Peer Mentoring – Making a Difference

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This blog comes from Daya our peer mentor co-ordinator

It feels rather strange in these times of self-isolation and quarantine, to be writing a blog about the benefits of people coming together and supporting each other. During the early Covid-19 lock-down, we all witnessed some panic induced bulk buy behaviour from people, but there’s also increasing grassroots community organising, with Facebook groups for street support and local response teams popping up all over the place now. If nothing else, this virus won’t be just an exercise in centralising and government control but hopefully also of localism and community resilience.

Viral distractions aside, this blog is being written at the end of our year-long peer support mentoring pilot project – to reflect on how it went and how we can best support our peer support network in the future.

For more info, you can read our full report or watch our video.

We developed this project because we wanted to help people who are struggling to engage in planning. Planning Democracy have spoken out loudly about the emotional toll that planning has on people. We have often cited the words used to describe the public’s experience: “baffled”, “frustrated”, “isolated”, “ignored”, “rejected”, “exhausted”, “depressed”, “traumatised”, “anguished”, “raw” and “wounded”. We knew there was a real largely unacknowledged need out there for more support.

In the past, we have had some success in putting people together, as we said in our original blog on this project.  Being aware of the skills we have within our own network, offering people some peer support seemed the way to go.  So, we put together a proposal to run a peer mentoring project. The aim was to train 20 people with considerable experience of planning from a community and personal perspective, to empower 60 people to assert their rights to influence and improve their local amenity and environment through engaging in planning.

In the end, largely due to the enthusiastic nature of everyone in the network, we were able to recruit 28 mentors. They went on to help 155 people who either came to us for help through enquiries or who attended workshops for local groups and community councils. In total, our mentors responded to 20 enquiries and organised 8 workshops in their local areas which altogether were attended by over 54 Community Councils and 14 other groups, such as Development Trusts, Residents Associations and Conservation Groups. These groups shared their knowledge to others and we believe we reached roughly 1160 people. Geographically, the project spanned across 17 local authority areas across Scotland, from the remoteness of Highlands and Islands to the major cities and the urban spread through the Central Belt.

We had many positive outcomes, some as a result of assisting people who came to us with specific enquiries.

People often first experience planning when an application comes in that affects them. They find themselves having to react quickly and urgently and at the same time having to learn about planning system fast. That is often when they get in touch with Planning Democracy with an enquiry. Our mentors have to respond very quickly to these types of enquiries as time is often short. As part of the project, particularly to help folk who are very new to planning, we developed an easily accessible resource to help them respond effectively to a planning application, even if they have the shortest of timeframes and have never done it before.

We also developed another top-quality resource with Dr Ben Christman, to help anyone considering challenging a planning decision in the courts. People often come to us asking about judicial reviews but there is much to consider. This resource definitely gives you all you need to know if you are thinking about legal action

We hope to continue to produce more resources in time as our work continues.

Thanks to Alan Lennon Design for the great graphics and design.

A number of our mentors helped people with a wide range of issues from community empowerment and participation requests, to technical information on building overshadowing and housing land supply to democratic issues on how to ensure their councillors represent their views. They helped people to feel confident to actively take part in consultative processes and exercise their rights of participation, liaise with local authorities and officials more effectively, or giving them a better understanding of the planning system, relevant policies and legislation. Often this required just a couple of supportive and informative emails, a nudge in the right direction or listening to someone vent their frustrations and suggest where to most usefully focus their energies. Sometimes people benefited from the mentors’ campaign skills, for example how to use the media or Freedom of Information usefully.  Sometimes it was their hard-learned experience of a technical aspect of planning. The skill of the project was perhaps allocating the right mentor to the right person, understanding what exactly was needed.

Occasionally people needed specialist help and we were able to pass them on to our friendly legal experts, who were able to give them legal clarification or advice. This is one area where the future of our relationship with the new Environmental Rights Centre lies.

See below some of the positive outcomes of the issues that came to us through enquiries.

Mentors supported people to:

  • Consider community buy out of land to protect habitat area for red squirrels
  • Understand how to do a grassroots community led local place plan
  • Gain confidence to respond to a complex application
  • Understand better how to build community while doing a local place plan
  • Get support from their local community to fight a damaging development
  • Understand community empowerment legislation on participation requests
  • Feel energised to get support when feeling alone on a planning issue
  • Protect badgers from a local development, finding out who owns the land and working closely with local people and Scottish Badgers to set up monitoring
  • Get technical information on minimising light loss from a proposed development
  • Consider new options on how to gain co-operation with developers on planning conditions
  • Contact MSP species champions to help protect wildlife threatened by development
  • Find out who owns land giving the opportunity to speak to landowners about an application
  • Question the energy consumption of a supposedly ‘green’ CHP application for tomato growing
  • Challenge incorrect housing numbers allocated in development plan resulting in protection of greenbelt
  • Present their case to councillors which resulted in ancient woodland protection in the Local Development Plan
  • Successfully oppose a harmful fish farming development, getting the attention and support of local councillors

It was great to get good feedback too!

“Just wanted to say thank you again for all your support. It really helped to keep me going. Some more research did give me some hooks on material considerations for my presentation, which the councillor who tabled the rejection motion picked up on. Anyway, I’m one of a much happier community this morning, still smiling!” (mentee)

Many people who come to us are reacting to planning issues, forced into firefighting rather than forward planning. But we recognise that this is exactly how people get involved in planning in the first place. Most people don’t wake up and decide to get involved in their Local Development Plan one day, but PD are in a good position to work with those who have had to react, to start thinking more long-term and working together to get on the front foot.

Most of our mentors were among the many people who contributed to the lengthy process that led to the new Planning (Scotland) Act 2019. Subsequently, those mentors were able to capitalise on that knowledge and experience. Some started to organise learning exchange workshops on Local Place Plans as well as the new National Planning Framework 4 to help people understand the new planning legislation and its implications.

There is clearly a need out there for information on planning to be shared. The project really showed us how you can help move people who may have first engaged in planning by reacting to an application to thinking more long term and proactively about how they can shape their local areas and Scotland in general.

“Thank you too for your willingness to follow up with your contacts and raising the lack of community voice in planning at a more strategic level.” (mentee)

We also find that it is harder for community councils, to get involved in consultations on National and Strategic issues on their own. Many community councils already struggle to keep abreast of local matters, and it is crucial for them to come and work together on issues that address the bigger picture. In the recent report by the Scottish Community Development Centre and What works Scotland ‘Strengthening Community Councils’, Community Councils (CCs) across Scotland reported that most challenging issues are those of power, legitimacy, diversity and support.

Worryingly, there is no over-arching body to co-ordinate community councils in Scotland and we find that significant support is missing especially for under-represented areas. It is encouraging that one of the recommendations of the report supports the formation of CC coalitions: ‘Where an appetite exists, development and support should be provided for local CC associations as a source of information and support for CCs and a regular point of contact for local authority and other agencies’.

Which is why we were excited that a key outcome of the project was the formation of several local community council planning forums and community network groups emerging in Glasgow, Ayrshire and Lanarkshire. These groups formed with a view to meet regularly to exchange information and work strategically together for better planning. Like the excellent model of the Midlothian Federation of Community Councils, whom PD regularly meet up with and which is cited in the above report as a good example of a collective voice for CCs in local decision-making structures.

One of the best project outcomes was the effect on our existing PD network. It is clear that people in our network, especially our mentors now feel a lot more connected, better supported and a part of our growing movement. People who came to the events confirmed the importance of meeting others and hearing their issues. They valued ‘an open informative discussion between like-minded people & enthusiasm to move forward, sharing of ideas’.  It was great seeing such a variety of communities coming together; rural and urban, city centre to green belt outskirts, affluent and deprived areas – all of them acknowledging their differences but also finding commonalities, all brought together by planning!

In addition, we have strengthened the relationships with our existing partners and made new connections with other organisations, most excitingly with the new up-and-coming Environmental Rights Centre Scotland (ERCS) and we are looking currently exploring how our peer support network can inform and enhance their work.

As the community networker on the project, I felt like we were finally starting to make a difference to more people than we ever have before and I’m really grateful for being involved in such a ground-breaking and rewarding project.

We celebrated the project at our Annual Gathering and it was a brilliant event; the energy in the room was so incredibly positive that many people commented on it. The feedback we received was also very encouraging, real recognition of the importance of our work and how much it means to people. Some of it is captured in this video made by two students from Queen Margaret University for us (Thanks Sam and Eibhin).

What has come across very clearly was that our project gave people courage, confidence and conviction to carry on engaging in planning while supporting each other along the way and campaigning together for a better and more equal system. What a change to the words we used to describe people’s feelings at the start of this blog.

Finally, but importantly, as a community worker who usually works on an ad-hoc consultancy basis with PD, it was great to have some core funding, even if only for a year. It was enough to make a big difference to my morale; it really helped me feel more valued and part of the team. Being paid regularly without constantly submitting invoices, to have the pension contribution covered and even some paid holiday was just amazing. It is sad that so many small third sector organisations like ours can’t access minimal core funding more readily and the staff often struggle with other part-time jobs to make ends meet.  We are always in such a precarious position, having to rely on a short project-based funding and our supporters’ generous contributions to keep going.

Under the circumstances, we find it really difficult to access further funding or ask for donations. However, if you think planning is important or you have in some way benefited from our activities, it would be great if you could set up a small direct debit or a standing order to support our work, but only if you can of course. One-off donations and cheques are also welcome, details on our website.

As we have proven in the past, we can do a lot with very little resources and even more when we have some healthier funding. Even before the latest pandemic, we were working from home to utilise the scarce resources and we’re confident we can continue going strong in the future. Everyone we spoke to recently has remained positive and agrees that perhaps this latest situation will bring much needed changes to how we do things as a society. Either way, people powered planning is here to stay!

See here for a full project report.

Thanks to all the mentors who came to training and helped others with the planning issues!

A final thank you to the People’s Postcode Trust and Players of the Postcode Lottery for their support.

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