Friday, 11 January 2013

Democracy and policy decisions – are the people always right?

I started my full-on teaching semester this Monday just gone with my first classes in Social Sustainability and Urban Infrastructure and Resource Management. On the former, I get the students to come up with their own definitions of social sustainability and then email/tweet or text me them and I make them into a wordle:
Wordle: Social Sustainability 2013

I then shamelessly copy the format of Michael Sandel’s public philosophy lectures to start getting the students to realise it’s never as easy as “just” balancing the environmental, economic and social aspects of sustainability – even within social sustainability you have to make impossibly difficult decisions. The “switch problem” and the “footbridge problem” that Sandel uses are excellent ways to get students to understand the qualitative difference many people feel in making different decisions even though the outcomes are the same link. I present different theories of how to make a “good” decision, including of course utilitarianism, to which the students readily realise majoritarianism mean utilitarianism is not always a good thing, especially when you’re talking about issues of equity, equality and prejudice.

And lo and behold, yesterday, planning a democracy were in the news rather a lot. Down in England, the planning minister revealed that he had once been a NIMBY resisting new housing development, and re-announced the New Homes Bonus to “bribe” local communities to accept new housing. Implicit in this, and made more clear in the Tories “Open Source Planning” document, was the view if you left new planning to communities nothing would get built, so you have to bribe them.

Closer to home, Glasgow City Council want to remodel the civic square, George Square - well, actually businesses surrounding the square want to and seemed to have the council over a barrel. Just like similar proposals for Union Terrace Gardens in Aberdeen, there is now call for a “vote” although want they actually seem to want is an online poll – as a social media researcher the thought of this fills me with horror. The Union Terrace Gardens proposal ended up going to referendum and it’s still stuck in a quagmire of controversy.

Which has got me thinking… Planning theory talks to community engagement in policy a lot and in a very informed way. The debates between the collaborative planners and the agonist planners really get into the heart of the matter in a way missed by a lot of policy and politics literature I’ve read that presumes community engagement is always a good thing. As I’ve expressed on here quite often, I’m sceptical about community engagement. In particular, I think it is used by the powerful to maintain their benefits; and I also think it is used by public agencies to avoid doing what just needs doing (you can’t eat community engagement). Ruminating on this yesterday, I suggested to Sarah Payne the following scenario: when we look at our towns and cities, the massive amount of housebuilding from 1945 to the mid-1970s is staggering – particularly the new towns programme. It’s easy to dismiss this by focusing on the high-rise blocks and say it was all a “catastrophe” – but most of that housing, the sort that Albert Finney looked to settle down in at the end of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, or that Bob and Thelma lived in in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, planned housing, is still there. I suggested that perhaps this expansion, produced by the immediate development plans created by the 1947 planning system, was allowed because people did not yet know how they could use the planning system to restrict development.

Which brings me to two issues – leadership in decision-making and the role of technical knowledge. On the latter, the New Deal for Communities evaluation has produced some interesting findings on this, with a recent article in Planning Theory and Practice(£) stating that:
“there was a consistent tendency for [residents] to overstress problems of crime, combined with an under-emphasis of educational and health standards. Furthermore, [residents] sought to address these ills through orthodox interventions…”
This was something I also found in my research on regeneration in Scotland. Previous initiative meant more to communities because the housing improvements were such obvious improvements to their lives; however over the long term they did not deliver socio-economic improvements. 

On the former issue, this article(£) on the siting decision for homeless hostels in Rotterdam presents a very interesting case study indeed. Essentially, the populist mayor realised that no one would want a homeless hostel in their back yard so essentially kept the siting decision secret, presented it as a fait d’accompli, and then defended his decision. A classic “decide and defend” decision we’re supposed to rubbish, but one that got essential infrastructure for a marginalised group constructed, and not just in the most deprived neighbourhoods in Rotterdam.

So where does this leave democracy and development decisions? As I’ve theorised myself, the richness and experience of the built environment needed for communicative action around development decisions is very difficult to get in a short period of community engagement. In the case of my doctoral case studies it seemed to have taken the community activists about 15 years to come to the conclusion that some of the physical development was good. And still, the discussion about many of the developments continued. Essentially, consensus needed the longue duree or was unachievable. And I’m not sure how we can square this with democratic processes as we have them, except to say that planning is democratic in that decisions are made by elected planning authorities and can be revisited over time. For all its faults, it’s better than a non-democratic, or market-led process.

And yesterday’s and today’s Herald also highlighted what happens when democracy goes wrong – with the shocking revelations that NHS Lothian were putting through decisions on waiting lists at confidential meetings and then trying to restrict the access Audit Scotland had to these papers. It’s not clear yet whether the papers should have gone to a public meeting, but either way, it’s a shocking indictment of an organisation that somehow thinks it is above public scrutiny and everything it does is right. From my limited experience as a committee clerk in local government, is it exactly this sort of behaviour that the light of democratic scrutiny stops – it would be almost impossible for that to happen at a Scottish local authority, unless Councillors, Officers and Committee Clerks going right up to the top of the organisation were complicit in the activity. I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen, but that it is much less likely to happen. This is why I’m never convinced by the beguiling niceties spoken of about Community Planning Partnerships in Scotland as a form of community accountability – just who are they actually accountable too? And could the Edinburgh Partnership ever stop NHS Lothian carrying out behaviour like this? 

As ever, if you want pay-walled content, contact by Twitter or email. And I had a thought on that yesterday - given the publishers make all their money from institutional libraries, why don't the do a reverse pay-wall where you only pay for articles if you're accessing from a university IP address. It's not as if they can make any moneyfrom the individual payments?

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