Last week I attended the launch of the new Scottish Alliance for People and Places, which took place in Edinburgh’s impressive Dynamic Earth. The Alliance, chaired by former First Minister Henry McLeish, and bringing together a range of different organisations, is intended to work alongside the new Planning Bill which is to be brought to the Scottish Parliament, in order to try and ensure that it is a transformative piece of legislation.
I was at the event because RSA Scotland is one of the founding members of the Alliance. At first glance this may seem a strange group for us to be part of – whilst we may have planners and architects as Fellows of the RSA (the incredible diversity of our Fellowship never ceases to amaze me), planning itself is not a direct focus of our work. If the Alliance was simply a professional grouping, brought together to analyse the detail of the Bill, then we wouldn’t be part of the group. The importance of the Alliance’s vision, however, is that it sees the Planning System as a tool which should exist to empower citizens, rather than a bureaucratic hurdle you have to jump over to get work done (or, perhaps as commonly, simply a way to stop things you don’t like).
It’s an Alliance for People and Places. Place matters, and it matters to the people who live there. Our previous work on the Heritage Index demonstrated the importance of the components of a place to the pride and connection people feel to it. Unfortunately, too often citizens can feel disconnected from the decisions that are made about the places they live and work in. Decisions and changes are made to them, about them, but not by them – often with the best of motives, but potentially missing out on local knowledge, identity and culture.
A new approach to the planning system could be an invaluable tool within this process. In line with the vision of groups such as PAS and RTPI, planning could and should be a resource to support active citizenship. Imagine a system which supported communities in shaping their places, in protecting the assets they treasure and improving the problems they experience. A system which brought together the public and professionals, valuing the contributions that both can make.
When we talk about inclusive growth at the RSA, we describe an economy in which every citizen both participates in and benefits from the system. This to me seems a similar vision for the planning system. We have many strengths in Scotland in terms of our communities, but we also face challenges around engaging those citizens in decision making. A stronger more inclusive planning system would also offer opportunities for increasing democratic participation, for local civic contributions, and wider involvement in the economy of the sort that we have explored at the RSA.
RSA Scotland has joined the Alliance because we believe that this vision for a new Scottish planning system is achievable by working together, and we look forward to collaborating with our new Alliance partners as we move forward.
Jamie Cooke is Head of RSA Scotland. You can follow him on Twitter @JamieACooke and @theRSAScotland.