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09/12/2019

Deliberative democracy: a model for better engagement in planning

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Amid widespread mistrust of the system, planners must find new ways to meaningfully re-engage the public, argues Gavin Parker

The planning profession has always featured both public and private sector planners operating in diverse roles; responding to public and private clients; and serving the public interest as well as enabling private interests.

While the need for good planning to address these challenges appears axiomatic, these are worrying times. Public sector planning has been weakened by austerity and destabilised by serial changes. It is facing renewed scrutiny over the environment, quality of development, and its accountability to the public it seeks to serve.

A lack of transparency in the system deepens these issues. We are operating in a risk society where the public do not hear feedback that satisfies the rational desire to relate their interests to those of others. If planning is partly about mitigating social risk, the public now sees planning as unhelpful and risky.

This rather bleak view of mistrust in the planning system, the decisions it produces, and the motivations of its central actors has been recently underscored by research produced by Grosvenor. Such findings are not new, but rather an uncomfortable truth that prompted the Skeffington report half a century ago. Little substantive response has been forthcoming, notwithstanding neighbourhood planning, which remains something of a curate’s egg.

“The operating environment of planning and planners is breeding uncertainty”

The operating environment of planning is breeding uncertainty and, with it, undermining trust from all parties involved – most importantly the public. Indeed, the Raynsford report recently argued that “broader civil society consensus around the need for planning has fragmented, and many people are simply unclear about what the system is for”. There is no doubt that a sustained look at how planning operates is required.

Recent work at the University of Reading has begun to develop an agenda to look more deeply at the future of the profession. This must involve: examination of public perceptions of planning and its purpose; the role of the public in the planning system; recognition of contributions made by ‘non-planners’ and the role of specialists; implications of the fragmentation of the planning system; governance arrangements within the profession; and planning education and post-qualification learning.

In the face of a sceptical public, it is true that the planning community has never faced such an exciting future. Many national and global challenges are placing planning in a prominent role.

But such opportunities come with responsibilities. Difficult questions must be asked to ensure that the profession is up to the challenge of meeting diversifying needs at a time of unprecedented political uncertainty and in a rapidly changing environment.

Prof. Gavin Parker FRTPI is professor of planning studies at the University of Reading

Image credit | iStock

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