The rhetoric and reality of public participation in planning

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Abstract

While the principle of public participation is an acknowledged requirement of planning in most Western countries there is continuing debate, and insufficient empirical evidence, on the effectiveness of public participation in practice. This research examines the power of public participation in local planning in Scotland. The paper first identifies the principal actors in the development planning process. The institutional framework for planning in Scotland is then explained to establish the legislative and procedural context for a case study analysis of conflict between developers and the local community in a village in the metropolitan green belt. Thirdly, using a combination of analysis of planning documents, interviews with local planners and developers, and a survey of village residents the empirical study provides detailed insight on the principles, practice, and problems for public participation in local planning. This is followed by a critique of recent government initiatives to enhance public engagement in planning. Finally, a number of conclusions are presented on the prospects for more effective public participation in planning. While the empirical focus of the research is on Scotland, the findings are of general relevance for the debate over the rhetoric and reality of public participation in Western society.

The rhetoric and reality of public participation in planning

Public participation is a political principle and practice that seeks and facilitates the involvement of citizens potentially affected by, or interested in, a decision. The principle of public participation in planning holds that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision making process, and that their contribution will influence the decision (Barlow 1995). Public participation in planning is seen by many as a means of citizen empowerment and as a key element of local democracy as well as a way to improve the legitimacy of decisions leading to more socially acceptable and sustainable planning outcomes.

The principal of public participation in planning is generally accepted in most Western countries (Caves 1992; Curry 2012; Pawlowska 2018) yet, in marked contrast to the rhetoric of public participation, concerns have been voiced over the effectiveness of the process in practice (Cook & Kathari 2001). As M. Aitken (2010: 249) observed, ‘projects or decision making processes which make claims to being participatory do not necessarily accurately reflect public interests and participants do not necessarily play influential roles’. The basic dilemma stems from the perpetual tension between the need for effective governance and the need for maximum accountability. While the former invokes centralist tendencies in government, the latter demands greater decentralization. Fundamentally, as we shall see in the present research, the degree of participation open to citizens varies with local context.

As E. Conrad et al. (2011: 761) have noted ‘whilst public participation is now accepted as an essential requirement of planning there is limited literature which considers the effectiveness of participation in practice’. The present research contributes detailed insight into the effectiveness of public participation in planning by undertaking an analysis of the principles, practice, problems and prospects for public engagement in land use planning in Scotland. The research focuses on the particular issue of contested residential development in a metropolitan greenbelt environment, and employs a combined methodology comprising examination of local planning documents, discussions with planning professionals and developers, and interviews with local residents. The case study approach is employed to provide a detailed analysis of the power struggle between private capital, public planning and local communities over residential development. This approach is appropriate because, as R. Yin (1984: 20) observed, the strategy has a distinct advantage when ‘a how or why question is being asked about a contemporary set of events, over which the investigator has little or no control’.

The paper is organized into five main parts. Following this introduction we identify the main actors engaged in land use planning in Scotland. We then explain the structure and process of development planning and management to provide a conceptual basis for an empirical case study of public participation and conflict over residential development in the metropolitan greenbelt. This is followed by a critique of recent government initiatives to enhance public participation in planning. Finally, a number of conclusions are presented on the prospects for more effective citizen engagement in planning.

Principal agents in land use planning in Scotland

The inherent conflict of interests in the planning process has been acknowledged explicitly by government – ‘The planning system has a critical balancing role to play when competing interests emerge in the consideration of future development. It is essential to recognise that planning issues, by their very nature, will often bring differing interests into opposition and disagreement and the resolution of these issues will inevitably disappoint some parties. The planning system cannot satisfy all interests all of the time. It should, however, enable speedy decision-making in ways which are transparent and demonstrably fair’ (Scottish Government 2010a: 2).

This poses the fundamental question of ‘fair for whom?’ As we shall see, this issue is the leitmotif running through the debate over the effectiveness of public participation. The nature of ‘fairness’ is a question that has taxed moral philosophers for centuries. In the context of the present research, the contested nature of the concept is revealed in the expressed views of the principal agents involved in the residential development process.

Figure 1 reveals the principal agents involved in the residential development process. Among the key actors are builder-developers, planners, and local residents, each of which pursue differing priorities.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Principal agents involved in the residential development process

Source: own study

Citation: Urban Development Issues 63, 1; 10.2478/udi-2019-0012

A primary concern of builders is to ensure that an adequate supply of land is always available. Because of different interpretations of what is meant by an adequate land supply housebuilders have become ‘one of the major adversaries of the planning system’ (Rydin 1986: 28). The debate over land availability has intensified over recent decades with, in general, builder-developers arguing that the planning-system restricts their ability to obtain a basic factor of production and that development controls inflate the price of land and, therefore, of houses. The main building pressure group, the Home Builders Federation, has extended the argument on behalf of its members to contend that planners are frustrating households’ home-ownership ambitions and threatening the livelihood of small builders, as well as hindering labour mobility and thereby hampering economic regeneration (Home Builders Federation 2007). The chief aim of house-builders is to ensure a regular supply of land for development and to realize a profit. House-builders generally regard the planning system as overly restrictive. L. Abbott (1999) emphasises the constraining hand of local planning authorities, expressing despair at the extent to which greenbelt controls, low housing output targets in plans, development taxes and other policy constraints prevent the house-building industry from achieving its business goals.

In contrast to the goals of the development industry the strategic goal of the planning system is to ensure the orderly release of building sites within an approved policy framework. The intraregional distribution of the total amount of housing land required will reflect the importance attached to growth or restraint in different localities. The capacity of existing infrastructure networks and the cost of necessary improvements will be taken into account, as well as the need to protect agricultural land, high quality landscapes and historic settlements.

Planners and developers also diverge on the best geographical location for new residential development, the former generally favouring brownfield sites within the existing urban envelope, and the latter preferring green field sites which they regard as more marketable. The issue of the marketability of individual sites lies at the crux of the conflict between developers and planners. As we shall see later, in the case study, these divergent interpretations of the most appropriate local housing strategy condition the conflict between housebuilders, planners and local communities over development in the greenbelt.

The allocation of sites for private residential development forms a major part of development planning. Development plans (structure and local plans) are essentially statements of policy. However, development plan maps do not indicate permission to develop. This must be applied for by the landowner and in reaching a decision on a planning application the local authority is entitled to take account of ‘other material considerations’, i.e., factors other than the statutory development plans. The development management power of the local authority is not absolute however since a builder refused planning permission has the right of appeal to central government.

Changes made to the Scottish planning system in 2006 have meant that developers are now more directly involved in local land availability studies, and planners must actively consider the requirements of house-builders when preparing development plans and during the development management process. This has led some, such as the Scottish Green Belts Alliance (2005: 8), to conclude that while ‘economic growth is important for Scotland and developers make a crucial contribution to it… with regard to fairness it may be noted that the planning system may have an unfair bias in favour of developers’.

The motives, actions and powers of local residents – the third major interest group in the debate over land use planning decisions – will be considered in detail later in the empirical case study of conflict over residential development in the metropolitan greenbelt. First, it is important to understand the process of development planning and management that conditions the struggle between the principal stakeholders.

Development planning and management in Scotland

The basis of the Scottish planning system is the Planning etc. (Scotland) Act of 2006. Development planning in Scotland is based on quinquennial strategic development plans and local development plans (Pacione 2013). The former set out a vision for the long term development of the main city regions, focusing on issues including land for housing, greenbelts, major business and retail developments and infrastructure provision. Local development plans identify sites for new developments and lay out policies that guide decision making on planning applications. As in the case of strategic development plans, each planning authority is required to publish and then update a local development plan for their area at least once every five years.

In determining an application from a house-builder for a major new green field development a planning authority can: (a) grant permission unconditionally, in which case the development proceeds; (b) grant permission subject to conditions; or (c) refuse permission. When the elected members of the planning authority decide to refuse planning permission or grant permission subject to conditions the applicant has a right of appeal to the Scottish government within three months of the issue of the decision notice. Planning appeals to the Scottish government are usually dealt with by a Reporter appointed by the Directorate for Planning and Environmental Appeals. Any modifications to the draft local plan which are recommended by the Reporter will generally be binding on the planning authority.

This represents a significant shift in the balance of decision-making power from local to central government. Under the pre-2006 system the planning authority not only appointed the Reporter but also considered the Reporter’s conclusions and recommendations and then decided what action to take. The planning authority was not obliged to accept the Reporter’s recommendations but had to set out its response to each in a statement giving their reasons for accepting or rejecting each recommendation.

Public participation in practice – a case study

Having established the legislative and procedural background to the post-2006 development planning, management and appeal system in Scotland we can now focus attention on a particular case study to illustrate the conflictual relationships among the different interest groups, and the role and effectiveness of public participation in the battle over residential development. The empirical focus of the research is on a potential development site at Redmoss Farm in the greenbelt on the western edge of the village of Milton of Campsie in East Dunbartonshire (Fig. 2.).

Figure 2
Figure 2

Proposed greenbelt residential development location

Source: own study

Citation: Urban Development Issues 63, 1; 10.2478/udi-2019-0012

House-builders have been refused planning permission to develop the land on several occasions over previous decades. However, the potentially enormous windfall profits from receiving planning permission has encouraged them to submit repeated planning applications to develop the Redmoss Farm site. These have been opposed vigorously by the local community.

The most common issues raised by local residents in opposition to the proposed development related to: (a) the need to preserve the greenbelt, and loss of open space; (b) the adverse impact on wildlife and biodiversity; (c) the traffic implications of additional vehicles, and overloading of village infrastructure; (d) no need for additional housing in the village; (e) settlement coalescence and loss of village identity; and (f) the remoteness of decision making.

As Figure 3 reveals the 147 respondents in the household survey provided a total of 1,119 views in opposition to the proposed development. Significantly no respondents expressed a positive view of the effectiveness of the current practice of public participation in the local development planning process.

Figure 3
Figure 3

Major reasons for opposition to development of the Redmoss Farm site

Source: own study

Citation: Urban Development Issues 63, 1; 10.2478/udi-2019-0012

The Scottish Government’s policy on community engagement in planning is set out in Scottish Planning Policy (Scottish Government 2010a) and in relevant Planning Circulars (Scottish Government 2009a, 2010b). The process of public participation in a projected planning development commences with a pre-application consultation in which prospective applicants for planning permission are required by law to consult communities before a planning application is submitted for a national or major development (the latter including residential developments of fifty or more houses). According to Scottish Government (2010b: 16), ‘the aim is to improve the quality of planning applications, mitigate negative impacts where possible, address misunderstandings, and air and deal with any community issues that can be tackled’. Evidence from the present research suggests that this may be a naïve expectation.

The following selection of respondents’ views provides detailed insight into the nature of public participation in the case study context. A significant number of respondents had no knowledge of the pre-application consultation procedure and many of those who did questioned the value of the exercise. For example, one local resident stated:

‘I’ve never heard of this. No-one told me about this. Did they send out the notice during the school holidays?’ (Respondent 87).

During the pre-application consultation the intended dialogue is between the community and the prospective applicant. However in a situation where there exists a long-standing antagonism between developers and the local community this process is unlikely to achieve the aims set out in the legislation. This is apparent in the views of survey respondents:

‘Why should I get involved with them (the developers). They’ll just use the information we provide to counter our arguments when they submit their planning application to build on our greenbelt’ (R99).

Following publication of the proposed plan the character of engagement changes and ‘the emphasis is on providing information and facilitating representations’ (East Dunbartonshire Council 2012: 8). This form of ‘consultative participation’ is located firmly within the ‘degrees of tokenism’ steps on Arnstein’s ladder (Fig. 4.).

Figure 4
Figure 4

A ladder of citizen participation

Source: Arnstein 1969

Citation: Urban Development Issues 63, 1; 10.2478/udi-2019-0012

The empirical evidence from the case study household survey underlines the view that participating in a consultation process is not the same as having influence and revealed a number of specific sources of dissatisfaction with the existing decision making process. Chief among these were feelings of powerlessness, frustration, distrust of developers and government, and anger at being dictated to by remote officials that collectively coalesced around a perceived local democratic deficit.

In relation to feelings of helplessness one resident explained:

‘What’s the point of having meetings to object; they just ignore us and do what they intended to do all along’ (R135).

The felt lack of local community influence was also reflected in perceptions of an imbalance in power between the local residents and developers. Some respondents believed that:

‘The developers get preferential treatment because of their cosy relationship with the planners. They are invited to private meetings to discuss what sites they want to build on’ (R88).

‘We can’t call up paid experts to write reports for us. It’s also difficult for local people who work all day to find the time to prepare arguments against the developers. The planning department are quite helpful in explaining the procedure but they say it’s not their job to suggest approaches to oppose the builders’ plans’ (R76).

Feelings of powerlessness were matched by anger and resentment over what were perceived to be on-going attacks on the quality of life of people in the village:

‘This developer has sought repeatedly to build on this land since we moved here in 1972. They were again refused planning permission earlier this year but 6 months later I hear they are at it again. It costs the developers nothing to sit on the land and keep submitting planning applications in the hope they eventually win. Surely there should be a rule about how many times they can do this?’ (R44).

These views on the marginalisation of the voices of local people were accompanied by equally negative perceptions of the motives and actions of the developers who, as we have noted, have made a succession of attempts over several decades to build on the Redmoss site:

‘All the benefits of the Redmoss development would accrue to the house building company at the expense of the local community and surrounding environment’ (R22).

There was widespread cynicism of the actions and tactics of the developers:

‘This is a repeat of attempts that the developer has made through the planning appeals process for several years and is nothing more than a cynical effort to bypass the views of local residents by putting the decision in the hands of a government Reporter’ (R165).

The remoteness of decision making under the post-2006 planning system, was a major source of discontent in the study village. As several residents expressed:

‘The best people to decide what is right for their village are the people of the village, those who have first-hand experience of the local area and can identify with its needs. Decisions of this magnitude should not be left to some stranger in a suit laying down the law simply because he can’ (R97).

A final observation highlighted a particular aspect of the unequal balance of power between developers and local communities:

‘This process is totally undemocratic. The developer should not be allowed to by-pass the decisions of the local people and the local plan and make an appeal to the central government’ This is grossly unfair especially when local residents do not have an equal right of appeal (R46).

Clearly, the empirical evidence from the case study underlines the view that, as far as local residents are concerned, participation in a consultation process is not the same as having influence.

The reporter’s decision

In situations where a planning dispute cannot be resolved at the local level the matter is passed to a Reporter appointed by the DPEA (the Scottish government’s planning and environmental appeals division) for decision, which is generally binding on a Local Authority. In the particular case of Redmoss Farm the Reporter agreed the need for additional affordable housing in the area but acknowledged that the proposed development site was greater than 1 km from village facilities and that road access was difficult. The Reporter concluded that the negative impact of the proposed scale and location of development in the greenbelt was not outweighed by the need for affordable housing. Accordingly, the development should not be approved.

What are the prospects for more effective public participation in local planning?

In 2015, only a decade after a previous review, the Scottish government announced a new review of the planning system. The Review Panel report contained 48 recommendations (Beveridge, Biberbach & Hamilton 2016). A significant recommendation of direct relevance for the cause of greater public participation in planning was rejection of the case for an equal right of appeal for citizens, despite almost half of non-professional representations to the review supporting this change. Indeed, those invited to participate in the Planning Review Working Groups were barred at the outset by the Chief Planner and government Planning Minister from raising the issue. This negative approach by government reflected its decision in 2005 during the previous review of planning in Scotland, and represents a deeply embedded institutional opposition to the concept of equal right of appeal for local residents among planning professionals and the development industry.

In January 2017 the government published a further consultation paper on the future of the Scottish planning system seeking views on ‘twenty proposals for improving the planning system’ (Scottish Government 2017a: 3). A key objective was ‘getting more people involved in planning’ (Scottish Government 2017a: 4). They acknowledged, however, that ‘the proposals set out were aspirational and ‘remain at an early stage and would benefit from more detailed consultation’ (Scottish Government 2017a: 48). To this end, the government agreed to consider the findings of recently commissioned research into barriers to public engagement in planning, the stated aims of which were to make the planning system ‘fairer and more inclusive’, and to achieve real and positive cultural change and significantly improve public trust in the system. This Report was published in May 2017 and as Figure 5 reveals resulted in several key messages from respondents on the effectiveness of the current system for public participation in planning (Scottish Government 2017b).

Figure 5
Figure 5

Barriers to public participation in planning

Source: Adapted from Scottish Government 2017b

Citation: Urban Development Issues 63, 1; 10.2478/udi-2019-0012

The Report confirmed that:

  1. (a) there is a lack of trust, respect and confidence in the planning system,
  2. (b) the system is not considered to be fair and equitable,
  3. (c) there is a gap between the rhetoric of community empowerment and communities experience of trying to influence the planning system,
  4. (d) there is a lack of clarity about the purpose of engagement,
  5. (e) experience suggests that engagement rarely changes planning outcomes.

In response to these deficiencies, the Report proposed:

  1. (a) continued support for citizen engagement at the early pre-application stage,
  2. (b) local communities be ‘empowered’ to prepare local place plans that should link to the preparation of Local Development Plans (but with little considering of how this duty will be fulfilled or where the time, resources, money, expertise, motivation will come from),
  3. (c) give community councils a statuary right to be consulted on a LDP,
  4. (d) the planning process should be conducted in ‘jargon-free’ English.

These recommendations failed to respond adequately to the widespread criticism of arrangements for public participation in planning and points to a future of continued consultation rather than community empowerment.

Conclusion

The modernisation of planning in Scotland and centralisation of the power of decision making under the Planning etc. (Scotland) Act of 2006 introduced the quintessential geographical question of the appropriate scale of governance and decision making. As the empirical evidence from the Redmoss case study demonstrates a decision viewed as economically and socially acceptable and sustainable at a national level may produce an opposite evaluation on the ground at the local scale. Power lies at the heart of the issue. A significant number of respondents to the survey referred explicitly to their dissatisfaction with the way in which the planning consultation process played out and, in particular, with the overarching conditioning power of central government to set the rules of engagement and, in so doing, exert a dominant influence on outcomes that impact most heavily on local communities. As D. Bell, T. Grays & C. Haggett (2005: 463) concluded, ‘the structure of the planning system may encourage oppositional participation but planning policy and government support may make successful opposition increasingly difficult’. As M. Aitken (2010: 262) concurred, ‘this raises questions as to the implications of policy commitments to public participation, particularly in relation to types of developments which are explicitly supported by government policies’. In the specific case of the proposed residential development at Redmoss Farm several respondents observed that given the Scottish government’s support for national economic growth expressed in the National Planning Framework (Scottish Government 2009b) and their view of the housebuilding industry as a key mechanism for growth, this tips the balance of power in favour of pro-growth interests over local community interests. In so doing this violates the principles of citizenship, local democracy and subsidiarity that underlie effective public participation in planning.

Real progress towards a more participatory form of local planning has been thwarted by a variety of factors. Some of these relate to genuine concerns over the ability of local communities to accept and manage the responsibility that accompanies the political rights of citizenship; over whether departures from centrally determined performance standards can be accommodated; and the need for a higher authority to adjudicate between conflicts at the lower level. It can also be argued that the major obstacles to enhanced community engagement have been institutionalised resistance from professionals, bureaucrats, planners, and politicians. Furthermore, as the evidence of failed attempts to introduce an equal right of appeal in Scotland has indicated, there appears to be a favoured bi-partisan relationship between state and capital that has served to marginalise local citizens from decisions regarding the development of their communities.

A central aim of the ‘modernisation’ of the Scottish planning system in 2006 was to establish a ‘plan-led’ system in which national, strategic and local plans set out clear priorities and guide individual planning decisions. This shift of power towards national government at the expense of local accountability has been of direct significance for debates over the nature and location of residential developments and the role of local communities in the development plan process.

In practice, a fundamental problem with the current Scottish land use planning system that causes and perpetuates conflict between developers, planners and communities is that it is a predominantly market-oriented development-led process. Housing developments within a local authority area are driven largely by developers submitting applications to build. The role of the local planning authority is largely reactive rather than pro-active or ‘plan-led’. A more positive and fairer development planning system would be a genuinely plan-led one in which ‘succinct and up-to-date plans provide a positive vision for the future of each area; a framework for addressing housing needs and other economic, social and environmental priorities; and a platform for local people to shape their surroundings’ (Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government 2019: 8).

Notwithstanding the Scottish government’s stated commitment to public participation in planning, the present research suggests that current processes are not working sufficiently to enhance local democracy. The recent passage of the Planning (Scotland) Bill through the Scottish parliament (Scottish Parliament 2019) has done little to change this situation. Without fundamental change to the institutional ethos underlying Scottish planning there appears to be little prospect of any significant improvement in the currently deficient system of civic engagement in land use planning. Scotland will continue to have a centralised decision-making system and an unequal division of power between developers and local people, with a hard-pressed planning system in between. The gap between the rhetoric and reality of public participation in planning will remain as marked as it is now.

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If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.

  • Abbott L. (1999) Political Barriers to Housebuilding in Britain Industry Systems Research Manchester.

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    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • Arnstein S. (1969) A ladder of citizen participation Journal of the American Institute of Planners 35(4) 216–224.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • Barlow J. (1995) Public Participation in Urban Development: the European Experience Policy Studies Institute London.

  • Bell D. Grays T. & Haggett C. (2005) The social gap in wing farm siting decisions Environmental Politics 14(4) 460–477.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
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