Statutory protections for children’s rights to be embedded in the Scottish town planning system

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The Planning (Scotland) Bill, which finished its third and final stage in the Scottish Parliament last month, looks set to make play sufficiency assessments, and the involvement of children and young people in local development plans, statutory duties for local authorities. Anna Gaffney explains the implications.

Planning in the UK is a devolved responsibility, meaning that England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland operate under different structures. At the moment, the Scottish Planning regime does not contain a specific requirement to involve children and young people in any part of the planning process. Whilst there have been efforts by individual planning authorities to involve them at some stage of plan preparation, little progress has been made to involve them in a meaningful or consistent way. This is now set to change with the Planning (Scotland) Bill, which finished its third and final stage in the Scottish Parliament last month.

In the second stage, Monica Lennon MSP introduced an amendment to require planning authorities to produce Play Sufficiency Assessments, as advocated by Play Scotland, and already in operation in Wales. She also introduced an amendment that would make the involvement of children and young people across the process of preparing Local Development Plans statutory.

‘This represents a major achievement for play advocates who have been campaigning for Article 31 of the UNCRC, on the right to play, to be recognized by statute’.

Play Sufficiency assessments were uncontested at stage three, and will therefore soon become an element of Scottish planning law. This represents a major achievement for play advocates who have been campaigning for Article 31 of the UNCRC, on the right to play, to be recognized by statute. Yet, the passage to incorporation of children and young people’s participation was opposed at stage three through an amendment by the Planning Minister.

Planning system review

The background to this breakthrough is that the Scottish Government introduced a review of the planning system in 2015, following years of stagnating economic development and an increasingly urgent need for housing. The purpose of the review was to identify how planning can promote the speedier delivery of development to address these issues.

The review was undertaken by key figures in the planning sector and contributed to by a large number of stakeholders. Despite significant reforms made to the planning system in 2006, the perception of an overly bureaucratic process and a burden on the development delivery had persisted. The planning reforms failed to achieve the inclusion of communities of a scale envisaged by the 2006 act and the budget cuts to planning authorities in the decade following the financial crash had meant limited resources to implement and fully realise the value of the reforms.

The review made a number of recommendations in order to strengthen the planning system’s contribution to inclusive growth, housing and infrastructure delivery and empowerment of communities. This included the suggestion of a statutory right for children and young people to be involved in planning. A draft bill was published in late 2018, with its progression to Parliament generating a significant amount of interest from across the political spectrum.

Hundreds of amendments

As the Scottish National Party introduced the bill with a minority government, they were beholden to the requests of the other parties as part of the effort to push the bill through. This resulted in hundreds of amendments being lodged at every stage in an attempt to progress a range of political ambitions. This made it the most amended bill in the history of the Scottish Parliament! The amendments proposed were varied and diffuse, often conflicting with each other and considerably undermining the intention of simplifying the planning process to stimulate development.

It is as part of a move to re-simplify the bill that the Planning Minister submitted his amendment to remove the statutory duty to involve children and young people. This was noted by multiple advocates of children’s rights, and following brief discussions,  A Place in Childhood, Play Scotland, PAS, Children in Scotland, Sustrans Scotland and Playful Planet submitted a joint letter of representation to all MSPs in the days prior to the Stage 3 parliamentary debate. The Children and Young People Commissioner for Scotland also sent a letter.

Whilst our joint representation letter acknowledged the Minister’s aim to reduce duplication throughout the bill, it was clear that the removal of the requirement to involve children and young people in the preparation of the Local Development Plan itself would be significantly weakened, as under-resourced Planning Authorities would struggle to deliver any additional duties proposed without statutory backing.

‘This now gives children and young people the strongest statutory protections in the planning system of any UK nation’.

Following debate in Parliament, and comments from both Labour and Green MSPs, regarding the importance of the involvement of children and young people and their rights to participation, the Minister removed his proposed amendment and the requirement for Planning Authorities to involve children and young people in the preparation of their Local Development Plans remained in the proposed bill.

This is a truly exciting development for the enhancement of children and young people’s right to participate in the decision-making structures which affect their lives. Along with the introduction of Play Sufficiency Assessments, this now gives children and young people the strongest statutory protections in the planning system of any UK nation.

Although planning systems across the UK are intended to make decisions in the public interest, they have been systems which the vast majority of the public feel systematically excluded from, for multiple reasons. Planning has a role in shaping the places children and young people live and grow, therefore understanding what matters to children and young people is essential for ensuring that Planning Authorities make decisions in their interest. The value of this understanding and acknowledgment of their opinions should lead to a more open and accessible planning system and one which should truly begin making and shaping the development of places in the long-term public interest. 

Anna Gaffney

Anna Gaffney is a Senior Planning Officer at the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) and a board member of APiC (A Place in Childhood)

APiC is a partner in Towards the Child-Friendly City, the major conference on children’s rights in the built environment coming to Bristol on 27-29 November 2019.

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