?

Throughout the suspicion remains that the main reason for getting people involved is to win them over to the need for development.

This takes on particular significance in the context of a lively debate around whether ‘sustainable development’ or ‘sustainable economic growth’ should be the chief purpose of the planning process. The new SPP establishes a policy presumption “in favour of development that contributes to sustainable development”. Alongside the continuing (and very problematic) equation of sustainable development with (sustainable) economic growth, the government clearly remains committed to the idea that development is itself the primary public good that the planning system should seek to promote. However, as argued elsewhere (repeatedly), it’s hard to see how democratic planning can be if the answers are known before the questions are even asked!

As a result, it seems highly likely that those who oppose new development will continue to find their views are considered ‘unconstructive’.

Overall then, the SPP and NPF3 review processes highlight that the Government still does not recognize that there is a problem with democratic participation in planning in Scotland. Nor do they share our vision that democratic engagement should be at the heart of the planning system. There’s a long way to go in the campaign for planning democracy.

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