Planning. Democracy.

Most people don’t believe that they know much about planning, but if you give them a moment they quickly realise how important the effects it has on their lives.

Councils like Glasgow will now be looking at how, in a post-Covid world, they can take the opportunity to build better, healthier, fairer, greener cities. How they approach this will have a huge impact on the citizens and their health and well-being, not least the mental health and well being of those impacted by development. The effect of that development being dependent on many factors including the way that people are involved in the process of decision making.

If we asked Glasgow’s/Scotland’s citizens what kind of a model of planning do we want, one led by care for people and place or one that is led by the profit driven hand of an unfettered free market, it is likely that most would opt for the former. Indeed, most planners probably entered their profession with the former in mind. Likewise, it is likely that most people would opt for a collaborative rather than adversarial system of planning.

In theory in Scotland there are three core sets of interests in planning; planning authorities, developers and the public. This view is underpinned by the Aarhus Convention (to which the UK is signed up) which makes it clear that people have rights to a say in decisions that affect their lives. But this principle poses difficulties alongside our market drive planning system, which rather than regulate development is more readily seen as a facilitator of development. The predominantly market-led system of development equates public interest with development, ie any development is seen as a positive if it creates growth and contributes to the economy. This leaves little space for meaningful community engagement and is by its very nature divisive, casting anyone who objects to a development as a problem.

There is a common perception of people who respond to planning applications are a nuisance, so much so that they have their own specific negative label of NIMBY’s. And yet if you take a different more neutral view of development, one where development is only perceived to be a good thing if it contributes to the health and well being of society then the role of ‘objector’ is cast in a different light and perceptions can change. The objector is more akin to a positive role model of someone carrying out their civic duty in order to protect the public good rather than a nuisance.

It is not only communities who feel that they are cast in a negative light. Many planners too have expressed feeling undervalued, unappreciated and ground down by the market driven system where they operate in a culture of austerity and lack resources and time. This is a system where the developer is seen to be the chief customer and planners are expected to facilitate rather than regulate their actions. It all suggests a rather dysfunctional planning system, where it is increasingly awkward for anyone whether community or professional to be critical of development, whether or not that development is in keeping with policy or plans, is bad for the environment or simply poor quality design.

This same system also allows developers to put in repeat applications, a luxury that they make frequent use of, often doing so over a number of years, gradually grinding down any community appetite or ability to respond. Add to that the developers unique ability to appeal decisions and their deep pockets to challenge decisions that don’t go their way in the courts and it seems the system is entirely geared towards the profit driven hand of an unfettered free market rather than one led by care for people and place.

In this development friendly world planners are expected to be solutions focused, and are less able to behave impartially because of the increasing commercialisation of the planning process. Communities are expected to be pro development, ready to engage earlier and earlier in the system in order to ensure that they are ready to accept the inevitability of some form of development.

Meanwhile the system too often seems to discourage local elected councilors from engaging with their constituents, some interpreting the code of conduct requiring them to be impartial to mean not communicating at all with people who are opposed to a development for fear of being barred from voting on an application. This often leaves communities baffled and angry as to why their elected representatives are apparently not representing their views.

It is easy to see how detrimental a disagreement between those not wanting a development and those wanting to profit from a development can become, with planners placed rather awkwardly in the middle, unable to be totally impartial and too under resourced to actively and fully engage with the community. This conflict ridden system is likely exacerbated in cases where there is a history of a repeat application, stalled development or application being modified over long periods.

What happens then to those impacted by negative aspects of development and the development process? Who is currently listening to the voices of those concerned? Whose needs are being serviced in this current model of planning? The property development industry or the public?

Imagine this scenario

Supposing there is a situation where luxury flats are proposed on a greenspace by a developer wanting to make a handsome profit. The development comes at the expense of the community from the perspective of threatening local business, damaging wildlife areas and being out of keeping with the area. The community and many others are opposed and multiple objection letters are received, making valid arguments. The situation grinds on for years, with an imbalance of power dynamic allowing the developer to damage the site and its wildlife, intimidate local residents and have pretty much open access to planning officers allowing them to change the details of an application on multiple occasions. Meanwhile members of the public are not allowed to attend site visits or meetings where key decisions are made and are unable to monitor progress because of lack of resources and a planning portal that is not kept up to date!

This is not unheard of my any means, but is it an example of a planning system that cares for people and place? In whose power is it to change the system?

Changing the way our economy currently runs may be out with the gift of a local council, but can a local authority respond and change the way it deals with planning, perception of communities and how it looks after its planning department? Should local authorities be doing everything in their power to overcome some of the deepening inequalities of the market driven system? I would say the answer to both questions is an emphatic YES!

The current covid situation has led the Government to allow some relaxation of planning rules, many of these are once again in the favour of developers. Local authorities should be considering ways of enabling the public to engage in planning in the new restricted world we live in, for example, providing extended deadlines or enabling online attendance of planning committees. In the new normal the planning system has to start serving communities before property developers – it always should have!

If you have had experience of fighting for community benefit over property developers profits please comment below.

Comments (8)

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  1. Cathie Lloyd says:

    Traffic planning in edinburgh is marginalising the disabled who can’t walk far or cycle. Paying lip service to equality issues isn’t good enough- there needs to be specific action plans formulated with help of users.

  2. Liz Summerfield says:

    I have often wondered why developers, alone of all businesses, are protected from loss of investment by council planning policy. It seems to be the only field where investment involves no risk.

  3. Conservation village dweller says:

    Edinburgh’s planning has been led by the developers for years. The Scottish Government’s stance doesn’t help either! It is all money driven. Who cares about anything else? Well guess what- the people who have to live next to the streets & streets of new houses care. We used to be able to walk next to fields, take our children to see the wildlife but it is all disappearing fast. Gilmerton Station Road – a prime example.

  4. Ann Coleman says:

    The voice for a more caring planned and controlled development system has been strengthened by the Covid 19 lockdown. I believe that communities and councils and even some political representatives agree – but will the public have an effective voice or will decision makers manipulate in favour of money once again. Just because the public don’t want more of the same developments in the wrong places doesn’t make us “Nimbies”. We want development that better suits the needs of 21st Century society and the challenges of climate change and sustainability, including the well being of all citizens. This can’t be achieved without changing the priorities and morals that presently shape development. Communities need to be respected – they live, relax, go to school and/or work in the places that are shaped by outsiders who can’t relate to that place and space like they can. No logic or respect for communities in the present system It discriminates against them.

  5. Loraine Frew says:

    With reference to our community’s lengthy efforts to oppose planning approval for more than 20 fracking sites around our village, we had significant engagement with planning system over several years.
    We remain Concerned that communities are treated as a nuisance to be evaded/ avoided in planning processes,
    In spite of contributing to a series of community and NPF consultations, we see no evidence of positive change.
    We do not believe that current frameworks, or opportunities for “placemaking” are sufficient to ensure that communities and their needs are adequately represented in planning processes, and are disappointed that Calls for Equal rights of Appeal have been rejected.

  6. SleepingDog says:

    Emergency planning in the UK seems particularly secretive and anti-democratic (possibly because the biggest emergency feared is an outbreak of democracy). We did have some local council public consultation on the climate crisis, though, which I tried out. The book I found most relevant on the subject was Elaine Scarry’s Thinking in an Emergency where she looks at existing democratic collaboration models of pre-planning:
    The problem with propertarian focus on planning is that (unless you have a bunker-building industry) you won’t get much interest in nuclear war planning.

  7. Martin Fell says:

    It is an extremely concerning situation. Coming from a community that has experienced over 10 years of pressure from developers, in terms of living standards, ability to trade and actual wilful deterioration of the environment (Otago Lane, Glasgow), this really resonates with me.
    Whilst one can understand and appreciate that planning officials are in a difficult position – straddling the needs of the community, environment and business, we do find that more often than not they have plumped for the money. This is despite the fact that they are working for the public. Indeed in my own experience of the Glasgow planning system, over the past 10 years it has got worse, not better. Though the City Development Plan contains much that is to be lauded, it has no teeth and is little but a statement of intention. Systematically the public has been shut out of the real heart of the process. Though allowed to make a comment, object, as Clare rightly suggests the public does not have anything like the resources of developers, we cannot afford to pay for lawyers which cost up to £400 per hour. We can attend meetings in the community – if they are indeed scheduled – to find out about a proposed development, but we can no longer represent ourselves at planning committee meetings – it is the prerogative of the chair person who is now more than likely to say no. Even before this we were only allowed 3 minutes to speak, whereas developers and their usually supportive planning case officers had as long as they wished, and indeed could invite specialists to make their case. We cannot communicate with councillors on the committee as they all feel, apparently, scared of appearing partial. Yet the developers can systematically go round persuading politicians and planning officers to support them. To put it bluntly, the public has no voice that will be heard. And that was before covid, and the policy of Build Build Build.

    We have already been subjected to what happens when a planning system is allowed to be deregulated – or even if the slightest whiff that it will become even easier for developers to build. Whilst I wholeheartedly agree with good, well designed and well meaning development, deregulation means that unscrupulous developers will try to get away with more bad and unsympathetic developments. Otago Lane now has an amended application to deal with. This is “fast tracking”, avoiding all the rigmarole of making a fresh application. The developers we have had to deal with for over 2 years now appear to be confident that they can get away with the wholesale destruction of a designated wildlife corridor – a recognised environmental crime – with the wrecking of a landscape used and appreciated by 1000’s of visitors to Glasgow a year not to mention the locals, and intimidating and obstructing businesses and residents. Effectively they are about to be awarded for their outrageous behaviour.

    I am sure we are not alone, which makes this article all the more poignant.

  8. C M Daventry says:

    Very familiar situation with developers in Fifea nd Angus pushing through construction of housing and holiday parks on greenspace without permissions – then applying retrospectively: this seems to create loopholes for a multitude of sins. There’s no attention paid to lighting olanning at all, when proper monitoring of lighting snd avoidance of blue/LED is the first and easiest way to take steps to protect biodiversity.

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