Can citizens’ assemblies rebuild trust in our planning system?

A report was published on Thursday, 10th September by Climate Change UK.

On its own, a report being published with the aim of influencing Government is not major news. So why was this report given such prominence on Channel 4 news and by the BBC website?

Perhaps it was because it was a report that was published by a non-party political group of 108 people, a group that was setting out how the UK should respond to and become net zero by 2050. It was a report from a ‘Citizens Assembly’.

Their final report is available here. This blog is not about the report though, it’s about the process they followed to get to the recommendations.

What is ‘A citizens’ assembly’

The group, or citizens’ assembly, was set up by six government select committees – groups of MPs who look at what the government is doing and scrutinise policy.

Members of the Climate change assembly were chosen to represent a spectrum of views from all over the UK and committed 60 hours of their time to studying and debating climate change. The assembly members met over six weekends in Spring 2020 and they heard balanced evidence on the choices the UK faces, discussed them. They then worked together to put forward the recommendations to the Government.

Citizens’ assemblies have been used all around the world, including in the UK, to help shape the work of governments and parliaments, but as we currently engage with Government on the Planning White Paper, I wonder whether citizens assemblies could be part of solution to ensuring meaningful participation at the plan making stage?

The Planning White Paper says:

 We wish to:

move the democracy forward in the planning process and give neighbourhoods and communities an earlier and more meaningful voice in the future of their area as plans are made, harnessing digital technology to make it much easier to access and understand information about specific planning proposals. More engagement should take place at the Local Plan phase.

Despite the importance of working with communities – and lots of nice words, consultation features very little in the white proposals. This is a cause of concern.

Bringing democracy forward is something we have long championed and I wonder, if the Government is serious and wants to be radical, should we be looking at formally introducing Citizens Assemblies into the planning system.  Should we be bringing people from all walks of life come together to debate, discuss and decide – on planning issues.

What is to say that at the plan making stage in the new proposals, local authorities are required by law to establish Citizen Assemblies to decide on the major issues – where to designate protected land/growth areas etc and where to allocate housing sites. Anyone who works in planning will tell you that it is hard to get a community excited and engaged about local plans.

They would be 100-150 randomly selected people that live in the local authority area. They would be required to come together over a series of days – think jury service – and they would be presented with the data, documents, and debates.

Housing developers could present evidence, so to the local civic society, so to the council. But when all is said and done, it is the group of individuals who vote and decide on the issues. It removes the politics from the system and would certainly speed up the process. You could say it is democracy in action? It works for climate change. Why not the planning system?

Whilst we accept that some communities think that the Government’s Planning White paper are trying to move towards cancelling out any meaningful local input into planning application decisions, we also have to recognise that for a number of years, Civic Voice members have overwhelmingly called for greater participation at the plan-making stage. We accept this might not be at the cost of having no voice at the individual planning application state.

The obvious weakness of citizens’ assembly is that only a small number of citizens can participate, and they are relatively expensive to organise. Turning this around though, by having a smaller, randomly selected group, it allows the group to discuss and debate the issues. Other citizens can have faith that they are not playing party politics and trying to deal with the issues in front of them. By removing local politics, would this change the system into one that we trust our fellow citizen to make the decisions.

It would require strong leadership from local government to accept the proposals. But it would also require strong leadership from communities too!

Local councils will be asked to demonstrate best in class engagement in the preparation of the local plan. Please do share your experiences of consultation with Civic Voice via:

Can citizens’ assemblies rebuild trust in our planning system?

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