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Talkin’ bout a (civic) revolution


Politicians can no longer ignore community voices in the planning system, argues Tony Burton

Tony BurtonThere’s a civic revolution under way and it is heading towards the planning system. Public trust in politicians is in free-fall and people feel ever more alienated from the decisions that affect them.

They expect much more of a say over their lives; participation, not just representation, is becoming the way more decisions are made. Savvy politicians know they have to respond, and the rise and rise of neighbourhood planning is just the start.

The run-up to any general election is a bellwether of public mood, and the growth of civic voices in the weeks leading to 7 May was deafening. For example, the Big Lottery Fund’s new strategy puts ‘people in the lead’ to decide where it distributes £700 million each year. The government itself has announced £22.5 million of support for neighbourhood planning.

Locality – the national network of community-led bodies – has launched a powerful campaign to keep public services local and put more into community hands. Community land trusts and custom build are starting to break the hegemony of volume house builders. And
there are calls from everyone from John Armitt to Green Alliance for more of a public say over major infrastructure.

"Denying people a say over the future of their neighbourhood... is doomed to failure"

This irresistible force of community action over land and development is now hitting two immovable objects – Treasury calls for further planning deregulation and the harsh reality of local authority cuts. How these circles are squared by the new generation of politicians
will shape planning for a generation. Denying people a say over the future of their neighbourhood – as with the current fad of blanket permission to convert offices to flats – is doomed to failure.

Equally, there is no future in falling back on a ‘consultation’ culture that owes more to compliance than engaging people as if they mattered.

There will be real power shifting into community hands. Politicians are squabbling over who supports neighbourhood planning the most. Emerging ideas beyond development orders and empowering communities to give consent to development are taking root.

And, as councils merge services and look for economies of scale, so the trickle of parish councils spreading into our cities could readily become a flood.

Politicians are running to catch up and planning is about to find itself at the heart of a civic revolution that will shape our lives. Welcome aboard. You ain’t seen nothing yet!

Tony Burton is a 'free range' community, planning and environment consultant. Follow him on Twitter: @Tony4Place


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