Debbie Tripley’s response
The key question for me about the new planning system is ‘Will it be fair?’
We kn ow that the current system is not ‘fair’. The current process assumes that the institutional structures of factual information, persuasion, consultation and persistence offer a fair outcome for local communities. But instead it has created a ‘them’ and ‘us’ culture that has become more entrenched in the way planning decisions are made over the past 10 years.
ELF’s experience shows that community groups feel that their voices are simply not heard and that the process of plan making is seen as an essentially, negative, cynical and an unfair system.
In more deprived communities consultations are seen as ‘one fit for all’ – disregarding the particular needs of disabled or black ethnic minority communities. There are cases where planning authorities fail to explain to justify permission for development where there has been over 1,000 local objections and 2 petitions set against just 109 letters of support add to people’s alienation from any sense of democratic engagement.
So fairness alone requires government and local authorities to provide the conditions for collaborative participation. This is referenced in the Aarhus Convention as an essential component for people to live in an environment adequate to their health and well-being. The Convention requires public participation to be provided when ‘all options are open and effective public participation can take place.’ This is the essential component for any localism agenda.
It is insufficient to establish forms of collaborative consultation unless the public has an opportunity to engage with the strategic context for local planning at a very early stage – when the decision makers minds are not made up – when all parties are in listening mode.
On the face of it the Localism agenda is a real opportunity. It could represent a huge shift of power to local communities and it ought to create stronger local democracies
But we need a road map to avoid more of ‘them’ against ‘us’ based on:
(a) Fairness – there needs to be some rebalancing of power so that people feel supported both socially, financially and legally when the powerful fight back against being held to account. A carefully defined community right of appeal would help here.
(b) Inclusive participation – Just saying that people can participate does not bring about inclusion on an equal basis. There needs to be a longer, more deliberative process that enables people to build trust.
(c) Developing key skills and social capital – Greater collaborative participation will need people to be able to participate in rational dialogue, with active listening and debate. Many citizens will not have sufficient confidence to do this and will require training to help to overcome inequalities..
(d) Bridging cultural values – Local authorities need to find ways to bridge cultural differing values as they can’t assume a commonality of values at the local level. This is particularly important when considering whether or not neighbourhood forums are sufficiently representative and able to deliver their purpose, as set out in the Bill, of ‘furthering the social, economic and environmental well-being of individuals living within their area’ . Local authorities will need to demonstrate that their vision for the local area can ‘protect all interests’, including those of the black or minority ethnic communities who are currently 11 times less likely to access green space than those living in more wealthy areas .
(e) Developing sustainable communities – CPRE through its own network of local groups and volunteers knows better than most the enormous untapped power in communities to make radical and sustainable improvements to our environmental landscape.
For the new localism agenda to support this great untapped energy it will mean communities involving all stakeholders to develop a sense of shared interests.
This should involve an integrated view of sustainable development. The great danger at the local level is that a single issue or a idea for development is pursued to the detriment of the poorest and the environment.
So mechanisms for integration that bring about agreed outcomes will need to come from the current planning reforms if communities are to be able to plan and deliver solutions. At ELF we call this ‘legacy planning’ – bringing all communities together to actively engage in developing a shared idea or vision of the locality for the long term, sustainably and for future generations.