Five steps to ensure children’s rights in planning

Published on 17-05-2017 at 11:32

The Scottish planning system is soon to undergo reform following an independent review. The proposals under discussion suggest an increasing recognition that children are often excluded from considerations of place. Here, Dr Jenny Wood, of Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh, identifies five ways that the Scottish Government can improve children’s participation in the planning process, and in the environments it shapes and manages.

1. Training

The government should encourage and endorse specific children’s rights training for planners at both degree and professional practice level. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) sets out 42 mutually reinforcing and interdependent rights for all people below the age of 18. The UK ratified this in 1991, setting out a commitment to further children’s rights in all of their functions. Paramount to the UNCRC is a recognition that children are entitled in equal parts to protection, provision, and participation. These rights are not designed to be an added extra to the work of governments, but an integral part of all they do. However, since (at least) the 1970s, the physical space children are permitted to participate in has declined, and a culture of fear has grown around children that often prioritises their protection above all else.

My research has shown that planners often lack confidence involving children and young people in the process and in creating child-friendly policies. Meanwhile, national policy does little to encourage a critical view of children’s needs, nor rights. Planning authorities that have taken proactive steps generally contain at least one member of staff that has prior experience of working with children. Thus, rights-based training is a vital first step to enable planners to fulfil their commitments.

2. Guidance

The government should produce guidelines and suggested methods for engagement with children and young people. Such guidelines should explore the different methods and approaches required for children of different ages and abilities, but must not prioritise older children over younger children. This should link with a methodology that can consider real change in place so as to link with Article 31 of the UNCRC (a right to play, rest, leisure and access to cultural life). There are a variety of tools that already exist for this purpose that could be adapted. For instance, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland has Seven Golden Rules that were developed in conjunction with children and young people. These set out that adults should understand children’s rights, and give children a chance to be involved, whilst remembering it is their choice whether or not to give a view.

Adults should value and support child participants; work with them; and keep in touch after the process. This forces adults to think about not only what they want from the planning process, but also what children may want. Methods have already been developed by some planning authorities and organisations in Scotland and beyond, for example Children’s Tracks in Norway, and SoftGIS methodology in Finland present innovative and scalable methods, whilst PAS uses a variety of paper map-based methods in gaining children’s participation in charrettes (intense community engagement exercises). As well as learning from existing examples of good practice, it is also vital for adults to be critical regarding the underlying motivations of some participatory methods, recognising that there is a difference between informing children about planning, and genuinely seeking their participation.

3. Feedback

The government should create a robust and routine feedback mechanism between planners and child participants. Children and young people, perhaps more than other communities, will expect outcomes from their participation. Some of these may be easy to bring about in the short-term, while others may be harder to achieve and require long-term plans. Open and honest dialogue on such challenges opens up opportunities for critical thinking about the methods employed, and how to communicate with children about what is and is not possible. Feeding back to children and young people about progress ensures planners are accountable, and reduces the likelihood of children becoming disillusioned.

Furthermore, the value of the participation can be increased if there is a framework through which local authorities share the insights of children across the range of services in their jurisdiction. My research with planners indicates that such ‘joined up working’ can be extremely challenging, but it has great value in raising the integrity and transparency of what planners do.

4. Networking

The government should encourage networking, collaboration, and skills exchange between planners, playworkers, and youth workers. There is wealth of expertise already available within public bodies and charities. The approach of playworkers and youth workers is inherently child-centred and  rights-based, and such practitioners regularly work directly with a range of children and young people. As such, there are a range of opportunities for planners to shadow and learn how others seek children and young people’s participation.

5. Evidence

The government should collate an accessible evidence base on children, young people and their relationship to, and use of, the built environment. Whilst the direct participation of children is one aspect of a rights-respecting approach, a great deal of evidence on children and young people’s views and use of space already exists. Whether and how much of this information is available to planners and other policymakers is an important consideration. The public sector equality duty requires planning authorities to produce Equalities Impact Assessments (EQIAs), yet some EQIAs claim that there is little evidence on this topic, or rely only on basic statistics about how many children live in an area. Such impact assessments  thus fail to draw robust conclusions about the effect planning policy will have on children, and can lead public authorities to falsely conclude that there is unlikely to be a substantial impact.

The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act (2014) recently introduced a duty on all Scottish ministers to consider how their work, and that of public bodies, is contributing to children’s rights. As part of this, policymakers are encouraged to produce a Children’s Rights and Well-being Impact Assessment (CRWIAs) on all new policy. These developments demand an even more in-depth understanding of children’s issues, so a robust and accessible evidence base is more important than ever.

There is a long way to go in making children’s rights a reality in Scotland, but these proposals offer a clear way of moving closer to that ambition in the field of planning. Embedding children’s rights in the everyday work of planners and other practitioners will have great value in improving how public services run and react to the diverse needs of our varied population.

Jenny Wood

Dr. Jenny Wood is part of the School of Energy, Geoscience, Infrastructure and Society at Heriot Watt University

Main photo: Christine Macintosh
Inset photo: The Big Lunch


[i]  Dr Wood’s research focused on two rights with particular salience to planning: the right to participate in decision-making (Article 12); and the right to participate in play, rest, leisure and culture (Article 31). Each of these denote a right for children to participate in the process of planning, and in the places it creates and manages.  She conducted an ethnographic participatory action research project with children between the ages of 9 and 12. She also surveyed and interviewed officers at planning authorities in Scotland to discern their approach to children and young people. As well as this, she conducted critical discourse analysis of national planning policies in Scotland.

Results of the first stage of Dr Wood’s policy analysis and survey are available in: Wood, J. (2015) Children and Planning: To What Extent Does the Scottish Town Planning System Facilitate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child? Planning Practice & Research 30 (2): 139–159 available here

This article was first published on Scottish Construction Now

Author: Jenny Wood

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