What’s Left of Planning?

Who possesses

this landscape?

The man who bought it or

I who am

possessed by it?

False questions,

For this landscape

Is masterless

And intractable

In any terms

That are human

(Norman McCaig, A Man in Assynt)

Today Norman McCaig’s words are carved into the Canongate Wall of the Scottish Parliament, sitting on the side of the building where the false questions he posed are periodically debated. Their presence is a poetic counterpoint to more prosaic legal and political realities. Whilst land may be beyond value, masterless even, it is also inscribed with multiple different values whose often intractable claims must be adjudicated between in all too human terms. This is often the job of everyone’s favourite bête noir – the planning system.

The planning system in Scotland remains recognisable in form to that created in the surge of post-war social-democratic optimism. Though the outright nationalisation of land was ultimately rejected, the right to develop and change its use was brought under public control. In principle this meant curtailing the rights of ‘the man who bought it’ to do as he [sic] wished with his land, recognising a wider public interest in the democratic steering of change to town and country. This principle remains in place today – an anachronism perhaps, and one around which many of society’s contradictory demands for land have become entangled.

In truth, the system and its guiding principles never really worked as intended. The production of authoritative plans to rationally guide the development of a brave new world proved more difficult than expected. As publicly-led projects gave way to the vagaries of private market-based development, plans struggled to keep up. Planning became a reactive process responding to the restless search for profit. Without a mechanism for effectively capturing the increases in land values that planning decisions created, publicly generated benefits simply lined private pockets. Socially-progressive ambitions for planning drained away as visions of a better, high-rise future became all too concrete and the idea that planners (or anyone else) might know best what’s good for us came to be rightly challenged.

In Scotland the government has clearly been receptive to this neoliberal ‘common-sense’, often reinforced by complaints from the development industry about the costs of planning regulation

Today ‘the planners’ are a convenient scapegoat for the failings of our towns and cities. Beneath the negative public perception though there is arguably a more complex picture. The scars on many of our high streets and housing estates reveal more about uneven patterns of investment and disinvestment than they do about planning decisions. There have also been some less-heralded successes. Settlements have been contained, areas of natural beauty and environmental value conserved. Even when people sigh and complain about the latest carbuncle the planners have allowed they express a belief that better planning is needed rather than none at all. After all, who’s to say how the landscape would look if the market had been left to its own devices? Yet ‘more market’ is precisely the neoliberal remedy that seems to be driving change to planning in Scotland today.

The planning system is still going through a protracted period of ‘modernisation’ – a process begun in the early days of the new Parliament that has included the passing in 2006 of the first planning legislation since devolution. Over the last ten years the Scottish Government has articulated a range of different ambitions for a ‘modern’ planning system. This has included the laudable but somewhat technocratic sounding goal of making development plans more effective at integrating the impacts of different public services on places. It has also involved the aim of better including people in the making of plans and decisions, recognising that provisions for public participation in planning have rarely proved effective or helped to ensure public trust in decision-making. Most pervasive of all, however has been a concern to improve the efficiency of decisions, ensuring that local authorities are ‘open for business’ and able to ‘facilitate’ development. This latter purpose has become increasingly pronounced under the SNP as the pursuit of ‘sustainable economic growth’ has been promoted above all else, effectively subsuming other goals to the simplistic equation that development = economic growth = success (perhaps even = independence?). Development has therefore become synonymous with the public interest, the prime public good that the planning system should seek to promote.

The founding assumption behind this pursuit of a more efficient system is that planning is a form of regulation that imposes often unacceptable costs on businesses and developers, negatively impacting on the economy. This view of planning has become common currency and is driving increasingly chaotic reform in England as well as further changes in Wales and Northern Ireland. Whilst there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support it there is little systematic research beyond that produced by neoliberal economists whose own starting assumptions are rarely critically examined.

In Scotland the government has clearly been receptive to this neoliberal ‘common-sense’, often reinforced by complaints from the development industry about the costs of planning regulation. The strength of the development = economic growth = success equation reflects and reinforces the power of pro-development lobbies. They are able to claim that the logic of market success and failure is the only way to truly evaluate their proposals. The planning profession have responded by seeking to change their ‘culture’, presenting a more business friendly face that emphasises their concern to ‘proactively’ make development happen.

All of this has promoted a managerial approach, where the role of the planning system is to realise the unquestioned public benefits generated by development. In this context, however, other public goods that the planning system might seek to promote and protect, social and environmental justice or local democratic renewal, risk being cast aside. Community views, for example, come to be all too readily ignored. Development is done to people not with them and they are exposed to its costs whilst rarely believing in or experiencing its proclaimed benefits (see ‘Revaluing public participation in Scotland’s planning system’ report produced by the charity Planning Democracy). High profile cases such as Donald Trump’s business class bullying of the Aberdeenshire coastline and its residents give an indication of what is at stake in countless other developments across the country. Worryingly, the undifferentiated elision of growth with the public interest also leads to a failure to fully interrogate the proclaimed benefits of development or to assess who such ‘growth’ will benefit if it does materialise. These are key questions that it should be the task of the planning system to both ask and answer.

This is not to suggest that development and growth cannot and do not bring important public benefits. Nor, needless to say, is it an argument for an inefficient planning system or a blanket defence of existing practices. However, it does take us back to McCaig, to the intractability of the land and to questions of how it should be valued and how conflict over who ‘possesses it’ and to what purposes should be resolved.

The costs and benefits of development are contested and contestable, they are certainly not evenly distributed, and in some cases they are hard to demonstrate to a sceptical public. Indeed, proposed development often raises contradictory responses from people whose otherwise intact commitment to the virtues of market forces can be challenged by the threat to landscapes they hold dear. Yet in planning, as in so many areas of public life, the neoliberal common sense fails to address such fundamental tensions.

Any convincing account from the left of how local government should work needs to spell out how people can be empowered to take control over decisions that affect their lives. This implies the democratisation of the social processes that shape our prospects so that they can be purposively and inclusively planned to create the kind of futures we want.

A system of land-use planning is a necessary part of such an account (see http://bit.ly/Vduhe6). It should provide people with a democratic mechanism through which to debate the kinds of places they want to live in now and in the future, taking into account the full range of ways that people relate to and ‘possess’ the land, and assessing where the public interest lies in relation to different forms of development and different models of growth. Such a democratically inclusive process should also seek to shape more socially and environmentally just and sustainable outcomes.

Those three ‘shoulds’ in the two paragraphs above are important. On the one hand, they might seem a rather depressing reminder of how far removed actually existing democracy, local government and land-use planning are from such a reality. On the other hand, however, those three ‘shoulds’ are also a reminder of why democracy, local government and planning are worth fighting for. In their absence it is the all too visible hand of the market that makes and remakes the places we live in.

So what would a radical agenda for planning look like? There are various traditions that might be drawn on to sketch such a picture. These range from more statist solutions that point towards a strengthening and renewal of local government, to more variegated strands of thought that would promote enhanced forms of community control and development of land. At the root of all such conceptions, however, must be a strong belief in democratic control of the land – creating just processes to shape more just places. This requires a fundamental reconnection of planning reform to questions of land reform (processes that have been all too conspicuously separate since devolution). Land and property markets have long been key drivers of inequality in Scotland and yet the failings of a property driven economy have not yet led to fundamental questioning of their role, or a much-needed search for new ways of understanding where the public interest lies in controlling and regulating them. Instead it is the interests of those who buy and sell the land that continue to dominate whilst other claims are sidelined or ignored. A radical reassertion of the public interest justification for planned intervention in the development and use of land is required to create a more just and sustainable Scotland; redistributing the economic value generated by the land, whilst recognising and respecting other ways of ‘possessing’ it.