trees%20on%20football%20pitch1In the face of ongoing crisis of planning and community democracy, such as the recent farce of  a local council planting trees on a football pitch at Logie Durno, near Inverurie, Graeme Purves asks, Can we return to a Geddesian view of planning?

People, Places and Planning, the Scottish Government’s consultation paper on the future of the planning system, states that it wants the system “to empower people to decide the future of their places”. It proposes a number of measures to achieve this, including a new right for communities to prepare their own ‘local place plans’, a duty to consult community councils on development plans, and help with building community capacity.

The first key change the Scottish Government proposes is the better alignment of community planning and spatial planning. * This is a response to growing concern that the two systems are disconnected, with community planning lacking any strong spatial dimension and community planning partnerships having little awareness of the part which land use planning can play in realising social objectives.

A research paper published by RTPI Scotland in 2015 acknowledged that “spatial and community planning have often existed as mutually exclusive processes” and made a number of recommendations to improve alignment and communication, overcome barriers and promote community-led approaches. In Empowering Planning to Deliver Great Places published in May 2016, the independent review panel recognised the importance of aligning development plans with community planning, but looked ahead to community empowerment and land reform stimulating more community-led action and locality plans.

The Scottish Government proposes to address the problem by introducing a requirement for development plans to take account of community planning. While improving the alignment of spatial planning with community planning is eminently desirable, there are real and obvious dangers in requiring spatial planning to take its lead from an approach to community planning which is seriously outdated and badly in need of reform.

Legislation has saddled Scotland with a corporate model of “community planning” which has its origins in the 1990s and is now some 20 years out of date. It sees community planning as being about public agencies working together to deliver better services for communities. Too frequently, it is an exercise undertaken by cabals of senior officials in which communities themselves are accorded only a passive role. In fairness, the legislative reforms of 2015, Scottish Government guidance and best practice have moved beyond that, but community planning remains a process concerned with corporate governance rather than community empowerment and in many parts of the country it is still a top-down exercise dominated by politicians and officials – something that is done to communities, not by or with them.

“Too frequently community planning is an exercise undertaken by cabals of senior officials in which communities themselves are accorded only a passive role.”

Community expectations have developed a long way since the Local Government in Scotland Act 2003.

We now have a Community Empowerment Act which seeks to strengthen the voices of communities in the decisions which affect them and the Independence Referendum experience has contributed to the development of a more politically aware and engaged citizenry, ready to demand active involvement in service delivery and place-making.

Patrick-Geddes_imagelargePatrick Geddes believed that empowering communities to shape their own futures is what planning should be about. If we see the challenge only in terms of improving communication between spatial and community planners, we are in danger of simply making planners more complicit in a top-down and technocratic approach to community development which sells communities short.

If the alignment of community planning and land use planning is to be successful, the Government must ensure a fundamental reform of community planning practice, putting the empowerment of communities at its core. And if the locality plans which emerge from the community planning process are to be effective in informing development plans, spatial issues and impacts will need to be addressed as an integral part of their preparation.

The Scottish Government’s consultation on the future of the planning system runs until 4th April 2017.


* Spatial planning is the process of decision-making on the geographical distribution and location of development under the statutory land use planning system. Community planning is the process by which public agencies work with communities to deliver services under The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015.