What will it take to plan WITH communities as NPF4 suggests?
By Nick Wright
on April 27, 2023
This is a summary of my 10 minute provocation to stimulate debate at a national conference on delivery of NPF4 - Delivering NPF4: What will it take? - organised by the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence at the University of Glasgow on 24 April 2023. My focus was on how to deliver NPF4's ambition of collaboration with communities, rather than simply consultation.
I want to explore planning and delivering communities. I don’t mean physical urban design and the disconnected, poor quality residential developments that we are so used to seeing going up around our towns and cities.
What I am referring to is our ability (or lack of it) to create neighbourhoods with a real sense of community - covering all of the 14 aspects of the Place Standard, including the tricky ones (for planners like me, anyway) of influence and sense of control, social contact, and identity and belonging.
Not quite there
The Scottish Government has provided us with some useful tools to create those communities:
- We have a benchmark to aim for when creating those neighbourhoods - the Place Standard - plus lots of guidance developed over many years about physical design, now complemented by draft guidance on 20 Minute Neighbourhoods, which are really about enabling people to live sustainable lives locally.
- We have the Community Empowerment Act 2015 and related tools like community asset transfer, community right to buy, participation requests, participatory budgeting and so on.
- And we have Local Place Plans, community-led plans that (should) enable communities to influence planning policy.
But we're not quite there: it’s like a starter motor that keeps turning over again and again, but the engine won’t start. Let me explain what I mean by that with a couple of examples.
Community asset transfer and right to buy could achieve so much more if they were backed up with the financial resources, community capacity and public sector skills that are needed to roll them out nationally - not just in the few communities that are skilled and tenacious enough to take matters into their own hands.
Another example: Local Place Plans are defined in legislation as focussing simply on influencing planning policy, when the reality for every community is that many of the issues they want to tackle - like public services, housing costs, infrastructure and good jobs - aren’t the preserve of planning policy but other aspects of public services or community action.
Some local authorities are trying to use community-led plans to influence other elements of their remit beyond planning (North Ayrshire, Renfrewshire, Highland, Aberdeenshire and Edinburgh to name a few). This is entirely in line with the government’s community empowerment and collaborative delivery agendas - neither of which are themselves new, as they have been around since the much quoted Christie Commission report on the future delivery of public services back in 2011.
But using community-led plans to influence wider public service delivery depends on serendipity: a happy combination of people seeing an opportunity. Why is the public sector as a whole - national government agencies, local authorities and community planning partners - not being encouraged in that direction?
Delivering NPF4's promise of better neighbourhoods
I’d like to offer three specific suggestions about how to make those tools I mentioned above – Place Standard, 20 Minute Neighbourhoods, the Community Empowerment Act and Local Place Plans - really ‘sing’ to deliver our national agendas of health, climate action and equality.
We have principles and we have guidance. What we now need are skills, resources and capacity – and political will to put those those things in place - to deliver all of the 14 Place Standard criteria across Scotland’s neighbourhoods and communities, including those tricky ones around influence and sense of control, social contact and identity and belonging.
So my specific three things are:
1. No longer leaving local communities on their own ....to work out how to implement national health, equality and climate change objectives in their local neighbourhood, struggling with the inevitable challenges and tensions involved in community-led planning and development - but supporting them to do that with capacity, brokerage, finance, and political commitment.
A special plea for those who work in the public sector: don’t just think about what resources your team needs as staff resources thin out - think too about what resources local communities need to act as your delivery partners. You’re not expected to do things as volunteers, so why should they be?
2. Planners like me need to work as brokers ....holding hands for community organisations; demystifying planning, the public sector and project delivery; guiding communities and other public sector colleagues in how to make things happen.
This means changing how we work. Too many of us are conditioned during our careers to be administrative, regulatory, defensive and negative, focussing on our “statutory duties”. That is how I was conditioned in my early career in local authorities. Once I was no longer employed in local authorities and worked on my own, I had to completely relearn how to be a planner by training in mediation, facilitation and - more generally - how not to behave like the bureaucrat I’d been conditioned to be. I’m still relearning that now, more than 30 years after qualifying as a planner, so ingrained are those learned behaviours of being the one who should have all the answers and make decisions - rather than enabling others to make decisions about their place.
I wonder… how many planners see those tricky Place Standard components - influence and sense of control, social contact and identity and belonging - not just as tricky, but as completely alien to our day to day work? Even closer to the bone, how many of us truly see local communities as equal and trusted delivery partners?
We need to shift our mindsets from consultation to co-production. That is much talked about, but rarely achieved. That shift doesn’t just apply to planners: it applies to all development sectors. Public, private and community led developers can all be single-minded and ignore community views in their quest to deliver ‘their project’.
But the funny thing is, when we do shift our mindset, suddenly planning becomes exciting, enjoyable and positive - for communities as well as for us.
3. Preparing and delivering Local Place Plans needs resources ...preparing a community-led plan needs community capacity, collaborative support from the public sector, and funding (not that they’re hugely expensive to prepare compared to masterplans, for example, because they are not technical documents).
Finding those resources is tricky enough in the current financial climate. But what’s equally important is resources to deliver what’s in Local Place Plans - like safe walking and cycling networks, affordable housing, elderly care, maintenance of public spaces, public or community transport, and so on. That might not always be more money, it might be rejigging existing public sector budgets or services to respond to community aspirations, or community-led initiatives - for example on community transport rather than public transport, or changing housing waiting list criteria to focus on key workers.
I’m working on five Local Place Plans at the moment. They all seem to be evolving to become manifestos for changes to planning policy and public services, and bidding documents for funding and resources - rather than actual deliverable plans with budgets against them.
So, the silence from government about resources to deliver Local Place Plans is alarming. A lot of voluntary time and goodwill is being invested by communities in developing plans that have solid community support. If nothing is delivered, we will have even more apathy and anger (as voiced to me recently by one experienced Community Councillor who’d been through a charrette few years ago and seen nothing to happen – “why should this Local Place Plan be any different?”). And more apathy and anger will feed through to fewer volunteers, weaker community organisations and less ability for communities to collaborate as delivery partners, which brings into question the government’s ethos of community empowerment and collaborative delivery.
We are part way there in our ability to deliver great communities. We have the principles, the guidance and the legal tools. But it will be a sorry tale of lost opportunity unless we complement those with skills, capacity and resources - in communities, not just in the public sector. And all that needs political will.