Democratic surge cuts both ways, by Catriona Riddell

Much has been written over the past few weeks about the implications of the Scottish independence referendum for the rest of England and the way the country is governed.

It has helped raise awareness of the plight of the cities and their ability to manage their own destiny. It has also focused attention on strategic planning, with a glimmer of hope that we might see something better than the duty to cooperate emerge after next year's general election.

But the other big impact has been on the effectiveness of participatory democracy. Whether through social media or through the sheer number of people that got involved in campaigning on the streets, the referendum demonstrated that, when engaged in politics, people can genuinely influence the decisions that affect them. This awakening must be good for the country as a whole, but what does it mean for planning?

Public participation has always had a role in planning, but councils have to balance the views of their communities with their statutory obligations. This is becoming increasingly challenging. Councillors across England, particularly in the South East, are struggling to come to terms with the National Planning Policy Framework’s emphasis on meeting objectively assessed housing needs, which are often far greater than anything they had to deliver through the old regional plans.

At the same time, the Localism Act 2011 allows residents to have a much greater say in how they do their jobs. Both of these, combined with the new spirit of democracy unleashed by the referendum, will surely make it even more difficult to deliver the necessary decisions on planning.

In the leafy suburbs of Guildford, this fresh passion for democracy is already evident, and planning is taking centre stage. A group of residents is petitioning Guildford Borough Council to hold a referendum on a return to a committee system, letting more councillors vote on key issues.

The petition is a direct result of residents’ concern about the emerging local plan and its impact on the green belt. Just like the Scottish referendum, it is probably the first time many of those involved have been active in political campaigning. The council has already bowed to pressure from the campaign and the many other responses it received on the local plan consultation, pushing the difficult decisions beyond the general election.

This will be seen as a victory for democracy and a demonstration of the success of people power. The challenge for the current and future governments, however, will be to allow this new-found passion for democracy to bloom and at the same time ensure that there is a way for the very difficult political decisions on planning at a local level to be taken in a responsible way that meets everyone’s needs – not just those of the people who shout loudest.

Catriona Riddell is strategic planning convenor for the Planning Officers Society and a freelance consultant

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