In a guest blog, Jenny Wood, researcher in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the Scottish planning system at Heriot-Watt University, responds to the planning review recommendation to make statutory engaging young people in planning and development.
The UNCRC enshrines in international law a commitment to listen and respect the views of the child (Article 12), and to uphold their need to play and participate in public life (Article 31). These are paramount to the work of planners in ensuring a system that has both inclusive processes and outcomes.
Children’s rights are not widely known or understood, but they are now becoming more mainstream, and I am happy that the independent review panel recently recommended that the Scottish planning system introduce a statutory duty to engage ‘young people’ in planning (Recommendation 47). The Scottish Government are yet to respond on this issue, but this is an important time to push for recognition of the abilities of children to participate, and the value it can have both to how we manage space, and to the children themselves. Whilst I remain concerned that there is little attention in the review to ensuring Article 31 in the planning system, I set out here some suggestions for encouraging greater participation of children in the planning process.
Firstly, I feel it is important to be critical of the language of ‘young people’ used in the planning review. Whilst ‘young people’ has no standard definition, in general usage it tends to refer to people aged between 13 and 25, and using this language thus suggests that only children of secondary school age have a right to participate, and may perpetuate a view that younger children are not capable. In my experience, planners tend to understand the importance of trying to engage teenagers, and whilst some planning authorities have found ways to gather their views, there is substantial scope to reduce complexity and enable younger children to participate. I would like to spread the message therefore that engaging with children (of both primary and secondary school age) need not be an onerous, but that the skills and expertise can be learnt; support exists from children’s practitioners and organisations; and that the discussions really can be as simple as asking a child ‘what do you like and dislike about your area’.
Though the process need not be complex, an important consideration in thinking about children is that their engagement needs to be more open to a range of issues and emotions than many current approaches to community engagement allow. Children (like many adults) are unlikely to grasp what is and is not a ‘planning matter’. Such criteria are exclusionary, and engagement with children will be wasted if a planner is only willing to listen to what is directly under their remit. For instance, if a child complains about the volume of traffic in their local area, then these views should be shared with relevant departments and colleagues that could take more direct measures to address this than planners. Equally, we should be open to the more general messages that emerge from children’s participation. For example, if a group of children express a wish for a zoo in their local area, this is unlikely to be deliverable, however planners could address a general wish for more exciting leisure opportunities through more creative means. After all, this approach urges us to think more holistically about place-making, and not simply planning. It also acknowledges that children may not always have the same language and frames of reference to express themselves in traditional ways. This means that engagement with children should be as much about understanding their experiences to enhance planning outcomes, as it is conforming to a statutory process.
To fulfil a more collaborative approach to children’s spatial needs, we could learn from the Welsh Government, which instigated a statutory duty on all local authorities to assess the sufficiency of play and leisure opportunities in their areas, and then work to secure (as far as practicable) improved opportunities where issues were found in current provision. This is not lead by planners, but requires their participation, as well as the direct participation of children. Although this policy is in its infancy, I have found evidence that it is beginning to change local authority policy, and the understanding and attitudes of planners towards children’s needs.
I give some advice to planners thinking about engaging children here. However, to help with this process and to find methods that are both friendly to children, and friendly to planners, we can look at some of the methods already in use. For example, we could use games such as Minecraft if we have the tools and expertise available. There is also the potential that planning participation can be linked to wider events, such as in Tattenhall Neighbourhood Plan where they organised a free rave for local young people, provided that attendants first filled-out a survey about the area. Moreover, to create more strategic approach to children’s participation, planning authorities could learn from Children’s Tracks in Norway (where children’s participation is a statutory duty), and SoftGIS methodology in Finland. Initially, these methods involved children drawing on, annotating and commenting on maps of their area, but have subsequently become online, GIS-based systems. I drew on these approaches in my research, but worked offline by giving primary school children A3 OS maps of their local area (and a masterplan at a later date) which they annotated. These methods could be simple stepping stones to bring children’s views into development planning, and to individual planning applications.
This Wednesday at mine and PAS’s Edinburgh Fringe show Keep the Kids Out! we will debate some of these ideas. We hope that this will be a jumping off point for a commitment to the inclusive and meaningful participation of children in planning, so that we can achieve outcomes that are really in children’s interests.
These are the views of the author.