Look harder at involving the public, by Cliff Hague

Public participation has received surprisingly little real scrutiny. When the landmark Skeffington Report on public participation in planning was published in 1969, I wrote that the idea was strongly influenced by practices in the USA. However, there was little UK analysis of the American initiatives.

Reading Nicolas Lemann’s classic book The Promised Land, I was reminded just how controversial US participation projects were in the late 1960s. The book tells the story of the northwards migration of blacks from the segregationist southern states in the 1950s. Race had previously been seen as an issue peculiar to the South. In the aftermath of a US presidential election, it is sobering to be reminded that John F Kennedy won the South in 1960 after he had voted with Southern senators to protect jury trials (and hence certain acquittal) for people violating African Americans’ voting rights. It is indicative of how unprepared Democrats in the north were for the mass arrival of poor black people in their cities.

As Lemann shows, there was confusion among politicians, policy makers and academics about what to do regarding the poverty and discrimination that the new immigrants from the former Confederate states were experiencing. The example that inspired the participation idea was the Woodlawn Organisation. This Chicago community action project was led by Saul Alinsky, and sponsored by the local Catholic diocese, which provided a link to a hostile Mayor Daley. So it was that President Johnson, in his 1964 first State of the Union address, declared a "war on poverty". From there the idea of "maximum feasible participation" was taken forward in 1966 into the Model Cities Program. Community actions agencies would be federally funded in poor neighbourhoods to empower the residents and help them to mobilise resources.

What followed was complicated, as political, agency, racial and personal infighting engulfed the programme, and the US became bitterly divided by the war in Vietnam and by urban riots at home. However, it is possible to identify a number of fundamental flaws that led to Daniel Moynihan’s infamous put-down of the programme as "maximum feasible misunderstanding". There were conflicts between the activists and the political machines than ran City Hall, with Daley’s Chicago a predictable cause celebre. It also failed to deliver the jobs and money needed to lift people out of poverty, and those who did make progress then moved out of the poor neighbourhood and were replaced by poverty-stricken new arrivals, so that, as Lemann comments, "most of the ghettos became poorer".

None of these complications filtered through to the UK when public participation was being embedded in planning legislation. They do not amount to a case for top-down planning, but they do point at a need to address fundamental questions on the intended outcomes and beneficiaries of any participation exercise.

Cliff Hague OBE is a freelance consultant and researcher. www.cliffhague.com

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