Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Limits to New Public Participation Practices in Local Land Use Planning

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Limits to New Public Participation Practices in Local Land Use Planning

Article excerpt

A key objective of new participatory practices in local affairs is to increase public trust in civic institutions. Debate surrounds the extent to which collaborative approaches to planning and decision making are capable of giving precedence to the concerns of the public or of promoting trust in local institutions. The paper draws on public experience of new participation practices associated with the development control process to determine whether new participation practices moderate or reinforce public distrust of local institutions. It finds that the political realities of the planning system serve to reproduce existing structures of power that do little to overcome public distrust either among groups who have traditionally taken an active role in local affairs, or new participants recruited into the process.

The 1990s saw successive UK governments place renewed emphasis on public participation in planning and local government. During the Thatcherite years, calls for increased participation were underpinned by an ideology of consumerism and increased efficiency in service delivery coupled with a desire to limit the constraints that planning placed on market activities. Since 1997, the Labour Government has sought to increase participation in public a. airs through its devolution agenda. Local authorities (LAs) are encouraged to 'get in touch with the people' by consulting organised groups and individuals to help build community skills, social capacity and active citizenship (DETR, 1998a; 1998b; 1998c; 1998d). At the same time these initiatives in local democracy have been accompanied by Best Value policies (DETR, 1999a) seeking to achieve efficiency gains in service delivery such as the planning system, that are also responsive to public concerns. Despite inherent conPicts arising from these competing ideologies, local authorities have responded to central government's calls for enhanced public participation in local affairs in a number of ways, notably through the use of citizens' panels and citizens' juries, focus groups and community visioning exercises. However, while there is evidence to show that LAs have experimented with a new range of participatory practices (Lowndes et al., 2001a; 2001b), it is much less clear to what extent local decisions have been inPuenced by participation initiatives or whether local citizens feel 'empowered' by the experience of participation. One of the purposes of the present study is to explore how people's direct experience of 'new' participation activities associated with the development control process contributes to, or moderates, public confidence in local government.

In focusing on the experience of people who have been recruited into participation initiatives, we engage with an ongoing debate among researchers. This debate questions the extent to which participation can lead to precedence being given to public concerns in local decision making and hence to a sense of empowerment (Flyvbjerg, 1998;Tewdwr-Jones and Allmendinger, 1998; Ploger, 2001). Related to Arnstein's (1969) early analysis of participation as an exercise in devolving power or not, this debate centres on the reality of power and the extent to which more participative forms of planning can effectively challenge systemic power constituted by, and wielded through, existing social and economic structures. In the section that follows we attempt to summarise some of the key dimensions of this debate as they relate to the local planning process.

Public participation: rationality and rationalisation

At the scale of local land use decisions, public participation is about acting on the belief that everyone should know they can inPuence the shape of their community. This is the foundational ideology underpinning the frequent calls for increased public participation in the planning process made in the post-war period in the UK (DOE, 1994; Simmie, 1994; Rydin, 1999; Thomas, 1996). While this foundational ideology has never achieved real prominence in the conduct of local affairs, during the 1990s there has been a growing realisation of the limitations of relying on local government actors alone to implement policy. …

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