What can planners in Scotland (and the rest of the UK) learn from thinking and practice in other countries?
For World Town Planning Day 2019 I did a blog that extolled ideas nurtured in Scotland that had relevance for the rest of the world. Now it’s time to flip the focus and look the other way. In 2019 the Scottish Parliament passed a new Planning Act that mainly copied ideas from England instead of looking more widely for inspiration. I was critical of this because many of the measures introduced in England have either failed to deliver on promises, and/or have been crafted to further tip the balance in favour of developers. So looking beyond the UK, what can we learn from the rest of the world.
1. The way we plan our cities and regions really matters
Planning has become a very marginalised activity in British local government. The 1947 Planning Act was conceived in the era of welfare states, when the assumption was that most development would be undertaken by the public sector. Like other components of that legacy, such as the National Health Service, social rented housing or secondary level education for all, it survives but in a mutated form. A long term adaptation has been shaped by the normalisation of the practical realities of land and property markets, punctuated by concerted efforts by successive governments to “modernise” planning in line with the ideology of market supremacy. The planning system has been reconfigured so that it is responsive to – i.e. follows – market-led development. In following planning will always be off the pace, slow to react to opportunities spotted by developers and those who invest in land development. Their frustration, backed by massive donations to party political funds, leads governments to the next bout of “streamlining” the planning system. In an era of low interest rates and investors awash with money the cycle between one set of deregulation and the next gets shorter and shorter, while the austerity to fuel the investment pot simultaneously erodes the capacity of the planning system to respond.
However, globally we see the consequences of urbanisation without planning or with a planning system that simply rubber stamps the kind of development that happens anyway. That is why we have Sustainable Development Goal 11, “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resiliant and sustainable” because without it we cannot deliver on the other SDGs. Target 11.3 says “By 2030, enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries.” The New Urban Agenda, agreed by governments in 2016, makes improved urban planning and design one of three priorities, along new legal frameworks, and municipal finance. Some 33 points in the NUA spotlight the contribution expected from planning and managing urban spatial development.
2. Planning may be about “the public interest” but state interests can control planning systems
Planners everywhere cling to the “public interest” case for planning. However, the generality of the phrase and the contested nature of the “public interest / public good” have long been criticised by social scientists studying planning, whether from pluralist, elitist, marxist or public choice perspectives. Empirically it is also clear that there are planning systems that operate in a discriminatory way to enforce the priority of one ethnic group over another. Urban and regional planning was fundamental to apartheid, with its race based land allocations. I have also written about how the Israeli administration operates planning in the West Bank of the occupied Palestinian territory in a way that ensures the spread of Israeli settlements while suppressing opportunities for Palestinian development.
3. Planning systems can take ownership of land and so plan and ensure delivery of desired development
The Scottish Land Commission reports that in Tübingen in Germany, for example, the local municipal council purchases land and assigns a planning permission.Private developers can then buy the land with the planning permission already approved. This enables the council to achieve delivery of social housing. In another German city, Freiburg, “up to 10% of the proposed development area must be transferred to ownership by the city for social housing construction.” Such approaches enable planning authorities to play a proactive role in urban design.
4. Planning can play a key role in managing the risk posed by natural hazards
In the UK we are getting used to severe flooding as a near annual event. This reflects climate change and the failure of the planning system to pre-empt development on flood planes. In New Zealand, regional councils are charged with planning to mitigate the risks from natural hazards and city and district councils have similar responsibilities when managing development. A risk management approach (combining likelihood and consequence) is built into the planning process. For an example click here.
5. Planning does not need to be a strongly centralised system
The UK is a very centralised state. Post-devolution Scotland has aped that centralisation: services like policing have been “nationalised” in the name of efficiency, while local government finance is substantially controlled from Holyrood and councils have been forced to bear the brunt of austerity policies. In planning we are used to accepting a one-size-fits-all national set of planning policies, enforced through an appeal system. Many countries, especially larger ones, do not haveany binding national set of planning policies. In the USA, zoning ordinances are typically created at local level and can vary from town to town. Some states set state-wide goals, Oregon is an example, but these tend to be much less prescriptive and detailed than policy issued from Victoria Quay. Across Europe and the USA and China mayors of big cities in particular are powerful figures are often strongly identified as lead figures in urban development.
6. Zoning systems can provide less “wriggle room” for developers
Internationally, the UK’s discretionary planning system is the exception not the rule. So although we have a “plan-led system”, the reality is that it is substantially an appeal-led system, where QCs argue that certain policies or other material consideratins should take priority over others or the decisionof a local planning authority. During the debates on the Planning Act 2019, the Minister often hailed the proportion of new houses in Scotland being built on sites where there had been a successful appeal. Zoning systems are more common in other countries. Rather like the 1947 Act Development Plans, they set out in some detail (which varies between administrations) how land is to be used and developed. Development conforming to the zoning is permitted development, proposals not conforming require consent, which often involves submitting an admendment to that plot in the plan. Importantly, when this happens it is usually the local council who decides whether to accept the change, and any appeal is also to the local council. To suggest such a system in Scotland would elicit dire warnings from the development industry striking fear into the hearst of politicians; however, Scandinavian countries appear to have been able to prosper despite operating such draconian restrictions.
Zoning systems are not panaceas. They can be rigid and promote monofunctional areas, though codes can be attached to avoid that. However, a zoning system does provide more certainty to developers and to the public. It is much less easy to play off one policy against another; there is greater transparency. UK governments have flirted with zoning many times and in several ways since the 1980s, mainly seeing it as a way to short-cut normal development management, as is the case intended in the Masterplan Consent Areas in Scotland’s 2019 Planning Act.
7. Planners need to better communicate their concerns
The Scottish media view planning as dull, unless a row breaks out over some new development. Our National Planning Framework is about the long term future of Scotland, but gets less coverage than routine crimes. Not surprisingly, most of the public has little understanding of how development is planned and delivered. Social media has opened new ways to communicate. One example of what can be done is the work of 360 Degree City in Canada, which provides podcasts on urban development from different angles and professions, including some by citizens.
8. Research, research, research
Research has an essential role to play in improving the planning of places. Our universities remain an underused resource for Scottish planning. Only in 2019, by the creation of an international group of RTPI Scotland members, did the international research being done in our universities get connected to our Scottish networks. Planning research in Scotland has a small budget that is often used to inform short-term, tactical challenges. The Cities Review, completed in 2002, could have become the basis for ongoing monitoring and evaluation of policy effectiveness, but has never been properly followed up or replicated; calls in the NewUrban Agenda for national urban policy reports have gone unheeded. For inspiration Scotland could look at the Creating Liveable Cities in Australia research programme. It provides baseline measures of liveability across the main cities on seven indicators – walkability, public open space, public transport, housing affordability, employment and the food and alcohol environments. It also ooks at how policy and implementation differ across each city.
9. Planning is not just the statutory system
In much of the world, planning only operates for the rich. Informal development and economies are the homes of the poor. Weak states and marginal communities leave gaps that often are filled by local leaders, many of them women, who are “barefoot planners” in effect. They organise local saving schemes, operate community businesses or campaign to protect natural environment assets like forests. Since the ending of comprehensive redevelopment in Scotland, statutory planning hsnot had muchto say about Scotland’s poor neighbourhoods: issues like homelessness do not feature in development plans. As austerity has weakened the capacity in Scottish local government, and facilitating development for the large developers hascome to dominate the roleof planning, so Scotland can learn increasingly from poorer countries. Planners need to become agents of change. One example is the work of one planner in rural Ghana. She supported village women, enabling them to gain access to larger and more fertile lands and so develop economic production of sweet potatoes.
10. International partnerships can connect Scottish planners to places needing their skills
There is a global mismatch between places like Scotland that have many professional planners and rapidly urbanising countries where the need for planning is great but there are few qualified planners. One way to address this is through using volunteers who work with teams in the places where there are shortages. It is essential that such support is sensitive to local cultures and needs: approaches from Bathgate may not be appropriate for Banjul. Global Planning Aid is seeking to put such support systems in place.
One example of this type of international cooperation is organised by One World Link in the Sierra Leone city of Bo. Sierra Leone does not have an effective planning system, Bo has no spatial plan and the City Council lacks the capacity to produce one. UK volunteers have helped Bo to develop a vision that will guide a spatial plan. A mapping base has been prepared for the first time. This has been used by local communities to identify priorities like protecting public parks and identifying ares for new development. Turley and the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community are also involved.