Planning action urged to help address racial inequality

Dr Gina Netto

AN expert in migration has warned that a recent report highlighting potential racial inequalities in England’s planning system should prompt ‘urgent action’ to be taken in Scotland too.

Dr Gina Netto, associate professor at Heriot-Watt University’s School of Energy, Geoscience, Infrastructure and Society, said there are numerous conclusions from her colleague Amy Bristow’s findings on policies south of the border that are ‘mirrored’ in Scotland.

Titled Meeting the housing needs of BAME households in England: the role of the planning system, the 70-page document by the Heriot-Watt researcher found that England’s planning process is ‘reinforcing’ racial inequality.

The report warned that planning professionals ‘lack the confidence, skills and resources required to actively address racial inequality’, as well as them being ‘reluctant’ to address specific resident needs in policy and practice – with the report finding that only ‘some’ English local authorities give consideration to the needs of faith or ethnic groups when conducting housing market assessments.

Such needs include the number of bedrooms in properties, with it being more common amongst some ethnic groups to live in multigenerational households. Further deficiencies include properties being unsuited to religious needs, such as households that require space to pray and also the need to accommodate women and men not mixing at certain times.

Planning professionals interviewed as part of Amy’s report warned that initiatives such as equality impact assessments were often not conducted at all, and when they were it was often just a ‘box ticking’ exercise.

“I was surprised about how strongly the interviewees felt that equality impact assessments are currently not being used effectively,” Amy told Project Scotland. “One of the participants I spoke to expressed the view that they were essentially a tool for councils to discriminate consciously; so they can complete the assessment and have the evidence, but there’s no requirement to do anything with that evidence – no matter what’s found.”

Her colleague Dr Netto said the rest of the UK should take note of the findings, as they aren’t unique to England. “There are numerous examples and conclusions from Amy Bristow’s report that are mirrored in the Scottish planning policy landscape,” she told Project Scotland. “An investigation conducted by the then Audit Commission in 2008, which examined measures taken by planning authorities to promote race equality, concluded that there was more attention to policies and processes than outcomes. Further, while there were some isolated impacts, the research found little evidence that specific measures had been taken to promote the race equality duty or carry out race equality impact assessments.”

As a member of the advisory group to the 2008 project, Dr Netto was aware of the rigorous approach that was taken by the research team and the  ‘clear and specific’ recommendations for planning authorities – amongst which was to identify objectives and actions for increasing the impact and outcomes of service delivery on minority ethnic communities and to improve consultation and engagement.

“To my knowledge, 13 years on, focused engagement with minority ethnic communities, as part of community engagement exercises – with the possible exception of Gypsy Travellers – does not appear to be common practice,” she added. “I am unaware of any major initiatives to overhaul the planning process north of the border. Amy’s report is timely as it reveals that the lack of progress in Scotland is not unique and it is time for urgent action across the UK.”

Alongside her work in academia, Dr Netto is also a member of the Scottish Labour Market’s Strategic Group. “Planning policy needs to be an integral part of the Scottish Government’s recovery plan,” she said. “It is key to equal and fair allocation of land use and resources associated with such use, including access to transport, green space and employment opportunities.

“The pandemic has created a critical juncture which, if wisely exploited, provides an opportunity for the Scottish Government and its partners to address fundamental questions such as ‘Who belongs to the nation?’ and ‘How can this be expressed through the built and natural environment?”

With a lack of policy being highlighted as one of the causes of such inequality in housing, Project Scotland asked Amy if perhaps the answer would be to implement a quota into new developments whereby a set amount of properties must be suited to the needs of different groups.

“The report findings suggested that there are certain cultural needs that ethnic and faith groups have for their housing, but whether those would make housing unattractive to everyone else I suppose is a different issue,” she replied. “You can include people without excluding other people, and that’s perhaps what planning hasn’t got the hang of – this need to maybe prioritise a certain group of people and look more at their needs and prioritise that; that’s not necessarily going to come at the expense of another group of people. We’re not starting on a level playing field, so there is a need to maybe look a bit closer at the needs of certain groups.”

Both academics recommend increased community engagement with BAME groups on planning. Key recommendations in Amy’s report include mainstream equalities considerations throughout any proposed planning reforms; the need to include specific information on the needs of ethnic and/or faith groups when conducting strategic housing market assessments; and the abandonment of ‘naive’ attachment to formal equality of treatment.