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Children learn to plan ahead

Of course you are all far too savvy to have any truck with the Nimbyists - Obviously you have a completely open mind to developments on your patch, from wind turbines to supermarkets and new-build housing.

PUT IN THE PICTURE: The IMBY project, set up by Petra Biberbach, below, and Planning Aid for Scotland, gives youngsters at Niddrie Mill primary school, Edinburgh, a taste of planning controversies.
PUT IN THE PICTURE: The IMBY project, set up by Petra Biberbach, below, and Planning Aid for Scotland, gives youngsters at Niddrie Mill primary school, Edinburgh, a taste of planning controversies.

Obviously! But, truth to tell, there lies in all of us the temptation to say 'Not in my backyard' to the new – often for no better reason than its very novelty.

That's because, says Petra Biberbach of Planning Aid for Scotland, too many local groups, community councils and the like have tended to be reactive rather than proactive. And, too often, she says, it's because they come late to the planning process.

New planning legislation in Scotland half a dozen years ago gave local people a mandatory right of involvement, but that doesn't always translate into all the necessary voices being heard.

Neither does it automatically change a culture where opposition is the default position to any new proposal.

Which brings us to the birth of In My Back Yard (IMBY), and its big sister In My Back Yard Plus for secondary pupils, which Ms Biberbach's organisation set up to grow new, positive and inclusive attitudes to planning. The aim is to do that by working with those who have to live longest with the effects of any decisions made today: the adults of tomorrow.

The IMBY project introduces primary schoolchildren to planning using a friendly cartoon alien, who engages P4 to P7 pupils in questions about the siting of amenities from mobile phone masts to allotments and from shops to recycling plants.

In Norway, Ms Biberbach says, children have had a statutory right of involvement for precisely those reasons for more than 20 years. Scotland hasn't gone that far yet, but a conference last month, Planning and Active Citizenship, brought together young people from all over Scotland to examine how they can get involved in community activism.

It all ties in neatly with the Curriculum for Excellence – given that active citizenship is one of its core goals – and education has been part of the drive to encourage, educate and empower pupils.

Three Edinburgh primary schools have already been part of a pilot project and last year in Glasgow the YEP! (Youth Engagement in Planning) project was set up to look at the structures in which secondary-age pupils could think about involvement.

"We deliberately didn't go for people from things like the Youth Parliament, because these are young people who have already shown ambition to become involved in national politics," says Ms Biberbach.

"Not everyone will be attracted to that, but what we want is a generation of young people who would be happy to help shape their own environment locally, and take responsibility for its future."

To that end they are hoping to engage the education department in a programme which would sign up at least 10% of Scotland's primary schools. Having worked extensively in mainland Europe, Ms Biberbach waxes evangelical about the difference it can make when young people become an intrinsic part of the planning process.

At the Scottish Civic Trust annual gathering a couple of weeks ago she reminded the audience of the example of Munich. While that city has half a dozen skate parks, Scotland's capital, in which they were sitting that morning, still had only one.

The inference presumably being that kind of facility – which does have a proven track record of helping social cohesion – would not be a priority with community councils or local civic groups whose average age suggested no shortage of grey hairs.

The YEP! approach is also well established in America, with authorities from Baltimore to San Diego wising up to the value of consulting with young people.

She acknowledges that it might not be easy for young people to be elected or accepted into long-standing organisations, but suggests the answer is for existing members to mentor young people.

The latter get the benefit of pre-existing experience and the group gets an injection of vigour, enthusiasm and, not least, a fresh perspective.

For Ms Biberbach argues passionately that it makes good sense for both communities and developers if meaningful conversations start at the earliest opportunity.

Too often, she says, hostility is engendered because local people are kept in the dark about upcoming proposals until they are well down the road. And, having not been allowed to help shape and design these projects, they are much more likely to be suspicious about them. Meanwhile, she says, it is no more than good business sense for developers to regard the local community as a partner rather than a stumbling block. After all, she says, these are the people who will buy the new houses, or shop in the new store which is being developed: they are the customer base and it would be perverse to antagonise them.

It is a very timely debate to be having in Scotland at a moment when recent suggestions from south of the Border seem to concentrate on removing some community rights to accelerate economic activity. Objecting for the sake of it, or indulging in unnecessary inquiries in which the only certain beneficiaries are the lawyers certainly isn't the way to a harmonious drive for growth.

But, equally, nobody wants a cowboys' charter where legitimate concerns about public safety and adequate living standards are binned in order that people can make a faster buck from dodgy projects.

If the Planning Aid for Scotland education project bears fruit, tomorrow's active citizens will know exactly what they are talking about, which questions to ask and what represents a community opportunity rather than a planning blight.

Contextual targeting label: 
Education

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