Breaking Barriers?

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Hello again, it’s been a while hasn’t it?


To be honest the planning review consultation with all it entailed, including the large number of workshops we did around the country, taking part in the Government’s working groups, speaking to politicians and planners, writing a mammoth 25 page response of our own, plus a record level of enquiries left us a little bit pooped!


We’ve now had some time to rest and recuperate, which is important for anyone working on long term campaigns. Suitably refreshed we are gearing up for the next phase of the planning review in the autumn. This will arguably be the most important stage as the Bill is passed through Parliament. We will need all the help we can get so please watch out for future blog posts or get in touch directly.


Although now even more sceptical of what this review will achieve we did have fairly high hopes for one part of the process and that was that the Barriers to Engagement research that was commissioned to provide background evidence. We were pretty confident that any research on the publics’ experiences would vindicate our own findings that people are increasingly distrustful of a system that doesn’t either listen or respond to them.


And so it did.


We also hoped that the conclusions might  support our calls for more radical solutions that go beyond tinkering and instead aim to bring about  a full blown overhaul, moving away from the neoliberal orthodoxies that currently shape our approach to planning and towards a fairer, more democratic system of people and environment centred place-making.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, this doesn’t seem to have happened.


The report was finally published on 22nd May having been submitted to the Government in early March. As we waited and waited for it to be published we did question why it was being held up for so long, well after the consultation period had closed and other commissioned research had been made public. We have been told that the delay was because it was so interesting that a lot of Government people wanted to read it prior to publication. Others have speculated that the original report was considered controversial,  leading to some political hold-ups and perhaps even some time consuming editing. It would be interesting to see the original document and find out exactly what was going on behind the scenes, wouldn’t it?


One noticeable aspect of the study was the significant numbers of people involved and we applaud the researchers for their efforts to gain a large number of views, particularly in response to an online survey. In total, 1640 people responded to at least one of the 40 questions posed, a number large enough to provide some confidence that what is being said is valid.


There is some discussion about the survey respondents and the report is careful to assert that the opinions received still only represent the views of a minority group of people.


This raises something of a paradox. It is easy to represent those who respond to such surveys as being the ‘usual suspects’, a self-interested group “who for the most part, are already sufficiently motivated to engage with the planning system”. Of course, another way of phrasing this caveat might be that “the detailed survey questions were really only relevant (or indeed understandable) to those who have already had pretty extensive dealings with planning and so naturally attracted a certain sample of the population who are familiar with the system”.


This may seem pedantic but my reaction is sensitised by the fact that the biased sample may well be used as a reason to dismiss any meaningful findings as being responses from those pesky NIMBY’s and therefore somehow not relevant. It would not be the first time that this has happened. There is a tendency for developers, planners and others who don’t like what they’re hearing, to dismiss such opinions, or to argue that they don’t reflect the views of the “silent majority” that they conveniently claim to speak for.


Despite this, we believe that the Government should definitely take note of this report. The results of the survey are utterly damning of the current situation and perhaps reflect a wider discontent about the value of civic engagement.  The report acknowledges that,


There was a big perception gap on most of the preconditions, but both groups [ie planners and community sector respondents] are agreed that there is a serious lack of trust, respect and confidence in the system, and that community engagement exerts very little influence on planning outcomes.


It is unfortunate, therefore, that the report does not go as far as it could to address such fundamental issues in its recommendations. Of course, a Government appointed research project is perhaps unlikely to come up with anything that strays very far from the current review agenda. The suggestions for change here fall back on much of the current review agenda, advocating local place plans, further training, resourcing and linking community planning with spatial planning. This is all very well meaning, but sadly seems unlikely to address underlying trust issues or to rectify existing inequalities in power between different actors and social groups.


And so more public resources have been spent producing a report whose recommendations remain focussed on process and introducing more bureaucracy. It is disappointing, when the results of the survey seem to point towards a mandate for more fundamental change.


The most potent symbol of this, as might be expected, came on the issue of Equal Rights of Appeal (ERA). Despite support from 93% of the community sector and 89% of the ‘other’ category of respondents, once again their cries for justice are ignored, apparently trumped by the greater influence of the 60 % of planners who remain nervous about real empowerment.


Instead of ERA, there remains a blind faith in frontloading or early engagement, now to be strengthened through local place planning. There is little consideration of why or how people should be persuaded to devote huge amounts of time and energy to contribute to a local development plan or local place plan when there is no guarantee that their efforts will be reflected when development control decisions are taken.


Unfortunately, there is precious little evidence of a politics of hope penetrating the world of planning, seemingly no appetite for reimagining what planning could be; no manifesto for better and fairer planning; and no proposals for a system that serves the many not the few. In reality I guess we knew this research wouldn’t be a vehicle to bring about real change, but it does at least demonstrate without any shadow of a doubt that the seeds of discontent are there. And as recent political events have demonstrated those politicians not in tune with the public mood risk losing support and being overtaken by those who do.

You know, just sayin’.




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