A guest blog by Glen Smith, a social science researcher and PhD candidate at UiT The Arctic University of Norway.
Diarmid Hearns is right to point to the importance of the Scottish planning system in determining how space is developed and, subsequently, how people live their lives (The Scotsman Opinion 18/01/2018). The National Trust for Scotland research findings that Mr Hearns discusses are indeed concerning. The sense of disconnect between citizens and a system that helps determine the use and non-use of space needs to be urgently addressed, as does the lack of trust in that system.
Much of the frustration towards the planning system stems from the limited opportunities for people to affect decision outcomes: around 60 per cent of those asked in the National Trust of Scotland survey felt this way. The planning system is plagued by instances of late or limited stakeholder engagement. Or, more worryingly, of no engagement at all.
It must be said that many Scottish people are pushing hard to right these wrongs. It remains a political hot topic, with some communities taking more direct action. Examples include the formation of Development Trusts or, in more radical cases, direct community land buyouts. Whilst it is true that any local ambitions to change land use patterns through these channels are still subjected to planning procedures, they are at least conceived through community-based committees. So the ‘step zero’ of planning can stem from local residents. But not all communities have the means to take such steps. Furthermore, they are a symptom of a problem, rather than a solution. Why would communities feel the need to take matters into their own hands? What is broken? How can we fix it? These are important questions.
Unfortunately, steps taken by the Scottish Government have done little to stop these questions being asked. The rhetoric is in place but the demonstrable impact is not. Communities might have taken centre stage in the most recent round of land reform, as indicated by the emerging Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act of 2015, but true participatory processes require a redistribution of power. That seems like a bridge too far for the Scottish Government. The new Planning Bill does not offer too much hope in this regard either. As pointed out by Planning Democracy SCIO, among others, the Planning Bill actually proposes to reduce the overall number of opportunities for community engagement in planning.
It is important that Scotland continues to push for a more democratic planning system. But I would like to suggest that the push be extended offshore to include marine spatial planning, especially for inshore waters. Scotland’s National Marine Plan is to be implemented in the Scottish Marine Regions where plans will be adapted to meet localised needs and demands. Some regions have already produced pretty comprehensive plans, although they took different routes to get there.
However, having studied the governance of marine spatial planning processes in Scotland for a number of years, it seems that as the system becomes institutionalised it is in danger of adopting some of the same failures from its terrestrial relative. Decisions made about the use or non-use of the seabed affect coastal communities. They can significantly change the social dynamics of coastal towns and villages as the necessary infrastructure and workforce are put in place to capitalise on ‘blue growth’ opportunities. Marine planning partnerships in the regions are designed to incorporate local opinions into decision making; but public input is not assured in most cases.
The challenges, laws and perceived relevance of marine and terrestrial planning differ considerably. But both need to be underpinned by the good governance principles of transparency and participation. The marine planning system is still in the making but it is never too early to ensure that such principles are built in. Diarmid Hearn talks of a great opportunity for “the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament to get people back into planning and ensure their voice is heard”. I couldn’t agree more. But while we are here, let’s discuss the sea as well.
– Glen Smith is a social science researcher and PhD candidate at UiT The Arctic University of Norway. His work focuses on the governance of marine management in Scotland.