Citizens and Planners: working at the interface

30 november 2017

Central in planning practice should be caring for place. A successful interface between citizens and government is crucial for such better place governance. The relationship between state, civil society and the economy has seen major changes over the last seven decades. In the current era of rethinking neoliberal modes of governance, civil society initiatives blossom. But the way formal government and existing planning systems work is often problematic. This article provides an inside perspective from England with important questions for the future of planning practice and the role of planning expertise.

In my present life, I find myself actively involved in, and observing, processes which we might call in abstract language the reconfiguration of the boundaries between the state and civil society. By ‘state’, I refer to the sphere of formal government, which interacts with the sphere of economic activity, and of civil society (or social life). The relations between the state, economy and civil society has seen major shifts since the middle of the twentieth century, and there are now signs of another shift emerging. This is important for planning systems and planners as the relations between these spheres of activity affect how land is used and developed, and how place qualities evolve. What are the implications of this emerging shift for the planning field, with its remit of caring for place (Healey 2010; 2017)?

The post-war state

We know the story quite well of what has happened to the state in our Western European contexts. In the post-war period, it grew to produce and deliver material goods and services to citizens, while also regulating the behaviour of economic and civil society actors (see figure 1). This state was expected to embody what citizens understood as the common good through the formal processes of representative democracy. In this conception of democracy, citizen votes provided the input and received the output of government activity. Planning experts acted to provide strategic frameworks, design schemes, development management expertise and, at the margin, to regulate private development. It was their responsibility to ‘care for place’. Civil society activity, vigorous before in many countries in many forms, to an extent retreated from areas now ‘provided for’ by the state.

By the 1970s, this political settlement was challenged from many directions. In England, we noted its delivery failures and its inability to reflect the collective good of an increasingly demanding and varied citizenry. Next to this its suppression of the economic energy needed to expand the resource base to satisfy these demands, and its capture by particular elites and interests. These challenges fuelled radical thinking on both left and right, the former demanding more state control of the economy and the latter much less.

Figure 1 Keynesian model, 1945-1980s

Entering ‘neo-liberalism’

In my country, England, it was the right-wing arguments which won out from the 1980s, driven by an ideology we have now come to call ‘neo-liberal’. A vigorous reconfiguration of the boundary between the state and the economy was encouraged. In this negotiation, the collective good was to be articulated as a joint production, ‘co-produced’ by the efforts of state and private economic actors (see figure 2). Citizens were expected to become more responsible providing for their own needs, and to act as ‘rationally-choosing’ consumers of goods and services, and even ‘self-organising’ themselves. The role of formal government was to be a ‘light touch’ regulator and facilitator of the resulting dynamics, ‘nudging’ and ‘shaping’ others into the practices required for this new settlement. Planning systems were to be re-focused on regulating private initiative, strategically and in detail. In this context, planners produced strategic plans, development briefs and administered increasingly complex regulations. Where land and property markets were weak, planners worked ‘in partnership’, primarily with the development industry. Citizens were ‘invited’ to participate but often found it hard to make their voice heard (Cornwall, 2008). In England, often seen as the frontrunner in Europe of such an approach, powerful national lobby groups evolved to give voice to both economic and civil society concerns.

Figure 2 Neoliberal model 1980s-now

This settlement is now itself under severe strain, as citizens complain of the quality and availability of public services, and resist the modes of behaviour expected of them. National Non-Governmental Organisations seem to merge into a remote arena where elites and experts discuss among themselves. In addition to criticisms of delivery failures, in my country, the government is now accused of favouring corporate economic interests rather than those of ordinary citizens. It is charged with over-complex regulation, such that economic actors and citizens struggle to comply, let alone make sense of the reasons for the regulations. Many point to the narrow preoccupation with economic growth rather than attention to social welfare and environmental sustainability. Government is continually criticised for failing to invest in key infrastructures. Continuous attempts at reforming government in recent decades seem merely to have added to the confusion.

One consequence of this evolution is an erosion of trust in the institutions which constitute the state. In the UK, this has resulted in a confused and volatile political situation. Portrayed in the media and by lobby groups as incompetent and unfeeling, politicians and officials are subject to hostile comment in face to face encounters and in social media. Citizens typically refer to government as ‘them’ (versus ‘us’), a distant other, operating through obscure rituals embodied in intrusive arrangements and rules. Planning systems are experienced as particularly complex, supported by planning administrators and consultants who exist in their own bubbles of expertise.

Rethinking government

Such a situation carries deeply dangerous undercurrents for democratic life. The so-called neo-liberal shift has generated an aggressively critical politics, and laid the grounds for a rising narrowly focused and volatile populism. Yet it has also opened up institutional space within which citizens are not just ‘nudged’ into doing things themselves by state initiatives, but taking autonomous initiatives. Groups of citizens are experimenting with alternative ways or organising collective life and caring for place (Wagenaar & van der Heijden 2015). In doing so, they are not confined by the boundaries of inherited policy systems, methodologies and techniques so deeply embedded these days in professional practice. Though often learning from others, citizen initiatives typically invent specific responses to the particular challenges affecting a particular group of people. In doing so, they learn that there are few simple answers to many of the challenges facing them, and hence develop a greater understanding of what citizen-centred governance might involve. People also come to appreciate that formal government is needed in some form, but look for respect and local relevance in how it acts. These experiences suggest that a shift to a more citizen-centred mode of government could emerge, in which ‘self-organising’ initiative is supported by state action. But this requires state actors to rethink their roles and practices.

My present position as a citizen and resident of a small rural community, Wooler in Glendale (60 km from Newcastle in North East England), and engaged in several citizen-generated governance initiatives, allows me to observe and evaluate such challenges. My experience echoes many of the findings from research I and others undertook on urban regeneration partnerships in the 1990s. Drawing on this experience, I ask where, in the work of collective caring for place, is the interface between state and citizens to be found, what work is being done there and where do expert planners fit in?

Interaction at the interface

In my locality, I have been involved in the past decade in a local development trust (Healey, 2015), a network coordinating health, social care and community support for older people, and, most recently, a neighbourhood plan initiative (see table 1). Neighbourhood plans are a formal part of the English planning system, introduced by the Localism Act 2011 (Brownill & Bradley, 2017). Viewed from the perspective of civil society, as more widely in England, the state is distant, diffuse, difficult to access and in recent years in continual flux. It thus presents multiple possible interfaces, each with its own boundaries and practice mystique. Local authorities in England actually have wide responsibilities, yet shared with other, often national agencies, with funding and strong direction coming from the national government. They have borne the brunt of public sector cuts in recent years. People tend to think of the local authority as responsible for most of what happens, yet distant from our actual concerns. Such attitudes are not so dissimilar from those I encountered in research on urban regeneration initiatives in Newcastle in the 1990s, and are reported in many studies, from both rural and urban areas. My fellow citizens have little recognition of the financial and regulatory limits of local authority control, or of the role of other public agencies. Yet we engage with the state through multiple channels.

Table 1: Three governance initiatives from civil society in the Glendale area

These channels range from formal documents which state public policy, such as formal development plans, to web pages and interactive portals, social media (notably Facebook), the old-fashioned telephone, and face-to-face encounter with politicians and officials. All these carry power in some form. Yet opening up a channel is one of the most difficult challenges for civil society activists. Where to start? What is the most effective route? Who do we need to reach? What power do we have to make people listen to us? Documents and webpages are helpful to scope out what agencies and issues we could use to make a case for attention. Some officials and politicians maintain a social media presence. But without offline encounter, it is difficult to make connections to an online presence. And even in the old days, civil society activists were unsure who to phone or write to, and often despaired of an answer.

Because the state is such a diffuse and complex collection of agencies, encounters between the state and civil society work best through face-to-face encounter. This opens a human channel into the state, as opposed to just the bureaucratic machinery. Traditionally, the political representatives were used in this way, and still are. But the connections between officials and councillors may not always be as richly developed as constituents imagine. Citizens can access the political level of the local authority in other ways, such as attending regular meetings of key committees and sub-committees where these are open to the public, but such engagement is rare. Or they could attend or demand public meetings, though these usually take the form of angry ‘them’ versus ‘us’ encounters. Another way is through contact networks into administrative structures, building from one contact to another. People especially value public officials and politicians who are helpful, supportive and respectful of people’s capacities. Frequent changes in personnel in the public sector in England mean that links have to be rebuilt again and again. To generalise, the richest encounters are those built through the deliberate practice and continual reinforcement of a form of ‘network governance’, which stretches deeply into both administrative structures and community relations (Sorensen & Torfing, 2007). Some might see this as just another clever way for the state to control citizens. The difference lies in the nature of the relationship and the practices that develop. For politicians and officials, it means being prepared to experiment and invent new ways of doing things, while holding on to key values that need to be sustained.

In all such interactions, it matters also how they are enacted (Hajer, 2009). Citizens involved in encounters with the state are very sensitive to staging and setting – the fine grain of the arrangement of rooms, the design of web sites, the atmosphere of meeting places (which can be community rooms, agency offices, kitchens, cafes, site visits, etc.). The issues of when to speak, how to speak, what words to use are all important dimensions of encounter, affecting how power is played out and challenged, and how trust is built or destroyed (Sorensen & Torfing, 2007). People want a feeling that their concerns and perspectives are being attended to by formal government actors and experts, as well as a sign that actual material results could happen from engagement at the ‘interface’.

Work at the interface

Much of what goes on at the interface is about information flow. Government officials spend time explaining what rules apply, what resources may be available, how public administration works, what opportunities are available for citizen initiative. They may also provide data and studies of issues relevant to an area, so that citizens can combine experiential knowledge with systematised knowledge produced by experts in-house, consultants or academics. In some instances, the state provides a direct service, such as salary payment for employees of our development trust, or management advice in setting up a social enterprise. But this service-providing role can easily slip into a more domineering role, through shaping the norms of practice, organising ideas, frameworks and vocabularies and through imposing particular concepts, vocabulary and modes of behaviour.

Certainly, state officials and politicians are being forced to learn more about how to work with citizen groups. Through these interactions, they are directly exposed not just to citizen demands but to what citizens think of them and their ways of working. One reaction, hopefully less common now, is official retreat behind the desk (or now the computer). This practice deflects demands for change to politicians, but entrenches citizens’ sense of distance from, and hostility, to the state and its practices. Increasingly, officials themselves welcome the opening up of the boundary. They learn from citizens and their initiatives about problems and issues as manifest in particular places and for particular people. They learn that communities can have considerable capacity to mobilise and build institutions which can act ‘for themselves’. They also learn about ways of thinking and acting which work better ‘on the street’ of neighbourhood and community life. With this experience, ‘street-level’ officials may be able to challenge the way their own organisation works.

My experience suggests that citizen-generated initiative can be successful in building institutions, some fairly permanent, others potentially more ephemeral, which can draw together resources and ideas from within and beyond the area to create material benefits, build a positive sense of future possibilities in an area and empower community voice to challenge both state and market actors to do things differently. Experience elsewhere suggests the same (Wagenaar & Healey, 2015; Brownill & Bradley, 2017). To build on the momentum of such initiatives, however, demands rethinking not just the formal laws, agencies and tools of government, but the performative practices of both politicians and officials (see figure 3).

Figure 3 New emerging models?

Planning system and expertise

What is the implication for expert planners and planning systems of a more citizen-led governance of place? Planning systems are typically encumbered by complex regulations, the purposes of which are often long forgotten, but which have been developed as a key part of the state’s role in managing land and property development markets. The potential for costly legal challenge is always in mind. Planning officials are often caught in the tension between administering the regulations, promoting plans and strategies which help to ‘care for place’, and realising the ambitions of their politicians. Planning officers usually try to be helpful, and value working with communities, but, in England, their work is often under-resourced and much is left to web-based circulation. Sometimes their patience is sorely tried by the slow struggles of community groups to grasp what is at stake and how to make a plan.

It is important to note that planning expertise is not confined to local authority administrations. Formally trained planners may act as consultants to citizens. In our community, consultants have advised our local development trust on several projects. We now have the support of a planning consultant for our neighbourhood plan work. Citizen groups may also have trained planners as members. There are at least two in my community, and their presence is reported in many accounts of the more than 1700 neighbourhood plan initiatives across the country (Brownill & Bradley, 2017). And the skills needed for place governance work can also be found distributed through a community. Most people who get involved in micro-scale place governance do so because they care about their place, the people who live there now and in the future. Because of this care, they are prepared to give their time voluntarily. But such time is always limited and often episodic, depending on all the other commitments people have. People also withdraw for health reasons, ‘burn out’ and when they feel nothing is being achieved. And the availability of time, energy and expertise is unevenly distributed among localities, relating less to objectively identifiable needs and more to the capacity to mobilise community interest.

Such reflections raise many questions. Would a better resourced planning system with a performative culture more like that of community development workers be more efficient in terms of time spent at the state/citizen interface? Should land use planning efforts be absorbed into a broader community planning approach, integrated around citizens’ daily life experience? Should more resources go into front-line staffing, and what kind of strategic and technical work should government planning staff actually do? Planning expertise of some kind will always be needed in the state sector. But perhaps too much attention has been given in recent decades to supporting the development industry. To release the potential of civil society initiative, we need to learn from across the many experiences of such initiative in our society.

A new landscape

Moving forward into a future which allows citizen-centred governance initiative to be a key part of the landscape of place government, it is important to insist that it is not the state as such which is the problem these days, but the ways formal government currently works. Nor is the critique of continual reform to deny that reform is needed. What is needed instead is a vigorous and strategically focused debate about what kind of state we want to have and, within this, what kind of planning system. What would a planning system look like which had flexible institutional space for citizen initiative in caring for place? Which could move in when no such initiative comes forward, but move back when it does? Which would keep a sensitive eye on the impacts of one initiative on another and on other scales of action? Which would urge attention to challenges which affect us all, such as climate change? Which could resist the megaphones of a narrow, regressive populism? Thinking along such lines moves a long way from the standard universal provider role of the post-war welfare state, and in a different direction from the neglectful neo-liberal one. Instead it points towards a state which can be both customised to the particularities of people in a place, while at the same time recognising that no place is an island. What does it take to do this? Are we planners up to the challenge?

Author profile
Patsy is emeritus professor at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Newcastle University, UK.


Brownill, S. & Q. Bradley (red.) (2017) Localism and neighbourhood planning: power to the people?, Policy Press, Bristol

Cornwall, A. (2008) ‘Unpacking ‘participation’: models, meanings and practices’, Community Development Journal, jg. 43, nr. 3, p 269-283

Hajer, M. (2009) Authoritative governance: policy-making in the age of Mediatization, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Healey, P. (2010) Making better places: the planning project in the twenty-first century, Palgrave Macmillan, Londen

Healey, P. (2015) ‘Civil society enterprise and local development’, Planning Theory and Practice, jg. 16, nr. 1, p. 11-27

Healey, P. (2017) Creating public value through caring for place, Policy and Politics (te verschijnen)

Sorensen, E. & J. Torfing (red.) (2007) Theories of democratic network governance, Palgrave Macmillan, Londen

Wagenaar, H. & P. Healey (red.) (2015) ‘Interface: The transformative potential of civic enterprise’, Planning Theory and Practice, jg. 16, nr. 4, p. 557-585

Wagenaar, H. & Heijden, J. van der (2015) ‘The promise of democracy? Civic enterprise, localism and the transformation of democratic capitalism’, S. Davoudi & A. Madanipour (red.), Reconsidering Localism, Routledge, Londen, p. 126-146

Author profile
Patsy is emeritus professor at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Newcastle University, UK.
Artikel gegevens:
Auteur(s):Patsy Healey

30 november 2017

De tekst en tabellen in deze bijdrage zijn gepubliceerd onder een CC BY-NC-ND licentie. Voor hergebruik van foto’s en illustraties dient u contact op te nemen met Rooilijn.

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