Civic pride and civic trust are important for community cohesion and well-being, but are being eroded by austerity and a centralised system of planning and local government. This was a central theme of the inaugural Scottish Civic Trust Annual Lecture which I delivered in Edinburgh on 2 March.
Scotland’s 5.2 million people are served by 32 local authorities. Because of the sparse population density outside the Central Belt, some of these councils serve a very extensive area. Even in the more densely populated areas it is only the cities that constitute their own local authority; elsewhere groups of small towns and their hinterlands all lie within one local authority area. This contrasts with the situation across most of Europe, where municipalities are smaller and less remote from their citizens, and local mayors are visible figures.
In addition, Scotland’s councils depend on the Scottish government for almost 75% of their funding. This is a much higher proportion than in most other parts of Europe. This dependency has been exacerbated by austerity measures which have reduced local council budgets in real terms. These conditions have resulted in loss of staff and in-house expertise, and Planning and Development suffered a 9% cut in net spending between 2010/11 and 2013/14. This was more severe than for any other local government service. There is evidence that staff with specialist expertise in conservation are being lost.
In addition, the planning system is quite centralised. Plans and decisions on development management have to follow planning policy set by the Scottish Government. Appeals against refusal of planning consent, or against conditions imposed with a consent, are processed through an independent system, meaning that the decisions are not reached locally.
If you wanted to create conditions that would help foster civic pride and civic trust, you would design a much more bottom-up set of arrangements.
Furthermore, I argued that “our councils are increasingly dependent on developers for provision of infrastructure, and the promise of jobs is hard to refuse across most of Scotland.” This undermines public confidence in planning decisions. The increasing privatisation of the public realm also removes the capacity of citizens to have a say about important parts of their towns and cities.
A full essay based on the lecture is available to download on the website of the Scottish Civic Trustwebsite of the Scottish Civic Trust. There is also a report of the lecture at the Planning Magazine website. The lecture was supported by the Built Environment Forum Scotland.
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