Blog: Reforming planning needs a positive compelling vision, not just technical change

Henry McLeish
Henry McLeish

Former First Minister and town planner Rt Hon Henry McLeish on the launch of the Scottish Alliance for People and Places.

Those of us with an interest in planning are acutely aware of the issues the system faces. It is complex, is often lost in departmental structures, it is human resource intensive, often disjointed and can create endless conflict between developers and communities with the planning profession stuck in the middle as the arbiters and mediators. It often lacks identity in the new world of local government and is too often at the mercy of political direction and the “market”.

However important the structures, systems and resourcing of the planning system are, which we should attempt to get right in the Scottish Government’s forthcoming Planning Bill, this is not the primary problem we face. Rather, our problem is much more fundamental and existential – namely, people and communities in Scotland often do not see the relevance of the planning system to their everyday lives.

In many communities in Scotland, planning is viewed as an imposition – something done to us by big developers in partnership with local government. It’s about our neighbour’s extension. It’s about stopping the development we don’t like, rather than working together to plan the positive developments we want to see – local parks, schools, hospitals, housing.

We must reach out to communities, and build a compelling narrative for why their positive participation in the decisions about the places in which they live and work is fundamentally important for all our mental, physical and social wellbeing. The question is, how?

I was recently invited to chair a new multi-organisational body, the Scottish Alliance for People and Places, which launched recently in Edinburgh which will aim to answer these questions. The Alliance, unique in Scotland, comprising many well-known organisations across the planning sector, including the RTPI, has been established in recognition of the need for those of us eager to see change in the planning system, to come together and present a united, ambitious and compelling vision for change.

The planning process must acknowledge the positive force that quality economic development can play in creating a more equal society, which is built on fostering strong relationships through consensus and collaboration.

To that end, given that so much of the planning system is geared towards the provision of housing, it must collaborate in the process of delivering sufficient affordable mixed tenure housing. Homelessness is unacceptable. Alongside education and health, housing is a basic human right.

Our economy thrives on investment and innovation – our country needs quality economic development. We must encourage quality development in the right places at the right times by engaging constructively and proactively with business, underpinned by a consensus in the community about what is required in this regard.

In achieving the level of innovation that Scotland requires to compete on the global stage, we must deliver high quality and sustainable digital infrastructure, and accept the fact that digital capability, in the 21st century, is a fundamental utility, like other utilities such as gas, electricity, and roads in modern communities.

It is the role of the Scottish Alliance for People and Places to come together and present innovative and constructive policy solutions, underpinned by an overarching ambitious vision that accepts there is much more work to do than simply tweaking policy.

Ultimately, this means building consensus around developing a planning system that empowers communities to realise a positive and ambitious future, and that recognises that the places in which we live, work and play are fundamental to solving the inequality that exists in our society.

A meaningful and transformational cultural shift is required. However, in order to realise it we must really understand the challenges we face, the scale of the opportunity ahead and present a positive and compelling vision for change.

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