The shortcomings of representative democracy in planning

The independent review of the planning system, initiated by the Scottish Government, is seeking views on the Scottish planning system and thoughts and recommendations on how it can be improved, including through ‘game changing’ ideas. Of course, this is not the first time the planning system has been under review, either here or south of the border where a similar system operates and there is value in referring to previous deliberations.

In 2013, the Town and Country Planning Association initiated a series of cross-sector roundtable discussions to inform the political debate about the future of planning in England in the run-up to the 2015 general election. These discussions sought to explore how to achieve a leaner, more focused, fairer and more effective planning system. The first of the three papers produced to capture the important aspects of the debate distils the arguments about can be regarded as the most important policy issue for planning: the place of people in the decision-making process (

The paper makes the point that the supposed failures and weaknesses of planning (for example, to build enough housing) are in practice largely a product of local democracy – a failure of local democracy rather than a failure of planning. Any review of planning, it suggested, should be set within the wider context of the state of local governance.

Strong democratic governance is inherent within the planning system, with key decisions on planmaking and development management embedded within local authorities and both functions requiring democratic approval. At present, however, I sense some local authorities – specifically, some local politicians – are making decisions on development which are at odds with the aim of delivering sustainable economic development and new housing, primarily because they would be unpopular with the local electorate (and/or a vocal minority).  In some cases, Councils are seeking to avoid making decisions at all, delaying, deferring and all too happy to allow the Scottish Government to take responsibility.  This situation ultimately only serves to create uncertainty and delay, exacerbated by lengthy, complex and cumbersome committee structures.

What is required is a more responsive, expedient and transparent approach to decision-making which better aligns with the Government’s aims, balancing appropriate levels of participative democracy and representative democracy. For this to happen, it is clear that there is a need to rebuild the public’s trust in planning and its legitimacy but also address some of the fundamental misconceptions that exist, for example around green belt (which I note are repeated amongst some of the idea raised on this very forum).  Participative democracy must move beyond the perceived right to say no to development and acknowledge a responsibility for the long-term future of Scotland’s places and people.

Alongside this, there is the need for more effective democratic governance. Potentially this requires ‘game changing ideas’: linking the grant given to Councils from Scottish Government to planning performance? Greater delegation to planning professionals? Independent planning panels, democratically elected for fixed terms? Decoupling planning and infrastructure delivery from local government altogether? The failures of local democracy need to be acknowledged and addressed; at the very least Councils (Administrations and Senior Management) need to demonstrate stronger leadership and vision if we are to achieve sustainable economic growth.

Why the contribution is important

Development planning and development management functions are embedded within local authorities and associatied decision making requires democratic approval. However, this system is often directly reponsible for uncertainty and delay. By adopting new approaches to democratic governance, a more streamlined and effective system can be achieved which delivers aspirations for sustainable economic growth.



by Alconda on February 12, 2016 at 12:13PM

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  • Posted by SimonB February 19, 2016 at 12:43

    While I support the gist of this idea in improving the democratic process, "sustainable economic growth", which has become embedded at the heart of government policy, is an oxymoron and is NOT sustainable on a finite planet. This, along with the democratic deficit, is the fundamental "elephant in the room" of the current planning system, perverting the democratic process and compromising the well being of future generations by pandering to the construct of the current economic paradigm which encourages greed and population increase at the expense of environmental and social well being.

    Ironically, due to the dire financial climate, precipitated by the chicanery of the global banking system through real estate speculation, commercial interests incessantly invoke the concept of "sustainable economic growth" in order to justify and promote further speculative 'development', irrespective of public need or ecological best practice.

    There needs to be serious public debate regarding the issue of ecological "carrying capacity", recognising the limits to endless economic growth.

    “...the most affluent of countries, operate on a depletion economy, leaving destruction in its wake... When the last tree is cut, the last fish caught, and the last river polluted, when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realise too late that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.” - American Indian proverb
  • Posted by Geo February 20, 2016 at 10:32

    This is particularly important in situations where councils are giving approval to themselves in the guise of "arms length" developers who sell on the development having gained approval. An example of this is the current development proposals in east Edinburgh where much of the proposed development is on land owned by EDI. "The EDI Group was established in 1988 by The City of Edinburgh Council". So if the development plan is approved the council will then be required to give approval to themselves. Profoundly undemocratic.
  • Posted by JohnColledge February 28, 2016 at 23:17

    It is interesting to see how often CEC is being mentioned in these posts. We live in a city where an acknowledged failure in the planning system is the practice of misleading both members of the public and the Planning Committee during planning applications. My neighbours and I have made it clear that we feel this is fundamentally dishonest and to date no one has disagreed with us. Yet members of the Planning Committee and all local MSPs do nothing. Regardless of which party anyone supports, this is not democracy. We vote for our elected representatives in the expectation that they will serve us, not turn a blind eye to deliberate malpractice.
  • Posted by BrianMcNeil February 29, 2016 at 18:00

    "[...] new approaches to democratic governance, a more streamlined and effective system can be achieved which delivers aspirations for sustainable economic growth."

    My key concern with this is, it seems to be a license to fast-track development with less local consultation; not more. As others note, infinite growth is impossible with the finite resources of an area.
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