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Engaging Civil Society with the Body Civicus

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Pupils at NiddrieMill Primary School taking part in the IMBY programme

Pupils at NiddrieMill Primary School taking part in the IMBY programme

PAS Chief Executive Petra Biberbach recently contributed to two European journals on the subject of engaging civil society in placemaking.

Patrick Geddes, a Scot and regarded as the father of town planning cited the phrase: For planning to be successful it has to be more than place planning or work planning – it must be folk planning!

Thanks to the free movement of labour across the enlarged EU a generation of people enjoy unprecedented mobility in terms of where they live and work. They are moving to Europe’s cities, which in turn become key centres for talent within the knowledge economy, the dynamos for smart growth. However, in the cities people have to find ways to adjust – to unfamiliar environments, cultures and high levels of diversity. The challenges are not the same for young and the old. The young face great challenges in labour markets, with youth unemployment a major issue. Thinking about where to work is part of building a career. For the older generation there is the threat to welfare, pension security and adapting to extreme heat events and other climate related issues, exacerbated in urban areas generally, but most significantly in southern Europe.

The environmental challenges in Europe’s cities have a personal as well as an aggregate character, for example, choices about how to travel, how to keep warm or where to shop, which again is linked to where to live, what impact on CO2 and other emissions.

The EU has recognised the challenges that are posed to economic, social and territorial cohesion (see the Fifth Cohesion Report). There is also growing recognition that territorial governance has a key part to play in the pursuit of cohesion, especially in Europe’s cities which are both the engines of the EU economy and the centres of great social and cultural heterogeneity. In focusing on future urban governance in Europe it is important to distinguish between civil and civic society.

My understanding of civil society is that is a free association, where self actualisation is important, the individual does belong to multiple groups, all of whom are part of civil society, thus civil society is open and fluid.

Civic society by contrast is rigid, structured and accountable; it is delivering a myriad of public services for the public good, however at times it can become self-serving.

Spatial planning is delivered through civic society, elected members, officers, municipalities, but has long recognised the need for engagement with, and the participation, of civil society.

The challenge is to ensure that civil society can readily interact with civic structures and do so in a transparent and cohesive way. PAS assists in engaging civil society in the place making agenda – a vital and important area which impacts on individual and public good.

For people to be ready to engage in civic society requires knowledge and trust that the advice given is impartial allowing the person to feel confident to participate in the debate – whether as an opponent or proponent. This matters more and more as communities are increasingly diverse and require to debate issues in an open and transparent manner.

For example, some people are for windfarms, others are against, some organisations will exhort the virtue of green energy while others campaign actively against it. PAS explains how the system works but it is for the citizen to apply that knowledge as they see fit.

PAS services are delivered by professionals who volunteer, providing their knowledge and skills free to members of the public. PAS has no campaigning or advocacy role, it remains impartial but gives people the necessary confidence to engage.

PAS is an independent organisation that helps people get involved in shaping the development of land, villages, towns and cities by engaging more easily and readily with the planning system; a system which many people still regard as challenging and complex. PAS is a charity, operating on social enterprise principles.

The services we provide are wide ranging – from a free planning advice and mentoring service, to tailored training and public participation events, catering for members of the public, planning professionals, local authorities, elected members, community councils or for those simply interested in how planning is shaping their environment.

Impartiality is key in delivering our services. No other public service allows for as much public input into the planning system – and not everybody is aware of the extent to which they can influence decisions about their local environment. In particular young people are often unaware that planning exists. PAS provides all people with the skills and information to engage positively with planning at the earliest opportunity.

We regard the planning system as an enabler – discussing the future of our society, understanding the role of the individual in adapting to climate change, unlocking potential and creativity and creating strong and vibrant communities.

In Scotland our services are delivered by a combination of a small core staff and a large volunteer network of 20% of the built environment professionals, including planners, architects, landscape architects and legal experts and associates. We offer different opportunities for volunteering, depending on experience, status and preferences. However advice on statutory planning can only be given by a professional who has achieved chartered status and belongs to a professional association such as the Royal Town Planning Institute, Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, Royal Institute of Architects in Scotland and others.

Volunteering is at the heart of what we do and we make considerable investment in our volunteers through training, additional skills including presentation and facilitation skills. In return they add unique value to our products and services, something widely appreciated by our clients and partners.

We offer a series of training, education and outreach programmes tailored to the need of the different audiences. For example our work with Gypsy Travellers is valuing their tradition and history and delivered in a visual style, whereas our elected members’ training is focussed on their role as public servants and their obligations under the Planning Acts.

PAS is now actively involved in taking placemaking to schools and into the class room so that children have a part in shaping the places of tomorrow. After all they live longest with the consequences of decisions made today. We provide children and young people with the opportunity to learn and engage, providing opportunity for self expression and respect for diversity and foster a can-do attitude. Our IMBY schools programme is focussed on the child as active citizen.

Our ‘#youngplacemaker’ programme is for pupils 16 plus enabling them to become the champions of placemaking in their area. We held a very successful European Youth camp with young people from across Europe and Russia to explore over four days the challenges and opportunities European cities will face. We are hoping to roll it out across three European countries in 2014.

In Scotland we are experiencing a flurry of far-reaching reforms – driven by the need to do more with less; but also by an understanding that we have to open the body Civicus to new ways of doing things. Big reforms include:
– Community Empowerment & Renewal Bill – transferring public assets, such as buildings, into community ownership
– Land Reform – transferring public land into community ownership
– Public Sector Reform looking at increase use of co-production

It is exciting to see that place is moving to centre stage in these reforms. To make the places of tomorrow work and work well, we need to unlock social capital inherent in communities and individuals. It will require greater interaction through cross-cultural interactions, intergenerational debate and personal growth by acquiring skills, knowledge and confidence to engage in civic structure.

Petra Biberbach
Chief Executive

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