• Andrew Black

Is it time for a Citizens' Assembly for Planning?



Another week, another lot of news on Local Plans - with progress both 'made' and 'unmade'. The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead voted (narrowly!) to adopt their plan and it was genuinely hailed as a great achievement for plan making in the South East. But why?.....


After all, RBWM was only doing what it should have been doing under planning guidance, any in reality doing many years ago. They had adopted a plan which sought to meet their housing need in full and had rightly convinced an inspector that exceptional circumstances existed to justify the release of green belt land. But for those of you who watched that meeting, or were even in the room, you realise that it nearly didn't happen. There was a group of particularly vocal residents in the council chamber who lobbed a lot of grenades at the members in their deliberations over whether to adopt the plan.


Elsewhere, at around the same time RBWM were adopting their plan, there was some fun and games going on elsewhere in the South East on plan making. Basildon Council voted to withdraw its local plan over green belt concerns (although that particularly decision may still have some twists and turns to come yet following this intervention from the council monitoring officer) . Hertsmere Council also threw the towel in just 4 months after publication of the plan, also over concerns from local residents. Last year we also saw Mole Valley make a significant about-turn on their local plan following local concerns on green belt release set out in reg 18.


All these decisions seem to have a common theme of councillors 'listening' to local residents. But who are they listening to? I'm going to come out and say it how I see it and make no apologies for this, but my overriding experience of residents in the planning process in the last 20 years is that they are predominantly older (approaching or over retirement age), mainly white, and mainly already home owners (and lets face it - many of those homes will have been built on green belt!). When councillors say they are listening to local residents, are they really listening to residents, or just those who are making the most noise? How do decision makers, and all those involved in the process, make sure they are listening to a broader and more representative cross section of their area?


I've heard it said many times that 'we need to have a sensible conversation about the green belt in this country'. No chance. Its like trying to have a conversation about the NHS. As soon as people think you might be thinking about changing anything about something as sacrosanct as the green belt, or the NHS, they think you are the antichrist.


Well, what about citizen's assemblies?


Citizens' Assemblies are certainly not a new thing and certainly not my idea. They have been suggested by think tanks since the 1990s. In 2004, a Citizens' assembly was used to discuss whether to change the voting system in British Columbia. The recommended system was then put to a referendum in order to avoid a simplistic yes/no referendum to a more nuanced matter (we all know where that gets you!). More recently, Climate Assembly UK was formed on how to get the UK to net carbon zero by 2050. The Local Government Association think they are a good idea. But how would it work for plan making and decision taking?


Well first of all, they need to be representative. As I see it, if it was to work at all then a citizens' assembly needs to have (and not limited to) younger and older people; home owners and non home owners; people from urban areas and rural areas; people who are employed, unemployed, students and people who are retired; people of different backgrounds and religious beliefs. Of course any Citizens' Assembly would not be the ultimate decision maker, that would stay firmly put, but what if before members made a decision on local plans or important strategic applications that the views of a Citizens' Assembly were made available to those decision makers?


I'm not saying that this is the silver bullet that will solve the current impasse in local plan making but something has to give doesn't it? We have to try and stop local politicians acting unilaterally when it comes to plan making and decision taking and entice them out of their echo chambers. We certainly aren't going to see a planning white paper or written ministerial statement this side of local elections in May.


AB - my own thoughts