Graham Boyack: It's good to talk '“ how communities can be helped to shape plans for the future

Last month, Scottish Mediation joined those who want the best for our ­planning system by signing up to the Scottish Alliance for People and ­Places. The Alliance has been formed to bring together progressive ideas to feed in to the Scottish Government's Planning Bill announced as part of its programme for government for 2017-18, A Nation with Ambition, laid before Parliament last week.

Graham Boyack, director, Scottish Mediation.

So, what would a progressive ­planning system look like?

It should seek to ­provide an opportunity for people to shape the places in which they live. It should encourage ­sustainable development and allow for strategic consideration of housing and infrastructure needed for society to ­operate effectively. So, what has mediation got to do with all of that?

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Scottish Mediation and others believe that the use and skills of mediation will be essential ­components in ­delivering successful outcomes.

If the planning system is to improve, then one way will be to involve communities in shaping the future when local development plans are agreed.

The community’s involvement in shaping those discussions earlier would lead to a better understanding of what’s wanted locally, what’s possible and what will work. Here are some of the ­reasons that using mediation skills can help:

Flexibility – mediation can provide the opportunity for solutions to be developed that may not be possible in an adversarial system.

Efficiency – the effective use of mediation, particularly as part of pre-consultation processes, has the potential to speed up the process.

Ownership – greater involvement of the community gives the potential for wider community ownership of developments.

Maintaining relationships – the opportunity to retain or rebuild trust where stakeholders are likely to meet again.

Accessibility – mediation ensures that different voices are encouraged to contribute.

Shared learning and capacity building – by equipping people with mediation skills, communities can benefit in the longer term.

Creativity – when people are guided in using mediating ways to resolve their differences, it can spur a third way from which all benefit.

It is my belief that applications to develop in this context are less likely to be as contested as the notion of “where has this come from?” will likely be reduced.

But perhaps the main impact of mediation skills would be in changing the dynamic of the early stages of planning discussions.

By focusing on the interests of all those involved, it may be possible to better engage communities in the decisions that affect them.

This can take place prior to ­getting into the quasi-legal process that tends to push people and organisations apart, as being for or against proposed developments. Ideally, therefore, mediation would be implemented as early in the process as possible, with the earliest stages of development planning being the ideal starting point.

To spread the skills of mediation, I believe they need to be included as core skills for planners, be an essential part of delivering community empowerment and their spread into communities would have wider ­benefits for other discussions too.

What if disputes occur once the application has been submitted? Whilst the mediation can play a part in the early stages of application there is also great potential in resolving ­disputes once they arise during the process.

That could work either by using examples such as New Zealand, where specialist courts use mediation and often even by narrowing ­disputes make a difference to the planning process. In Scotland even when an issue gets to the Planning Reporter (and is not to be dealt with by ministers) mediation may be suitable.

Whilst other countries have been the pioneers in using mediation in planning it is not too late for Scotland to be an early adopter and innovator by using mediation to counteract power imbalances (real or ­perceived) in the Scottish planning system. Taking the first steps now would be a step towards a more collaborative and inclusive future planning process with community empowerment and mediating ways at its heart.

The Alliance includes organisations such as the Royal Town Planning Institute, The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, Paths for All, PAS, Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, Scottish Mediation, Institution of Civil Engineers, COSLA, Scotland’s Towns Partnership and National Health Scotland.

Graham Boyack, director, ­Scottish Mediation.