When the person concerned has a background of involvement with planning and development or is the planner responsible for improving the local environment, the insights on offer can be real revelations. However mundane its appearance, the town or neighbourhood's evolution and prospects come alive with such a guide.
Not that a guarantee of positive progress can be issued when it comes to change and development, whatever the standard of explanation. International experts on participation in planning took a town walk around the European zone of Brussels last week. They learnt that the massive office district dominated by the European Commission, Parliament and Council had been the product of national and organisational conflict rather than co-ordinated planning. The planner guiding the group had been defeated in his four-year attempt to replan the zone. The obstacles he faced included not just European rivalries but Belgian property laws heavily weighted in favour of private owners and little provision for reconciling local community opinion.
More encouragingly, the walk was part of a two-day conference organised to close a European study of community engagement in planning led by the Town and Country Planning Association. The Advocacy, Participation and Non-Governmental Organisations in Planning project set out with the aim of developing community participation skills at local and regional levels.
Its recommendations, predictably perhaps to UK planners, centred on resource provision, media and cultural activity, public authority acceptance of community input, the establishment of statutory rights to participate in planning and the need to take a spectrum of local views into account. The exercise became most challenging as it strove to identify the means by which local communities can contribute at the regional and sub-regional levels.
However, there is a long way to go before anyone cracks the local-into-regional participation conundrum. Generous European colleagues acknowledged what the UK has achieved in enabling involvement in local planning. It is important that, with EU encouragement, the now numerous member states formalise their local participation arrangements.
Deference to authority is fading across the continent. But a fair and effective level of local influence on strategic decision-making, 40 years after the Skeffington report marked the start of official participation in the UK, has yet to be agreed.
Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues.