So the manifestos are in. But while commentators pore over what policies Labour, the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and others are offering, it’s the manifestos of smaller charities like Civic Voice that have caught my attention.
As the national charity for the civic movement in England, Civic Voice are calling for all political parties to give “communities a meaningful voice at every stage of the planning system”. They want to create an “accessible, balanced and collaborative planning system, which ensures we move from talking to the ‘already engaged’ to having ‘everyone engaged’.”
That’s very worthy, you might think. A nice, well-meaning idea. But such thinking can’t possibly belong on the same stage as the showpiece policies dominating this election. Can it?
Well, actually it should.
Because whoever wins the General Election, be it Labour or the Conservatives, we’re about to embark on the highest level of infrastructure spending in more than 40-years.
That means more homes, better connections and massive investments across our communities, from high streets to flood defences. And all this requires planning permission.
But there’s one small problem.
The public have lost all faith in the planning system and trust is at an all-time low. Just two per cent of respondents in a major national survey last year said they trusted developers to act in an honest way on large-scale development.
This does not bode well for a major programme of national infrastructure renewal.
We’re already seeing too many developments where decent consultations are sadly lacking. Efforts to reach the public are often so unimaginative and limited that vast numbers are understandably turned off from getting engaged. And younger people who are that future generation that will be most affected by big projects are frequently nowhere to be seen in the planning process.
It doesn’t have to be like this. In Norway, for example, the participation of children and young people in local planning processes is embedded in the country’s Planning and Building Act.
Politics cannot be something that’s simply done to people. Change has to be delivered in partnership with communities, not imposed on them in a top-down and heavy-handed way.
Civic Voice are bang on the money when they say we need to move away from ‘consultations’ to ‘conversations’. My line is ‘speak fluent human.’
We need to get people properly involved in rebuilding their communities, not just tick a box.
I suspect we’ll see politicians forced to adopt this approach in increasing years, as the citizens’ assembly in Ireland and the Grand National Debate in France point to a smarter, deliberative way of achieving consensus on difficult issues.
If we’re going to truly rebuild communities across our country then we’d do well to remember it’s not just physical development that’s involved. Building social capital and winning hearts and minds is equally important. Because unless infrastructure ambitions command legitimacy they won’t end up empowering communities.
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