RTPI NEWS: Planning Aid - an essential role to play in the planning reform agenda

At the national conference there was a tangible air of anticipation that Planning Aid is set to lead in facing the challenges ahead. Clare Latham reports.

Housing and planning minister Keith Hill gave the keynote speech at the 2003 National Planning Aid Conference in Birmingham in mid November.

He confirmed his desire to see a comprehensive and welcoming planning system in which public opinion and participation play a key role. His vision is for a confident planning profession, keen to listen to its "customers", with a responsive and receptive role. New planning legislation would require all local authorities to prepare a statement of community involvement (SCI), outlining the standards, procedures and techniques that they would use to ensure community engagement with planning.

The minister recognises that there are fears that "putting effort into community involvement might mean that government targets would not be met and planning authorities suffer as a result". However, he maintained that, unless measures are taken to promote effective community involvement, "we will remain stuck on this treadmill of cynicism and suspicion towards planning, which is in nobody's interests. Effective community involvement means the right people hearing the right information at the right time so that they can understand what is happening and influence the process."

Hill also said that Planning Aid has an essential role to play in the planning reform agenda, encapsulating many of the key principles for successful community involvement in planning. It provides "good quality, easy-to-follow advice about how, when and why planning decisions are taken - and what the individual can do to influence them - and is "an excellent resource to empower the community". In recognition of this, funding for Planning Aid will be made before the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill gains Royal Assent.

He then issued a challenge to developers, consultants, local government and other statutory bodies to support Planning Aid. In particular, he wants to see "businesses and the planning sector directly funding Planning Aid, encouraging their staff to volunteer or championing Planning Aid's role".

Following a brief history of Birmingham's urban renaissance, the city's chief planning officer Emrys Jones spoke of the quality, high-density urban developments taking place in Birmingham within a new culture of participatory planning. By devolving budgets and decisions to local communities, and changing planning practice to overcome public distrust and reflect growing community diversity, Birmingham hopes to create flourishing neighbourhoods with a positive vision for the future.

Jones described some of the initiatives currently being implemented by the council following feedback from user groups, service user projects and a Best Value review. He concluded that the new SCIs will bring about fundamental changes in planning practice, within a new culture of community participation.

Two walking tours were on offer - one to the newly opened Bullring and the other to Brindleyplace, a canalside development - as were two workshop sessions.

West Midlands Planning Aid Service (WMPAS) Planning Aid co-ordinator Sheena Terrace described the proposals for the expansion of Planning Aid over the next three years, highlighting key challenges for the service and how they will be met.

Planning Portal director Richard Goodwin gave a demonstration of the information currently held on the portal and how it can be accessed. He encouraged delegates to comment on the website and to contribute suggestions and ideas for how this already valuable resource might be improved.

The final two sessions described hands-on community involvement experiences. WMPAS urban regeneration worker Jon Lord spoke of some of the difficulties, and the successes, associated with outreach work. In trying to tackle the non-participation of hard-to-reach groups and individuals in the planning process, Jon described how he used a proactive, targeted approach offering a wide range of advice, training and support.

He stressed the investment and length of time needed to build up relationships with communities and with umbrella organisations and networks. Jon said that, in his experience, the use of a wide range of participatory techniques, focusing on real projects rather than on abstract ideas, helps to promote meaningful community engagement.

Three speakers directly involved with planning in the community spoke at the end of the conference. Liisa Richardson from the Perry Common regeneration project described how a faith-based community group became the catalyst for local empowerment, leading to community input into the redevelopment of the Birmingham suburb (Planning, 27 June, p22).

Mary Ennis spoke with passion and commitment of her involvement, with the help of WMPAS, in the Lentons Lane doorstep green initiative. She described the difficulties in trying to overcome an inherent lack of trust within the community and how hard it had been to get people involved in the project.

Finally, John Corbishley from the Wolverhampton Network Consortium discussed how community groups in the city have come together in a "network of networks" to promote community involvement in a wide range of issues. With the help of WMPAS, a consultation exercise has resulted in community input into Wolverhampton's unitary development plan and SCI.

Conference chairwoman Susan Manns, transport and planning manager at Advantage West Midlands, reflected the views of everyone at the conference in her closing remarks. The day had indeed been "a positive and informative experience for capacity building", with thoughtful and thought-provoking questions to the speakers. This was a successful conference with a tangible air of anticipation that Planning Aid is set to lead in facing the challenges ahead.

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