“Petra Biberbach, Executive Director of Planning Aid for Scotland, explains the implications of the new Planning etc (Scotland) Act “

By March 13, 2007

When the new Planning etc (Scotland) Act received Royal Assent just before Christmas, concentration was naturally more focused on the upcoming Christmas festivities, than what probably seemed, to the general public, a rather dull and turgid subject. However, what passed into law was in fact the most radical overhaul of planning in sixty years and a piece of legislation that will affect each and every one of us the length and breadth of the country, from the croft on the Western Isles, to the tenement in Central Edinburgh.

For the Communities Minister at the time, Malcolm Chisholm MSP, the Bill was a “once in a lifetime opportunity for reforms that would be more efficient and inclusive”, addressing what was seen as a system that was too complex and bureaucratic, with many feeling they did not have a real say or any impact on the decisions affecting their local area. He added that it was a key tool for supporting the economy and growing Scotland in a sustainable way, bringing communities into the planning process at the earliest stages.

One of the key aspects of the legislation is to devolve power to the people by making the planning system more inclusive and accessible, with greater openness and transparency when decisions are being made. The most important changes are the emphasis on community involvement and a new hierarchy of dealing with applications, designed to make the system more efficient and effective. This new system, it is argued, will pave the way for better and earlier involvement of the public in the planning process, moving away from the idea of consultation to one of participation.  By participation we mean entering into a dialogue with people, listening and hearing their ideas and vision and incorporating them into plans. It effectively reforms how planning involves people, and more importantly, how people are involved in planning, signifying a clear culture change in the planning process and community engagement.

Planning matters, and it matters to us all, whether it is as simple as adding a conservatory to your home, the location of a new school your children may be going to, the building of a new hospital, or the development of a new road or housing estate, this is your community. To achieve this, everyone interested in the future development of their neighbourhood, village town or city should understand the importance of the planning process, how to get involved at the earliest possible opportunity and feel confident that engaging in the process has been meaningful. Planning Aid for Scotland is unique in its approach as it has no advocacy or representational role. It was established to help people understand how the planning system works and provide the tools so that everyone can take an active part in the process.

This new emphasis on consultation will be underpinned by a new Planning Advice Note on Community Engagement, which for the first time spells out how Local Planning Authorities and developers should involve communities. The call for a genuine partnership between the developer and the public, ensuring both work together for their mutual benefit, is a measure heavily emphasised in the Act. This includes pre-application consultation, where the developer has to demonstrate the consultation undertaken and Good Neighbour Agreements, where the public are able to enter into arrangements with the developer for significant projects, guaranteeing them a role in monitoring the way these are carried out.

Encouraging public participation is regarded as a good thing and of course there have always been opportunities for people to get involved in the planning system, but these have often been regarded as highly complex, remote and technical by the vast majority. So when we talk about greater involvement in decision making, this means that we try and ensure all sectors of society are involved, out with the usual niche of well connected people. This can be done by using a variety of methods of engagement, which will of course require adequate resourcing to ensure individuals and communities are educated about what they can do and how they can get involved. It means especially targeting those sections of society traditionally underrepresented, such as those on low income, young people, ethnic minorities and travellers, who are often the most removed from the process. In many cases planning decisions have the greatest impact on these groups and it is vital everyone must feel part of a process that makes decisions which will ultimately affect their quality of life.

This approach means creating more opportunities for people to engage in an informal manner in places where they already congregate, be it at play groups, youth clubs, the local shopping centre or outside the school gates, bringing the planning system to the people by using innovative methods of engagement and knocking down barriers to participation. For example, as part of the consultation for new local plans being delivered for Sutherland and Skye and Lochalsh in the Highlands, we delivered training workshops for Highland Council planning authority to develop the capacity of community groups to contribute and engage effectively. This drew people from community councils, residents, tenants, community education and other local interest groups with our volunteers.  We have also tried other methods, using performance and visual art, for example, to reach out to new groups of people who in the past were not interested or were left untouched by traditional methods of engagement. This year, following a number of successful workshops, we will be undertaking a ‘Planning to Act’ event at the Edinburgh Fringe, raising awareness of the process and how people can get involved. 

The new Planning Act is a golden opportunity to ensure greater community involvement in planning, in a way that is currently not the case in England. South of the border research by Oxford Brookes University indicates that wider engagement has not, as yet, been delivered by the new English Planning Act and there is a real chance for Scotland to take the lead in civic engagement. In order to ensure this happens will not only require a radical change in culture, but adequate resourcing, both financially and in terms of personnel, to ensure we can all play our part in delivering the best future for Scotland.

For more information contact Alex Orr at Indigo on 0131 554 6512 or visit www.planningaidscotland.org.uk

13th March 2007