Warning over 'crisis in civic trust' in Scotland

Doubts over the fairness of the planning system and the competence and priorities of decision-makers have led to a 'crisis in civic trust' in Scotland, according to an international planning expert.

Edinburgh: warning over 'crisis in civic trust' in Scotland (picture by Stuart Caie, Flickr)

Delivering the Scottish Civic Trust Annual Lecture in Edinburgh yesterday, Cliff Hague, professor emeritus of planning and spatial development at Heriot-Watt University, said: "I believe we are undergoing a crisis in civic trust".

He said that there is a "lack of confidence amongst many in the conservation movement about the competence of elected members to take decisions on planning applications".

Hague, who writes a regular column for Planning and is a past president of the Royal Town Planning Institute, added that the imposition of austerity measures has resulted in the loss of experienced staff, warning that "in these straitened circumstances it is difficult to feel confident that the appropriate in-house expertise is consistently available".

Hague added: "Even more worrying is the perception that the planning system is not as transparent as it should be.

"We hear anecdotes that themselves suggest that confidence in the system could be more robust. What is equally clear is that our councils are increasingly dependent on developers for provision of infrastructure, and that the promise of jobs is hard to refuse across most of Scotland."

Hague, who was team leader for the European-funded research programme UK ESPON Contact Point 2008-14, also cautioned over the impact of a "centralised planning system".

"Plans and the planning decisions informed by them, conform to national planning policy. Appeals are decided through a system that is insulated from local accountability. Citizens are ‘third parties’, anonymous investment houses are accorded more rights to decide what should happen in places where they live," Hague said.

He added: "We now live in a political economy in which an unimaginably wealthy global elite can determine what is good or bad for a place."

Hague concluded by calling for the heritage movement in Scotland to come together to agree the basis of a new "Charter for Scotland’s Places, that would address the issues of competence, transparency, values and accountability".

"My idea is for a proactive, bottom-up innovation in the governance of our neighbourhoods, villages, towns and cities," he said.

"There would be an open invitation to any organisation, council or government agency to sign up to it, and then work together for the good of our places and the well-being of the citizens."

Read Cliff Hague’s latest column here.