Planning Aid for Scotland is a unique and independent charity that helps people to engage in the planning process. In this article, Planning Aid for Scotland Chief Excecutive Petra Biberbach discusses the changing role of community empowerment in the planning process in Scotland and England.

What’s power got to do with it?

The answer is: a great deal. It has often been said that the most common way people give up their power is by thinking that they don’t have any. When I heard this repeated recently, it prompted me to reflect upon the growing realisation amongst our communities that they in fact hold a great deal of power. Scotland’s move towards greater community empowerment particularly through the planning system stands in increasingly stark contrast to the direction of travel elsewhere in the UK.

Audit Scotland’s recent report, Modernising the planning system, examines the efficiency and effectiveness of the recent planning reform in Scotland. Whilst the report finds much to applaud, it also indicates important work to be done on ensuring greater inclusivity and community engagement. We must work harder to ensure that processes are in place to enable better and more creative community engagement – and to empower communities to have a greater say in the shaping of their strategic and local development plans.

Great expectations

The next step on the horizon for community empowerment will be the Scottish Government’s commitment to introduce a Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill – notably one of the clear recommendations emerging from the findings of the Christie Commission. The future bill has the potential to greatly strengthen communities’ hands and may have substantial implications for how we go about regenerating our communities – particularly around issues of asset transfer.

Planning Aid for Scotland is increasingly working with community groups on asset transfer, principally through the Planning Mentoring Scheme – designed for communities seeking to undertake development or build their own assets. Empowering communities to have greater control over public assets not only generates direct local benefits, but can stimulate the local imagination and lead to a variety of associated opportunities for a community – in effect, helping to create a positive momentum in the local society and economy.

The localism paradox 

There is, however, a contrasting picture south of the border. The current furore surrounding the Localism Bill and proposed National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) suggest a different picture for community empowerment in England. Local communities will have the opportunity to develop their own Neighbourhood Plans and exercise greater control in local planning matters. But Neighbourhood Plans can only permit greater – not less – development than that currently agreed within the existing local plan policy.

The move towards greater localism on the one hand appears to conflict with the automatic presumption in favour of sustainable development on the other. The presumption in favour of sustainable development will limit the ability of communities in England to respond to incoming development proposals. How much power the government will eventually cede to communities comes down to a question of trust and the extent to which the government has confidence in local communities to take greater responsibility for local planning matters.

Rights and responsibilities

Back in Scotland, one of the most vital current issues for community involvement is the Scottish Government’s Zero Waste Plan. The Plan pinpoints the land-use planning system as a key delivery mechanism to achieve Scotland’s zero waste targets, and it’s important that people know what this means for their communities and how to get involved in decision-making. In light of the importance of waste planning for all communities, PAS has developed a unique training programme for community councils which we are currently delivering across Scotland.

The direction of travel in Scotland is clearly one of greater rights for communities. With rights, of course, come responsibilities – that people play an increasingly active role in decision-making within their own communities. Addressing national problems such as waste will require everyone to play their part at the local and community levels.