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Planning aid and advocacy in neoliberal times
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This book examines the challenges in delivering a participatory planning agenda in the face of an increasingly neoliberalised planning system and charts the experience of Planning Aid England.

In an age of austerity, government spending cuts, privatisation and rising inequalities, the need to support and include the most vulnerable in society is more acute than ever. However, forms of Advocacy Planning, the progressive concept championed for this purpose since the 1960s, is under threat from neoliberalisation.

Rather than abandoning advocacy, the book asserts that only through sustained critical engagement will issues of exclusion be positively tackled and addressed. The authors propose neo-advocacy planning as the critical lens through which to effect positive change. This, they argue, will need to draw on a co-production model maintained through a well-resourced special purpose organisation set up to mobilise and resource planning intermediaries whose role it is to activate, support and educate those without the resources to secure such advocacy themselves.

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While neighbourhood planning is still emerging as an active component of planning practice and as part of the wider project of planning reform taken up by the UK government since 2010, it is revealing to narrate how it has been designed and responded to. The political and theoretical implications of neighbourhood planning are clearly important to understand and reflect upon (see Bradley, 2015; Davoudi and Madanipour, 2015; Parker et al, 2015; see also Chapters Two and Nine), but this chapter focuses on how, where and on what basis this non-mandatory, voluntary approach to statutory planning has been taken up by communities over the first four years or so of its operation. Alongside the take-up (and non-take-up) of neighbourhood planning, the basis for engagement with planning issues offered by neighbourhood planning and the conditions and capacities existing across the thousands of very different ‘neighbourhoods’ in England provide just some of the cleavages likely to affect engagement with this set of planning tools. This is true not only of communities, but also of the different attitudes and responses from local authorities that have been produced given their statutory role as partners in neighbourhood planning (Smith, 2014). Moreover, the resource and control implications felt by at least some local authorities appear to be affecting the progress of neighbourhood planning. Thus, there have been issues identified in terms of the unevenness of take-up and equity concerns, the terms of engagement offered (which act to shape the ‘possibilities’ of neighbourhood planning), and the level of burdens shouldered by participants (see Gunn et al, 2015; Parker et al, 2015)

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The chapter explores efforts to engage communities at the neighbourhood scale in thinking about local issues and agenda-setting firstly through non-statutory experimentation in the 1990s through to current experience of statutory neighbourhood planning under the localism Act (2011) in England. Drawing on Friedmann’s (1973) notion of transactive planning the essay highlights how lasting knowledge and awareness needs to be generated and sustained in order for such efforts to make a an impact on planning outcomes and the standing of planning in society.

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This chapter discusses the culmination of the Labour government’s historic campaign for a ‘right to roam’ in the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CRoW). It provides a brief commentary and policy history on the issue of countryside access in terms of rural politics. The chapter argues that the issue of accessibility has not been sufficiently addressed by complicated, managerial legislative provisions for open access.

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The advocacy model, in variants of the classic and activist strands, was initially criticised because of the possible disempowering effect of others speaking on behalf of marginalised groups. There was also a perceived danger of agendas being warped by advocates to suit themselves. Yet our view is that advocacy, understood as acting across the categories identified by Peattie (1978), can be rehabilitated and reformulated. It is clear that in some circumstances the need for another to amplify views on behalf of marginalised groups is made necessary by circumstance. However, the employment of this practice has been somewhat supplanted by other forms of engagement; in a sense the alternatives have supplanted rather than complemented advocacy.

The debate over participation in planning and the tensions between insider/outsider planning activity is still a live one; as indicated in the review of Planning Aid presented here, and given the changing operating environment of planning in the UK. Faced with decades of politicians’ claiming to want to see more active citizenship and to empower communities, the introduction of neighbourhood planning in England seemed a real opportunity for neighbourhoods to take some control of their ‘own’ area. Yet uptake has been somewhat dominated by those in more affluent areas. Meanwhile most local authorities have lacked the will, motivation or resources (or all three) to do more than the minimum in terms of community engagement in the process of Neighbourhood Plan preparation, where the regulatory requirements require that ‘a local planning authority must give such advice or assistance to qualifying bodies as, in all the circumstances, they consider appropriate’ (Localism Act 2011: s61.3(1)).

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For many years theorists considering institutional arrangements to govern multi-interest decision-making have urged that ‘systems are needed to cope effectively with problems of modern life and to give all citizens a more effective role in the governance of democratic societies’ (Ostrom, 2000: 3). While arguments about the need for advocacy and related activism (and for the Planning Aid role in principle) have not receded, the planning polity has struggled to enable the latter part of this call to action. One reason for this is that Planning Aid organisations in the UK have been without the wherewithal or conditions to provide a more pervasive system of support. This corresponds with the mainstay of the critique levelled by Allmendinger (2004; 2009). A more radical rethink of Planning Aid was intimated in that assessment, in order to enable forms of advocacy planning to become established. It has become clear over time that the role for Planning Aid as conceived by the early proponents of advocacy planning is one that cannot be easily reconciled with current neoliberal governmentalities, yet it is this very tension that highlights how important it is that alternatives and challenge (that is, forms of agonistic exchange) are present in the system and voiced in opposition (that is, forms of antagonistic exchange) where necessary. Neo-advocacy activity is needed to bolster (post)collaborative forms in order to hold the system to account and provide needed balance. This is particularly so given the effective lobbying and advocacy role that the private sector plays on behalf of the development industry, a function that has grown significantly since Friedmann (1987) highlighted it 30 years ago.

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‘It is through disobedience that progress has been made.’ (Oscar Wilde, 1891: 8)

A clear challenge lies before us in attempting to induce, maintain and use participatory experiences in planning in such a way that people are widely engaged, listened to and responded to by government. Thinking about planning in particular, this includes ensuring that local populations are involved in the development of a range of different options about what changes might take place in their communities. In reality, we know that communities are often presented with a form of planning that, although it may not be packaged as such, is substantively a fait accompli. Participation, where it occurs, might too often amount to little more than an empty ritual. Planning practitioners have a responsibility for communities both present and future, and have a tricky balance to strike in discerning and acting in the ‘public interest’ and delivering sustainable development.

Local populations need to feel invested in, and informed of, the results or consequences of different trajectories of change – over which they may have varying degrees of control (and enthusiasm for), especially when measured against their own self-interest. There is indisputably a need for better public education about planning and a more robust way of ensuring that the product of such education (and much more) is meaningfully incorporated into planning processes. Formulations of such activity could be varied and operate at a range of scales and through different modes. As intimated by Oscar Wilde above, spaces of/for intervention may be created through political activism locally, and this may require a range of (ant)agonistic tactics involving new combinations of actors and resources.

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Engaging the public in planning processes carries a dominant narrative that the development of understanding among interests and the garnering of knowledge from communities about their needs and preferences is a positive good. It is common therefore to hear exhortations about engineering supportive institutional arrangements and sensibilities in planning systems and how these are a necessary element for a legitimate planning. Thus, while arguments over the general principle of participation have largely been settled, what remains are a range of questions over how to effect public participation, on what basis and what to do about the competing knowledge claims and futures generated by wider engagement in planning, that is, questions of resolution. As such this topic area, which may be characterised as part of the empowerment agenda, has generated a huge amount of interest given that it strikes at the core of not only planning processes but of who determines the substantive goals of planning. A rich vein of research and analysis from the academy and agendas from numerous governments has spanned the period from the early 1970s until the present. Across that period key motifs of techniques, degrees of empowerment and collaboration, the role of the professional planner and how to respond to a more fragmented and fluid society, feature prominently.

The more radical or systemic responses to the empowerment agenda are borne out of a long-running search for ways to ‘emancipate communities’ (MacDonald, 2014; Matthews, 2013) and ensure that planning becomes a more inclusive process. Some efforts have claimed to redress issues of exclusion and widen access to planning while other mainstream forms and changes have been little more than tokenistic in their execution, with consultation and shallow engagement acting as much to justify professional plans and individual schemes as to actually shape them.

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Efforts to widen and deepen participation, develop progressive aims and enhance the legitimacy of decisions in local governance have acted to provoke a renewed concern with the redesign of institutions to enable these aims (Healey, 2003; Cleaver, 1999; Cleaver et al, 2001). Ostrom’s (1996; 2000) work on institutions derives from a research context exploring multi-stakeholder governance of natural resources, but also concludes that new ways of structuring governance arrangements more generally should provide citizens with a necessary and more effective role in modern democracies. There is clear influence from Hegelian philosophy latent in such arguments, where the highest of human needs is purported to be the need for participation (Sabine and Thorson, 1973). This speaks to participation in planning as being important for the fulfilment of citizenship beyond individual self-interest and to contribute to shaping the future.

As discussed in Chapter Two, despite theoretical bases that promote participation in planning practice, the profession has wrestled uneasily with the challenge of community engagement since at least the 1960s. There has been limited acceptance of participation efforts offered by public authorities and private developers; both sectors tend to relegate participation for different reasons and it typically remains either under-resourced or marginalised. A cynic might ask why would the powerful wish it any other way? After all it is rather a leap of faith to think that fulfilling citizenship is enough of a motivating factor for those with their own agendas, instrumental orientations and limited resources, particularly when control of the planning process mitigates against political and economic risk.

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We now discuss the development and aims of Planning Aid and its early exponents. We highlight the organisation’s role (past and present) and suggest how that work remains relevant in the contemporary planning and development environment. While we argue that new and established forms and combinations of advocacy planning are needed, there is a consistent theme throughout the history of Planning Aid (as reviewed below) relating to the unease with which the planning polity has viewed advocacy – even in its more mediatory or collaborative forms. Spaces which encourage agonistic exchange are likely to face a degree of resistance from other interests as the status quo is being challenged. Institutional arrangements which destabilise a dominant urban politics can also be regarded with suspicion; particularly where time and other resources are claimed to be scarce on a practical level, and where established interest positions and assumptions are likely to come under increased scrutiny. This reflects how urban planning remains ‘a crucial site of political struggle’ (McCann, 2001: 207) and where questions of social, economic and environmental concern are confronted locally.

The political and institutional context in which Planning Aid has operated highlights the practical but fundamental issues that have dogged ‘classic’ and ‘activist’ advocacy in the UK given the way that the role and purpose of planning has been reshaped. As a product of such change ‘other better-endowed groups are already busy with advocates of their own’ (Friedmann, 1987: 300). For example, this could be private sector agents lobbying on behalf of those who can afford their services.

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