Planning Democracy have been exploring people’s experiences of being involved in Public Local Inquiries (PLI’s). Our interest was stimulated by Walter Inglis’ description of his roller coaster ride through the Grangemouth biomass PLI that we highlighted last year and by the number of inquiries for help with PLI’s that we were receiving.
It seems that everyone finds a PLI challenging; for some this is a rewarding experience but for many others it has led to depression, feelings of cynicism and in some, a sense of trauma. These strong emotional responses chime with our previous research into the public experience of Scotland’s planning system.
For our investigation we carried out a survey of citizens’ experiences. The results show some striking similarities in the responses that suggest they are significant and illustrate important aspects of peoples’ experiences. This is particularly notable as the voice of citizens has not often been heard in debates about the efficacy of the PLI process.
All of our respondents expressed a perceived sense of injustice about the process. This was not directly related to the result of the PLI, but rather was a response to the organisation and conduct of the inquiry. Several said that they felt the inquiry did not fulfil its purpose to ‘objectively evaluate expert evidence’, i.e. that it was not a place to “hear evidence and judge the truth”. Some of the common challenges people found with the PLI process was the intimidating nature of the process, the adversarial nature of cross examination and the changing deadlines and volume of work involved.
Our conclusions are that there is a need to rethink the PLI process to ensure that people are able to participate in a non-intimidating environment where key issues are fully and fairly examined. Further research is required to explore how this goal might best be realised though international experiences from other deliberative forums (e.g. citizen’s juries) may provide some valuable lessons.
The research also emphasises the importance of focusing on the particular needs of non-professional participants. If people are entitled to participate in such processes, a basic sense of justice requires that they be equipped with the support necessary to ensure that they can present their case fully and that it will be given due consideration.
In order to ensure that this is the case there needs to be much greater recognition of the sacrifices and costs many members of the public incur in order to meet the challenge of participating, both in terms of preparation and the stress of the inquiry itself.
We have sent the results of our survey to the DPEA with our conclusions and a list of recommendations. The DPEA are currently producing guidance notes for “parties who are involved in appeals and other casework and what this will mean to them in practical terms”. This guidance will cover hearing and inquiry sessions and we hope will help address some of the issues we have raised.
If you have been involved in a PLI and want to share your experiences contact us or write a comment below.