How to deal with conflict in planning

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I recently took part in an event in Falkirk organised largely for planners, who, nearing the end of their Local Development Plan process, are taking a deep reflective breath and sharing their learning, before they embark on the start of the next one. I was invited along to put forward the community perspective on the development plan process. It was an interesting event and one that I felt really helped to share the experiences of different players in planning.

So before I go on I would like to thank Joyce Hartley from jhplanning[i] for being prepared to invite PD to represent the community view, one normally less well represented in events like this.

From what I heard it seems that there is huge pressure on planners to deliver their plans on time, which appears to lead to them taking a ‘risk averse’ approach to public participation. This perhaps isn’t surprising given that a number of local authorities will be facing yet more cuts to staffing. Next time round it seems some development plans will be delivered with less than half the staff working on this current set of plans. As a result planners said they took a conservative approach to public participation as they feared setting out any ambitious plans in their participation statements[ii], in case they had to admit they had not completed what they said they would do in their Report of Conformity for the examination process.

My talk focussed on the cost of participation. I drew attention to the fact that “the cost of delay” the concept that preoccupies the Government mind, is not the only cost associated with planning processes, and argued that the human price being paid by members of the public who get involved in the often unyielding system of planning represents a hidden toll.

From our own case studies, I told the audience about the language of participation that describes people’s journey into planning in terms more fitting for warfare than taking part in a democratic process. Words such as

Exhausted, isolated, anguished, traumatised, frustrated, baffled, depressed, rejected, raw and wounded”

Incidentally if these seem familiar it is because we talked about these in a previous blog post  Caring Democratic Planning or Exhausted Citizens.

The words resonated with one planner in the audience who said that it was often how she felt as a planner engaging with the system. Another planner picked up on the language and said that it often feels like warfare between planners and the public and asked me why I felt it was always thus and how we could change things.

It seems to me that in our current system, conflict is inevitable for two reasons, one is the stonkingly unequal playing field that planning is played upon and the other is the wider market driven context within which planning takes place. The result is an antagonistic sometimes aggressive system where each interest group (public, private and political) battles out their own values and interests, some with considerably more resources, power and influence than others. We have a system where players are treated differently, the public occupy the lowest position, not only in terms of resources, expertise, time and understanding but also in the way they are perceived. Those members of the public who voice their opinions strongly tend to cause bemusement or strike fear into the hearts of busy planners rather than be celebrated for their diligence to civic duty. Those whose arguments run contrary to the planning systems pro development stance, are perceived as a nuisance and a threat to the current ‘open for business’ attitude to development. They are frequently referred to in pejorative terms such as NIMBY’s, busy bodies and usual suspects.

The planners job appears to be one of managing public expectations and limiting differing views in an attempt to achieve ‘consensus’, smoothing out opposition whilst enabling development efficiently. This makes clear that the current modus operandi of public participation in planning is less an attempt to understand the public perspective, to debate and explore arguments, different views and values, in order to achieve the best possible development and more one of controlling citizen behaviour, limiting the scope of their arguments to comply with the demands of a market driven, profit seeking system. Planners hoping to achieve consensus and agreement, end up mediating the tensions between government policy, market forces and public expectations. They are at the receiving end of dissatisfaction from all sides, an unenviable position.

What are planners able to do about this unsatisfactory situation? Obviously Planning Democracy would like to see the playing field levelled significantly, which we believe would lessen the oppositional defensive approach the public are forced into taking. But planners themselves might be able to change their mindset and approach. Rather than avoiding conflict perhaps planners need to accept that conflict in the current climate is not only inevitable, but could be transformed into a healthy form of democratic engagement. The energy that comes from disagreement might be accommodated in a more ‘agonistic’ model of planning that values productive conflict and that acknowledges that differences between what different parties value may remain unresolved. Importantly however, each party in the process is seen as a legitimate adversary, whose views everyone might not agree with, but whose right to present and defend their views is not questioned.

It can be argued that we already have system which allows developers and politicians to behave agonistically. They are allowed to express their values and their right to defend them goes apparently unquestioned. The public’s role meanwhile is reduced to that of the ‘good citizen’. Active citizenship is encouraged as long as it does not become ‘activist’ and threaten to frustrate development activity.

If however we chose an agonistic system which allows (possibly independent) skilled practitioners to explore all the different parties’ arguments, encouraging dialogue where different views are presented. Where the goal is to discover a new view and find new solutions, using the experience productively and as an opportunity for mutual learning. In agonistic planning, the parties may agree on certain issues and respectfully agree to disagree on others. It perhaps can be conceived as a more mature form of democracy that paves the way to a culture of planning more tolerant to the coexistence of conflict between different value systems. It may also mean a more just system of planning where it isn’t the public who have the loudest voice and access to the better resources who win in the battle to be heard, but provides an opportunity for less articulate and technical arguments to be expressed.

An agonistic system perhaps will lead to a more rewarding experience for planners resulting in development plans that have benefitted from a prior process of rigorous debate on the issues (for example at the Evidence gathering stage or as a completely separate but related entity to planning, possibly as part of the community planning process) and a far less stressed planner trying to mediate whilst trying to write a complex development plan. One of the planners at the event in Falkirk described a situation during the development plan process where one of the newspapers locally had got the wrong end of the stick and written a misleading piece on sites identified at the Main Issues Report consultation stage of the development plan. This created a media storm and brought people out in protest. The result was much wider awareness of the development plan, which resulted in a greater engagement consultation.

Planning Democracy talk about designing a process of planning more in keeping with the grain of when people get involved in planning, ie making use of the fact that people often get ‘ignited’ by controversial planning applications that pose an immediate threat more than strategic planning where the implications are far less apparent. Surely capturing the energy aroused by controversial issues such as housing, fracking and wind farms in an open debate that involves all parties would offer a means of finding longer term policy and planning solutions to these thorny issues. Embracing conflict would surely mean that public participation in planning issues, instead of being perceived as a necessary evil, would become a way of finding the best possible means for people to express opinions and allowing the public to present passionate but valid views without being construed as planning enemy number one.

[i] ‘an event organisation and management business dedicated to providing low cost, high value events for planning professionals’

[ii] Participation statements are legally required as part of the local development plan process. They are expected to state when and how and with whom consultation on the plan will take place. You will find this statement in the local authority’s Development Plan Scheme. They are expected to contain a range of innovative techniques and activities, tailored to local circumstances. For more information on Development Planning Regulations see Planning Circular 6/2013 http://www.gov.scot/Resource/0044/00441577.pdf



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1 Response

  1. As a member of the public who has become involved in a local planning issue that has been appealed by the developers I am finding your artciles resonating with me. Yes we are appalled that the developer can claim expenses for deciding to appeal against the planning authority’s decision, whilst we as volunteers continue to campaign with no funds, gradually learning more about the process as it goes on. In our case the developer seems to have bent the ear of the Scottish Gov politicians to get it called in by ministers, we suspect because their case would not win on planning grounds. So yes I would wholeheartedly support Equal Right of Appeal.

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