A 10-year plan to regenerate Stromness in Orkney was the overall winner of the Royal Town Planning Institute’s (RTPI) Planning for Excellence Awards and can show the way forward for planning and transforming communities across the UK, says the institute’s director of Scotland and Ireland, Craig McLaren
The project saw planners at Orkney Islands Council lead a whole-of-council taskforce to implement the plan, which has transformed the declining town following the community warning Stromness was being “left behind”.
Over the past 10 years, the plan has resulted in 12 major projects implemented across the town, including new and upgraded public spaces, new shops and businesses and a new primary school.
The library was rebuilt and moved to a new site to ensure it was accessible to everyone. A new fishing pier was built with European funding, and new business and industrial spaces were allocated near the pier. The council has also begun work for a new international research facility and infrastructure for tidal and wave energy generation.
All this happened through council planners working closely with the community and involving them from the very start, using a “blank page approach” to establish the community’s key priorities. A draft plan was drawn up, which was then shaped by community events, meetings and surveys, plus well attended community workshops.
The judges in the RTPI Awards said: “Stromness has been regenerated over the past 10 years through a comprehensive, plan-led strategy. It was spearheaded by the council’s planners, who were key to its success through establishing a vision for the town and ensuring commitment from other players to help deliver it.”
The Stromness experience shows that this kind of ‘place-based’ approach could be used as a blueprint to revive declining towns across the country. The RTPI aims to embed some of these ideas into the new planning bill that is currently going through the Scottish Parliament. We have been promoting a new type of planning system based upon four principles, all which have been key to the Stromness project.
Planning front and centre
Firstly, we want a more corporate and collaborative planning system that supports and influences investment and policy across local and national government. The Stromness approach saw planning and planners front and centre, working across council departments and acting as the conduit for bringing together different people, with different skills and important roles to play. This enabled a place-based approach instead of a series of unrelated initiatives, programmes or funding streams.
To support this approach, the RTPI is looking for the planning bill to introduce statutory chief planning officers in all Scottish local authorities. They would need to be to be consulted by other parts of the council as early as possible on any issue relating to the development and use of land. We believe that by making planning a more influential corporate service at the heart of decision-making in local government, it will bring more sustainable, future-proofed decisions on investment, asset management and policy.
Research recently published by the RTPI shows that across the UK the 83% of local authorities put planning two or three tiers down from the chief executive, diluting its importance as a strategic corporate function that helps councils tackle social, economic and environmental challenges.
Engaging and empowering communities
Secondly, the institute wants a front-loaded and proactive system to allow for community and stakeholder engagement and agreement on the priorities for an area and who is going to take them forward. We see the Planning Bill as an opportunity to put communities at the heart of planning through ensuring that they are engaged early and meaningfully. Our vision is for a system that is inclusive, respected, ambitious, holistic, and that works in the long-term public interest.
We want to empower communities so that they are able to influence how their place changes over time with a planning system that fosters participation, collaboration and co-production from the very beginning. The proactive approach taken by Orkney Council in bringing together key players and stakeholders early in the process to discuss opportunities, constraints, context and ambition shows how this can be effective.
We believe that the Planning Bill can provide the opportunity to do this through introducing well-resourced Local Place Plans, prepared by communities, which can foster a transparent dialogue about planning at the very local level. The bill should usher in new ways of involving young people and ensure communities are at the heart of creating development plans. This will help us to move away from the current situation, where the main motivation for people to engage with the planning system is to say what they don’t want, to a positive conversation between all with a stake in an area.
The value of planning
Thirdly, we want planning to be better placed to deliver development by ensuring the vision for an area is viable and resourced. On too many occasions, the plan is not supported with the necessary funds and often requires financing and investment from the private sector. We believe that a more action-orientated approach is required and, again, the way in which Orkney Island Council lined up its investments – from across a range of departments – to put the plan into action or to stimulate private development shows how this can be done.
Our final aim is to ensure that planning, planners and the planning system are recognised as a valuable way of providing solutions to complex issues, and properly resourced to fulfil this task. The scale and success of the work in Stromness, built on a proactive, corporate and delivery-focused approach, have shown how planning can be the catalyst for positive change.
However, this relies on having the resources to deliver at a time when over the last seven years, Scotland has seen a 23% decrease in planning staff and a 32.5% cut in planning service budgets. If we want the Stromness model to be replicated across the country, we need to make sure that planning departments are seen as an investment that can help transform towns, cities and communities for the better.
Craig McLaren FRTPI
Director of Scotland and Ireland
Royal Town Planning Institute
Tel: +44 (0)20 7929 9494