Log in | Register
14/10/2019

Why planning needs to value young people's voices

A group of young people

Young people have much to offer planning processes, argues Teresa Strachan. It's time for planners to start taking proper notice

Why should young people’s voice on be valued? Contrary to what might be considered by some to be ‘unhelpful’ outputs from consultation with young people, often described as being no more than unrealistic ‘wish lists’, academic research reveals that it is precisely a young person’s heightened local knowledge and expertise which makes their inclusion in a plan making process to be such a valuable proposition. How else are we to learn more about areas that feel unsafe, unwelcoming, or non-family friendly, or to accurately reflect on what such places should offer in the future?

If engagement with young people merely means asking young people what they would like in their local neighbourhood, then we shouldn’t feel exasperated by the list of ‘must haves’ that are returned to us, typically including places such as zoos, farms and big brand chain outlets.

Whilst any of these ideas may have some merit in some situations, they are probably more likely to be indicative of a young person’s desire to engage with nature and open space whilst also wanting their community to benefit from the local confidence that external retail and leisure investment can unlock.

"Academic research reveals that it is precisely a young person’s heightened local knowledge and expertise which makes their inclusion in a plan making process to be such a valuable proposition"

Perhaps we tend to ask the wrong types of questions when we consult with young people, or maybe the methods used are inclined to be too prescriptive and tokenistic? Or perhaps the issue lies with how planning uses and interprets these responses?

Children and young people’s lives are intricately woven into the delicate web of their local neighbourhood and community. The relationships that emerge around this web help to shape a young person’s identity and support their aspirational development, with any slight change in that balance being quickly detected by that young person.

By making sense of their own local world and being so in tune with its changes, young people are naturally able to empathise with the needs of other community members and can consider their own future selves within that place. The capacity for young people to act as ‘agents’ who can potentially manage and process that change is also well documented in engagement literature, suggesting that they may even be best placed to mediate directly with planners. It is also widely claimed that involving young people in planning is good for a young person’s development and self-esteem, creating longer term benefits for their welfare, the community and for planning.

Article 12 of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child 1989, recognises the significance of a young person’s point of view on matters that affect them and establishes their legitimate right to be consulted. An engagement process for planning must therefore determine how it addresses the challenges presented through disparity of environmental awareness that Piaget identified across young people’s differing age groups.

One type of engagement process with young people does not ‘fit all’. How are local planning authorities engaging with young people? Research undertaken by Newcastle University in 2011 found that Planning Aid North was supporting almost half of north east local planning authorities in their efforts to engage young people in the plan making process, through its then ground breaking planning education programme.

Subsequent research by Newcastle University in 2013 established that eight out of the 11 North East local authorities’ statements of community involvement (SCIs) specifically identified a requirement to consult children and young people in their local development frameworks.

"Such a ‘watering down’ of requirements is a disappointing direction of travel, especially given the emphasis by many local planning authorities to addressing the issues of childhood obesity and community health"

A more recent review of current SCIs not only notes the lack of progress towards all local planning authorities identifying this requirement, but it also reveals some diluting of the terminology away from specific references to children and young people (and very much reflecting the 2019 NPPF lack of reference to a community voice in planning).

Such a ‘watering down’ of requirements is a disappointing direction of travel, especially given the emphasis by many local planning authorities to addressing the issues of childhood obesity and community health through local planning policy and perhaps where, given the value of involving young people in the consultation process, a clearer commitment to this agenda might prove to be a pivotal factor to achieving these policy goals.

‘YES Planning’: a different approach?

Taking its mandate from the results of an exploratory piece of linked research in 2012, which found that 96 per cent of the young respondents wanted to ‘have a say’ in what is planned in their local area, the YES Planning volunteer project was launched at Newcastle’s Planning School, with the aim of helping young people to voice their opinion on planning matters.

Through the project, students volunteer to give what time they can to deliver young people’s workshops on planning matters. The workshops involve students explaining what planning is, what is being planned locally, and promoting broader discussions about the area’s future, say in 15 years’ time, through a series of structured activities.

More crucial, though, is that the workshops create a space for young people to explore and discuss why young people might choose certain planning solutions or interventions, reflecting on their personal values and priorities and establishing what criteria they would use to decide if a place feels ‘safe’, or ‘good for families’ etc.

The last 12 months has seen the development of the spin off project, Canny Planners, which focusses young people’s planning discussions on proposals for a new hot food takeaway (actual or fictitious) for a site close to their school.  

"Working with the young people in their schools makes community engagement relevant to their daily lives"

The workshops enable young people to consider their local neighbourhood in broader aspirational terms. As one young participant said: “Our town will be a safe and secure environment with a good standard of education and a good infrastructure. Also our town will have a great standard of living and good medical care to ensure that everybody’s health and well-being is at its best.”

Using the students’ emerging facilitation skills, their questioning techniques and visual prompts, the YES Planning volunteers helped the young people to unlock a broader and longer-term understanding of their local area, which in turn should help them to shape and articulate their opinion and promote their potential future participation in planning.

As one volunteer recently stated: “Working with the young people in their schools makes community engagement relevant to their daily lives. The young people wanted to be involved because they were told that their opinion was important, which they may not have previously known.” 

Despite all this well-received engagement with young people, the challenge still exists as to how we incorporate these workshop outputs and evidence into statutory planning and showcase the value of a young person’s voice on planning matters. Another student volunteer noted: “The moment when the young people realised that they were entitled to an opinion on planning issues was exciting to witness. It is important that we capture this enthusiasm and show that their opinions are valued so that they continue to show an interest in matters that impact their local community.”

Teresa Strachan MRTPI is a lecturer in town planning at Newcastle University's School of Architecture Planning and Landscape

Photo | iStock

Tags

FEATURES
  • The coronavirus pandemic has left the economy in dire need of emergency care. The call for a ’green’ recovery is growing louder, as Huw Morris reports – but is the government listening?

    Green verge
  • A large-scale conservation strategy in north-east England shows how endangered bird species can be given vital space alongside new industrial development. Matt Moody finds out about the RTPI award-winning Humber Estuary Mitigation Strategy

  • Clusters of tall buildings create windy microclimates that can make life at ground level unbearable. Award-winning guidelines produced by the City of London aim to make street life more pleasant in the City, writes Simon Wicks

Email Newsletter Sign Up