In 2016, The Scottish Government commissioned a study on the barriers of community engagement in the planning system. This came after a review of the Scottish planning system recommended that it should be reformed in a way which ensures collaboration, inclusion, and empowerment of the community.
The study has now been completed and the results are clear: communities believe that the current system is failing and want reform.
One of the key findings highlighted in the report is that there is a significant lack of trust in the current system. Communities expect council planners to represent the public interest, yet do not have the confidence they will do so. The perception is that the planners are not independent, but rather working “hand in glove” with developers.
Additionally, the report highlights a lack of clarity about why planners and developers engage with communities. There is a perception that community engagement may not be an opportunity for local people to shape the planning decision, but rather a simple exercise of “going through the motions” with little chance of success.
The report also focusses on the lack of transparency in planning decisions – the use of technical language is perceived to be “used as a weapon” against communities who wish to engage or challenge the application process. This ultimately excludes people, who are not experts, from engaging with the planning system.
The overall consensus among communities and developers alike is that there is too much pressure to approve housing developments quickly. The concern is that the focus on delivering much-needed development is often at odds with Scottish Government’s goal of creating what they describe as “great places” which have the backing of the communities who live there.
However, the study also found that while communities believe a better balance should be struck, they are also aware that too much engagement would be equally damaging – potentially leading to the planning process stalling under the strain of engagement.
The report sets out three recommendations to improve community engagement.
1. Create the pre-conditions for engagement – i.e. develop trust between the planners, developers and communities in order to create the kind of culture which will inspire confidence and motivation to engage with the planning system.
2. Establish appropriate policies and process – i.e. create legislation, statutory rights and a code-of-conduct for all parties which will form the basis of how each party should engage.
3. Good Practice – i.e. learn from best-practice and encourage those who do not usually engage to get involved.
It remains to be seen how these recommendations will be taken forward by the Scottish Government and local councils, however the findings are likely to inform planning policy in Scotland in the future, as the Scottish Government remain committed to encouraging a more open and accessible system.
As the issues raised in the report are not unique to Scotland, the rest of the UK will be interested in how the recommendations are applied, and the resulting engagement achieved.