My name is Clare Symonds that’s me in the photo, just about to do a hill race. I am an aspiring hill runner, but I am still very much at the aspiring stage. I am also the convenor of Planning Democracy, which 7 years ago, I set up with a few other folk who were equally committed to the pursuit of a fairer more inclusive planning system. I spend a lot of my time talking about PD to my friends and family, probably a little too much time in fact and to be honest it is clear that most of them are thinking, what exactly is there to get excited about planning? Why does she go on so?
My background is in community development, I have no particular planning campaign of my own and I don’t find the technicalities of planning in the slightest bit interesting. So how come I spend vast amounts of my own free time campaigning on this issue?
The other day I had a sudden insight as to why it is I find myself so emotionally driven to ‘do’ PD. I was sitting in a bothy in Glen Etive with some vulnerable young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. We were up there living together, enjoying the outdoor environment for several days as part of a programme that helps young people get a new sense of purpose in life. To entertain ourselves we had our own ceilidh around the fire where we all sang a song, read a poem or told a story. One young man, who had at one time been involved in gangs and drugs in South Lanarkshire, was now an aspiring writer and had just written a book about his life, in his own traditional West Central Scots dialect. He told us about how, despite being told to write in standard English. it was so important he wrote the novel in his own dialect. He then read this poem
The Six O’Clock News by Tom Leonard.
this is thi
six a clock
man said n
a talk wia
iz coz yi
mi ti talk
lik wanna yoo
it wuz troo.
jist wanna yoo
way ti spell
ana right way
to tok it. this
is me tokn yir
right way a
is ma trooth.
yooz doant no
yi canny talk
right. this is
the six a clock
nyooz. belt up.
By the end of the poem which he read with such conviction I found myself sitting there with tears in my eyes. The message was clear, that he had things to say, he wanted to say them, he wanted to be heard and understood, but he wanted to say what he had to say in his own tongue and in his own way. This resonated with me, it sounded so familiar, why was that? Then I knew this was exactly what PD is all about, this is the same cry that I hear from people when they contact us. Like this young man, everyone needs to be heard in their own voice, to have their perspective, their views understood and listened to. I think it is one of the most important human needs.
Over the years of doing various consultation and community engagement projects I have come to see the power of being listened to and conversely to see the damage that not being heard inflicts on the human psyche. I frequently hear how trying to get engaged in planning takes its toll on people’s health. I often listen to people telling me how their mental health is suffering as they struggle to get their views listened to in a planning context.
“My GP told me to give it all up as my health was suffering. He told me this wouldn’t happen in the West End, they take advantage of who we are and where we live, because we have less status and are easier to ignore. Imagine! My doctor told me that!” said one man from a disadvantaged community in Aberdeen struggling to cope with numerous applications imposed on their area.
“People who have engaged with the local plan process are absolutely pulling their hair out. We did a lot on our neighbourhood plan, but then we need to get what we want for our area into the Local Development Plan. I wouldn’t wish planning on my worst enemy! You mention planning to people now and they come out in rashes. No-one is listening to what we are saying anyway. It wears people down, people get ill” said one resident in Loanhead who had tried hard to get her community to engage in the development plan process.
“I feel emotionally traumatised” I was told by an elderly blind gentleman who has tried talking to his local authority about various planning issues on the phone, but without the benefit of modern technology has totally failed to get his views documented.
A community gardener turned planning campaigner trying to save a medieval walled garden related her traumatic debut with planning, as she tried to get recognition for a historic site that was zoned for housing “It made me ill, made me want to vomit, I had nightmares”, so alienated and uncomfortable did she feel with the whole planning process that she felt forced to engage in, in order to save an unrecognised unique heritage in an otherwise industrial area.
This is a key motivation for me to keep going, as I bend under the enormity of the challenge of making the planning system more human, more communicative, more ready to listen and respond itself. All too often it seems the public are listened to under duress, if their message happens to comply with what is being decided for them, then it is listened to far more readily than if their views conflict with current policy and plans. The biggest crime is not wanting development at all, then you are shunned and relegated to the ‘difficult’ category and described as someone wanting to preserve life in aspic, or too resistant to change. No matter if your purpose is to prevent what you soundly believe is a development that is detrimental to your community or the environment you live in. Those arguments and concerns are not in keeping with the pro development lobby whose voice is strong, clear and resonant with a growth agenda.
Currently the planning review purports that getting people engaged at an early stage of planning, will magically make everything less adversarial. But when did agreement ever arise from shutting down debate, from ignoring the challenges and dissenting voices? There is a not so subtle message running through the discussions that unless what you say complies with what is already being prescribed for your local area by Government, you will be ignored. This approach is not going to reduce conflict, it is not about communicating better, about doing planning better, it is planning by subjugation.
It is these overwhelmed voices of people, who express such frustration, such distress that motivate me to carry on with our work at Planning Democracy. I have every intention of continuing, despite the numerous hurdles that we seem to have to overcome.
One key hurdle is the lack of cash to enable us to do the things we think will help get the changes made. Although most of PD’s work has in the past been done on a voluntary basis, we seriously need regular staff and proper cash in the bank to be able to do our work effectively. Whether this is bringing people over from Ireland to explain how their system of third party right of appeals has not led to catastrophic economic collapse, or to develop resources to help people understand planning better, or to fund us to give talks around the country, we need money desperately right now, particularly with the planning White Paper so imminent.
So this year I have been taking my hill running aspirations to the very max and have been training hard for one of Scotland’s hardest hill races: The Glencoe Marathon, as a fundraiser for Planning Democracy. I have two weeks to go, so this weekend I shall be attempting a 22 mile run in the hills of South Lanarkshire as my final prep for the BIG Day. To be honest it will be a relief to finally do the event on the 2nd October. The training has been pretty full on and much as I have enjoyed it, it has been very time consuming going for regular 3 hour runs, particularly as the demands of PD have increased extensively since the planning review.
So I am asking you to please help our work by donating generously at my fundraising page. It will be very much appreciated by all of the PD team and all those who benefit from our work. Help us to be the Voice of People in Planning.
Click on this link to donate