The national planning aid conference in York at the weekend was attended by 130 people, a sell-out. Hosted and organised by Yorkshire Planning Aid, the event took place in the surroundings of the National Railway Museum, where delegates were able to enjoy lunch and refreshments alongside the Mallard and the Rocket.
Yorkshire Planning Aid was delighted to have RTPI president Mike Hayes as chairman for the day. Mike was on his third day in Yorkshire, having spent the previous two touring the region as the guest of RTPI Yorkshire branch.
Mike opened the event by reminding delegates that support for planning aid is one of the RTPI's key priorities. He acknowledged the huge contribution made by staff and in particular by volunteers to the successful delivery of planning aid services across the country.
Keynote speaker for the day was Colin Burgon, MP for Leeds Elmet, who described some of the wide-ranging planning issues that his constituents bring to him, from mobile phone masts to the design of a neighbour's conservatory.
Colin has also been involved with large-scale regeneration projects, in particular the redevelopment of Allerton Bywater, a former mining village on the outskirts of Leeds. His experiences highlight some of the key issues in community engagement.
He feels that planning aid has an important and challenging role to engage with communities.
John Low, co-ordinator of the neighbourhood programme for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), reinforced many of Colin's comments in the three JRF-led case studies he described. These had shown that "community involvement must be long-term, robust and deliver real benefits". A crucial message for local authorities is for the need to shed condescending attitudes and to remove the narrow departmental definitions applied to many community issues.
From the local authority perspective, Michael Slater, assistant director of planning and sustainable development at York City Council, admitted that community engagement is something that many planning departments have yet to grasp. He acknowledged that community engagement needs time, money and significant staff resources to make it successful.
Graeme Bell, secretary of the National Planning Forum, challenged the view that communities always have the right answer, citing affordable houses and phone masts as typical developments that people want the benefits of despite frequent adverse reactions. He also challenged the misconception that all developers eschew consultation.
Carol Ryall, director of Planning Aid for London, was the final speaker of the session and ensured that delegates were still awake after a long morning with some very gritty examples of the workload of her service.
Planning Aid for London has carried out some pioneering work with people who would not normally get involved with the planning system, and Carol's experience is that people are definitely interested in planning and generally do want to know what is happening in their area and how they can influence this.
The afternoon allowed delegates to develop their skills and knowledge by attending presentations on practical tools and techniques of community engagement, with sessions led by the Yorkshire and Humber Regional Forum for Voluntary Organisations, Wolverhampton Community Network, the Neighbourhood Initiatives Foundation, the Icarus Collective and Aberford parish plan.
The final input for the day came from Marilyn Higgins from the school of the built environment at Heriot Watt University. Marilyn has been working on an ODPM-sponsored good practice guide for local authorities on diversity and equality in planning. This is almost complete and will contain case studies of successful community engagement projects as well as examples of diversity initiatives.
A short question and answer session ended the day, with insufficient time to really do justice to some of the issues raised, such as the impact on community engagement of the move from land-use planning to spatial planning. It was agreed that this point was probably a conference theme in itself.