Planning for people, for adults, or just for economic growth?

Town planning began as a service to people, and its social roots continue to drive it towards this goal. This kind of language infiltrates plans and policies throughout the UK, but in the messy political world of planning, who makes up the ‘people’ for whom we plan? And do such policies support the creation of people-centric places?

Jenny Wood, PhD researcher
Jenny Wood, PhD researcher

Planners do not enter the profession to exclude, but they do face a constant struggle in balancing and prioritising different needs amongst different communities. This is whilst consulting policy, law and the political system. Indeed, as a human being, a planner will always have a natural bias towards understanding their own, and those similar to themselves’, needs. This is one reason why community consultation is so important, and why planning is part of the democratic process. Yet, what about a community that is hard to reach, and to engage on a fair and active level? A community that has no representatives in the planning profession, and which is deliberately excluded from the democratic process? In other words; what about children?

Are children people?

Although the natural answer to this question is “of course”, there is a strange ambiguity in the language we use to talk of children. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘Young’ as having lived or existed for only a short time’ and ‘People’ as ‘human beings in general or considered collectively’. Therefore, it can be concluded that any child is a young person. However, the Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘Young People’ asa person generally from 14 to 17 years of age’.

Saughton, Edinburgh: Busy roads, fenced-off green space, and ‘no ball games’ allowed. Is this an environment for children?
Saughton, Edinburgh: Busy roads, fenced-off green space, and ‘no ball games’ allowed. Is this an environment for children?

What then of those below the age of 14? Why can’t they be young people too? This misnomer allows our everyday language to dehumanise children and make the implicit suggestion they are of lesser-worth to adults.

Indeed, though those aged 14 and up do get to be called people, they fair equally badly when considering the language society uses to describe them. The Oxford English Corpus states:

‘almost all of the verbs associated with youths are violent or threatening… And youths cannot simply meet—they congregate, gather, and even plague…Teenagers fare equally badly, commonly being the object of verbs such as kill, stab, arrest, and molest and described as troubled, rebellious, spotty, or pregnant.’ 

Assumptions often made about youth

So, what about planning policy; does it support the inclusion of people (including those below age 18)?

The Scottish planning system

The Scottish Government’s core aim is to allow ‘all to flourish’ through ‘achieving sustainable economic growth’. This is reflected throughout the proposed National Planning Framework 3 (NPF3- the single statutory document in the Scottish planning system), and therefore into the proposed revision to Scottish Planning Policy (SPP). At the same time, the Scottish Minister for Children and Young People strives to make Scotland ‘the best place to grow up’, and this ambition is manifested in the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill which is currently being debated. Both of these aims are visionary, but are they consistent?

Through an assessment of the Scottish planning system, I spent the summer investigating whether it helps facilitate the rights of children (using the framework of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child). Unfortunately, I uncovered a number of discrepancies, oversights and clear exclusions of children (and people as a whole). This is worrying if the Scottish Government wishes their aims to be clear and achievable.

 © Nick Wright -
© Nick Wright –

First and foremost, children, and particularly young children, are not direct economic actors. They do not work, they do not have an independent income, and they do not contribute to economic growth in the present time frame. Therefore, the lack of mention of children throughout policy serves to undermine their rights to spaces where they can play, meet, rest and pursue appropriate leisure activities. It also forgets that children are unable to drive or travel far, independently, to access such space, nor make their opinions known in the same way, and at the same time as adults. Fundamentally, it even forgets the value of providing external environments that nurture healthy, well-educated and economically productive children (that will become adults). Does this mean children are neither people of the present, nor people of the future?

With the proposed NPF3 being the only statutory planning instrument, and regarding itself the spatial manifestation of the Government’s economic strategy; what of social and environmental needs? Can we achieve sustainability by focusing on the economic side of development? What does ‘Sustainable Economic Growth’ even mean? As planners, it is set out as our role to ensure it, but how can we do this if it’s never defined? It creates a worrying potential to justify many things as sustainable.

What then of accessibility? Are planning documents easy to read, transparent, clear and concise? The answer is no. Anyone that is not paid to read these documents is highly unlikely to do so, and so the apparent openness, expressed in the NPF3’s Ministerial Foreword, to hear ‘your views’ is disingenuous. In fact, expressing ‘your views’ involved downloading and filling in an extensive form- it is perhaps redundant for me to state that neither the SPP nor NPF3 is written with a child’s engagement in mind.

To supplement my analysis, I also looked at the 2010 Planning Advice Note on Community Engagement (PAN3). This guidance is non-statutory and aimed at planning practitioners. As expected, it is far more descriptive and concerned with the needs of people and different groups, and does afford brief mention to the needs of children as a community. It does not however set out specific guidance on the ways children could, and should be consulted, other than a single mention that visits to schools may be appropriate.

Planning Practice

Fortunately, 69% of planning Authorities that responded to a survey (24 out of 38) had engaged children in some sense since planning reform in 2006. In fact, it was great to see so many good examples of engagement with children, and the real efforts many authorities have gone through to ensure children are not excluded from consultation. This is all in spite of confusing and unsupportive policy.

It does mean however that such policy is having an impact, and 31% of planning authorities have not engaged with children. Unfortunately this is due mainly to resource constraints, lack of support from other departments (such as education) and other priorities. This means there is a complete patchwork of activity across Scotland in involving children in planning, and even where children have been involved, it has not necessarily been a representative sample.

In amongst all of this, it is clear that the Scottish planning system is also paying little regard to the Equalities Act 2010. This states that all public authorities have a general equalities duty to prevent unlawful discrimination, promote equality of outcome, and foster good relations for people who share certain characteristics; age is one of these. It means that Equalities Impact Assessments are required on public policy, and a partial one has so far been issued for SPP. It is stark however that this remains an afterthought rather than a key consideration. It shows that children continue to be marginalised in planning, just as they are in general society.

Overall, this shows planning in general is trying to plan for people, and this does include children. However, it does so in the context of unsupportive policy and a lack of clear guidance. For children to really be considered a group that must be consulted, major changes need to be made to policy and societal views that children’s opinions do not matter. Not consulting and planning for children is intrinsically wrong, as well as contrary to equalities legislation, international rights agreements, and government aims to make Scotland the best place to grow up. It shows that at the moment, planning only has the backing to plan for economic growth, and this is simply not a sustainable approach.

You may also enjoy Jenny’s recent stand-up comedy sketch on this subject: BANANA NIMBYISM, and her previous blog: Protection ‘for’ or protection ‘from’? Children in town planning.

If you’d like to keep track of Jenny’s ongoing research, follow her on Twitter:

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