Spotlight puts focus on participation

The Young Planners Conference offered debates and workshops to allay public concerns about developments, writes Joseph Ridgeon.

The excitement inside Castlegate Centre contrasted starkly with the dismal weather outside, as 140 delegates from across the UK descended on Newcastle-Gateshead.

After the opening night's reception in the Pitcher and Piano, sponsored by Savills, helped early arrivals break the ice, RTPI president Martin Willey gave the opening speech, reminding young planners that planning is about delivering solutions and that engagement is key to creating an evidence base. Without this framework, their work can be called into question, he said.

Key themes emerged during the first session. No5 Chambers member Phil Williams said the need for participation was enshrined in the Aarhus Convention. However, public consultation cannot merely be a tick-box exercise to meet a legal requirement. Genuine engagement calls for planners to provide the right tools for people to join in discussions. Only then can the public take control of decisions affecting their lives.

Newcastle University professor Patsy Healey pointed out the need to break down the planning system's jargon and processes to tackle real issues. Consultant Kevin Murray expressed the view that it is the fear of complexity that stops the public engaging. The challenge is for planners to think and act differently, for example, by attending a community meeting in jeans and a T-shirt rather than wearing a suit.

Two-way participation is required to engage stakeholders effectively and six workshops introduced delegates to tools such as storytelling, brainstorming and role play. Newcastle City Council head of development management Kath Lawless looked at positive engagement through development management while other sessions covered urban design, local development frameworks and fresh methods of community consultation.

The conference dinner, sponsored by No5 Chambers, offered delegates a chance to socialise while the second day gave them a taste of best practice. Bridging Newcastle Gateshead programme co-ordinator Andrew Sloan looked at local community work and One NorthEast planning and housing manager Phil Jones explored the role of brand identity in the regional spatial strategy.

Town and Country Planning Association chief planner Dr Hugh Ellis critiqued the national policy statements programme. Practical Action's Dr Mansoor Ali introduced three people in low income countries and highlighted the importance of face-to-face communication. He encouraged young planners to engage with planning issues around the globe.

Following a lunch break, the conference ended with walking tours around Sunniside in Sunderland, the Ouseburn, Bensham and Saltwell areas, the North Shields Fish Quay and Eldon Square in Newcastle city centre, which allowed delegates to see for themselves positive stakeholder engagement in practice.

Joseph Ridgeon is on the RTPI North East young planners steering group and a planner at Dickinson Dees LLP.

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