Make places not war

We recently had the pleasure of supporting JHPlanning’s conference on the implications of community asset transfer for property and planning professionals, which generated some great discussion on how community ownership of land and buildings can contribute to better placemaking. For our part, Maggie chaired the event whilst, in a speaker’s role, Pippa sought to challenge the perception of planning as a system that pits communities against developers. Instead, she argued that genuine community empowerment and control of both land and buildings enables communities to engage more pro-actively with the planning system and directly deliver development they want to see. The following is a brief summary of that argument.

As a starting point, it’s interesting to look at the language often used when talking about planning, which refers to communities and developers ‘fighting’ each other, or to the system being a ‘battle’ between the two. And, within this ‘fight’ or ‘battle’, the community is usually looking to stop new development going ahead, such that their engagement with the planning system tends to be couched entirely in negative terms.

But, where community-based organisations are able to take control of land or buildings themselves (as community asset transfer or community right to buy allows them to do), then this narrative gets turned on its head entirely with community-led development proposals covering everything from housing to economic development projects and generating real community benefits. New houses being built in West Harris following a community buy out, for example, are bringing more families on to the island, while the island of Gigha is home to the first community-owned grid-connected windfarm in Scotland.

So, increasing the amount of land in community ownership can mean those communities engage more positively in the planning system. However, that’s not to say that changes aren’t also needed to the planning system itself.

For example, in the context of community led renewable energy projects, it’s interesting to see that new draft Planning Policy in Wales specifically recognises that projects promoted by communities may require particular assistance in navigating their way through the planning system. It suggests therefore that planning authorities should be as accommodating as possible when dealing with such projects. There are currently no equivalent provisions in Scottish Planning Policy.

That said, there are other changes on the horizon in Scotland, including the proposed introduction of ‘local place plans’ (LPPs) which would be prepared by the community, and which the planning authority must then have regard to when preparing Local Development Plans (LDPs). The aim of this is to enhance engagement in the planning process up front, empowering communities to play a positive and proactive role in defining the future of their place and, ultimately, to deliver development of benefit to them.

It does, however, remain to be seen if this is actually achieved. Notably, there are a number of concerns about how local place plans will be resourced, the weight which will be given to these, and the potential for them to be reduced to ‘nimby charters’ of what the local community doesn’t want, rather than what they pro-actively do want.

But, while there are issues here to be addressed, the hope remains that LPPs will help bring forward development that is genuinely shaped by the community and delivered by the community, for the benefit of the community (while still recognising that regard must be had to the LDP when the LPP is being prepared).

Drawing this all together, community ownership of land and changes to the planning system combined would seem to have significant potential to make development less of a ‘battlefield’, with better placemaking and more and better development on the ground as a result.

Thanks for reading!

Pippa Robertson and Maggie Bochel, directors at Aurora Planning Limited

Pippa Robertson and Maggie Bochel, directors at Aurora Planning Limited