Guest Blog: The Tale of Two Perth & Kinross Planners by Hajni Biro

When Láposi started this blog, we had two overarching goals to achieve: to connect Hungarian planning to the constantly evolving mainstream, international planning thoughts and to tie them up with issues Hungarian planners facing in their everyday work. In order to do this we decided to reflect on best practice examples around the Globe, to translate research papers such as the Planning Horizons series of RTPI, and even organising future related planning conferences and share the presentations through Youtube. Conducting interviews with leading Scottish planners both in private and public sector or building a cell of Hungarian planners working in Scotland was definitely not on the table at that time.

However, as life went on we learned about practices worth explore and discuss as well as we met with enthusiastic figures, who were willing to share their experience such as the well renowned senior academia person Cliff Hague (interview is to be published in early spring 2018 – R.L.) or to do some digging into ‘local ideas’ as the recently graduated young planner Hajni Biro. And this turned to be very important as with their help – sometimes to point out who to contact, sometimes by doing interviews – our ability to reach out went beyond that we imagined earlier. C’est la Vie right? 😉

In this article Hajni Biro talked to Beatrice Nichol and Keith Stirton, planning officers at the Pert & Kinross Council involved with urban design and design guides regarding their experience with continuous engagement, collaborative thinking and the effectiveness of place making.

Good urban design code guide isSumming up the main points by Hajni Biro

And how is it connected to Hungarian planning? Read our research article on the introduction of design coding to Hungarian planning system in 2017.

Learning from Scottish example: the Tale of Two Perth & Kinross Planners

As we are completely new on the field of professional journalism when doing this interview we forgot to ask for the permission to publish it under their names, so for this time it is going to be anonym. And we sometimes get caught up with technical difficulties of recording on the proper voice level, troubles with the acoustics of rooms and so on, none of us were really prepared for, so we have one interview in a form of summary of main points and another with the full transcript. But the experience is there and we can learn from it. Not only because in Scotland planners are doing it for a while now, but they also challenged the system critically many times and having question raised and think about what we are doing is at least as important as to look for best practice.

Get ready it is going to be a long read! 😉


The short one – Keith Stirton

Hajni Biro: Having looked at the sample Hungarian design guidance and following on the conversation on the process it takes to be prepared, what advice could you give for planners in a country where design coding was just recently introduced and not many of them is convinced that it is useful.

Keith Stirton: It is important that the design guide is a statutory/adapted document that sits beside the local plan and carries proper weight in decision making.

The example design guide – Hungarian sample guidance book – seems well illustrated and useable by the public. It is important to advertise the any guidance well once it is ready to use. Send a note to regular applicants, firms and architects so they can rely on the guide when preparing masterplans.

In a country where people never encountered design codes before and many of them build their own houses, it is important to promote it as a positive practice. Otherwise it might not be well received and will be viewed as something restricting the freedom of residents/developers.

In places where settlement evolved organically it is important that this is not compromised by setting prescriptive standards for future development. Organic development and variety gives character to a place so it should be ensured that the design guide promotes this.

At the council, departments should be working together on the place making guide. At Perth and Kinross Council, one policy planner is responsible for the project and she collaborates with development management officers and architects.

The long one – Beatrice Nichol

Hajni Biro: We talked about the recent changes in Hungarian planning system. It has deeply affected the daily workload of the planners as well as revealed the lack of experience in creating design guidance documents through meaningful public engagement. At the moment many planners consider it as an unnecessary exercise which might not lead to better design in local architecture and placemaking. Mostly because no one prepared any design guidance before, and in many planners understanding it as just another document which goes on the shelf for good. In relation this could you tell me about the new design guidance you are working on at the council?

Beatrice Nichol: I wouldn`t event describe what I am writing here as design guidance. It is a place making guide that establishes the process by which you would make an application and also in terms of going through an analysis of a settlement. And it can be applied to anything from a minor application to a major one. It is really about saying: ‘Look I have gone through the process of making an analysis of the area, of the kind on contextual, architectural and landscape framework’. It is about a more holistic approach rather than just about what this building will look like.

Although we will be going onto doing technical notes, we will have more architectural advice for more specific type of developments. We are saying look we want to see that you have gone through a thought process here. Because what I think happens in Scotland is that there has been no thought process. You allocate a piece of land and essentially you cram as many units onto it as you possibly can to make money. And that is where we are coming from, a free market kind of view where to a degree it is up to the developer to make that decision. And I think through doing things like design guidance you are saying actually it isn`t just a one way process. You need to give something back. Obviously you have to create a place for people, that is nice to live in but it is actually doing something for the community that already exists there which really matters.

So the place making guide is not prescriptive, it is not about saying we have to build a certain height or style. It is about how you have come to the conclusion of that design how you have responded to the place and the need of the community around you. And at the end of the process we may still not agree but least we understand how you got to that result. And that means you can have a conversation. Whereas what I found with planning applications that you get a planning application, a layout that will have as many units on it as possible and you are almost on the back foot.  It is not a dialogue, it is already fixed. So you are constantly backtracking and trying to change little bits about it but the concept is already laid down.

You use the term design, but it`s not design that it is really all about. It is about people`s lives. So the place making guidance is just breaking this traditional view of “we want to do this on this piece of land and we are going to push as hard as we can to achieve it”. So we are saying no, actually there are other elements involved in this, planning is about… you know everything.

I think a dialogue from the beginning can result in good design. People are really creative if allowed to work in certain conditions. When I was studying, I interviewed an architect who was saying the battle between the client and the planning department often result in a situation where nobody gets what they want, because there is no strong vision. And sometimes I think we are not very brave as planners and think that we can`t make those sort of decisions.

Hajni Biro: How would you say public engagement fits into this process?

Beatrice Nichol: I think what we are moving towards is starting consultation at the front end of the process. Rather than what we have been doing which is a back end consultation where people cannot make a lot of difference. In terms of actual plans in the future I would like to see something where we have done work like your infrastructure study so we can see what communities want and how the design process can actually assist with that.

The process starts with involving the community. Even if it is a minor application that happens next door, you should be talking to your neighbours. While I think a lot of people have that mentality that I am not going to tell anyone what I am doing because if I do that, they are going to object to it straight away. I don`t think there is a mediation a lot of times, some sort of dialogues, which you should be doing every time you make a change. And ask who is it going to impact? There will obviously be people who you never going to convince and that is okay too. But people often have valuable things to input in the process. This may change your design to be more sympathetic. Getting buy in from everyone who will be impacted is definitely the most natural thing to do. In Scotland we are definitely not there yet.

At least the process is in place, it is just at the wrong part of the process. So we get people who are very very angry and resent the whole idea of a development instead of inputting into how it could actually benefit them. Which is a really shame because you are losing out on infrastructure that would benefit the community.

Hajni Biro: Another challenge in Hungary is that the practice of consulting the public is only becoming a more embedded part of the planning system now.  Planners there might be better trained in the design aspects, whereas our training here focuses a lot on the social aspects, community engagement.

Beatrice Nichol: I think that`s probably true. When I was studying as well we would be doing project work all the time and you would be surrounded by people from different backgrounds. And you would have to come to a conclusion. And that is a really invaluable training process. But architects and urban designers often go through a very competitive training process where they constantly have to defend their views. So they may become less opened for other people`s views and mind set. I think that it is probably a problem because it is important to understand that other people may have equally just as valid points and you have to cope with that.

Hajni Biro: What would you say is challenging in the process of creating an effective place making guide?

Beatrice Nichol: I think that we are in a difficult situation because we don`t have ownership of the land most of the time. So you have to think how you can influence design when you don`t own the land. I think design guidance in the Scottish Borders (previous workplace – Ed.) was a lot more design heavy and strong on architecture simply because that is what the elected members wanted it to be. And it was a statutory document that was used as a piece of evidence several times and won cases. So we could refuse applications on the basis of the design because we could prove that they have not gone through the place making process and haven’t thought about the community benefit. So this is what I think the real benefit can be. So creating guidance that forces a conversation between the planning department, the applicant and the community is a positive way forward.

Hajni Biro: What would you say is a good way to involve the community?

Beatrice Nichol: I think the local development plan has a big role in this and so does the MIR stage which however did not work out for us in practice. I think there need to be people in decision making who commit to this are not stuck in the old system. We are thinking about using the Place Standard toolkit and doing that with the community this time. But it has to be a council wide thing. It can not only be planning who doing that, but transport and housing… I think the Place Standard and the Local Place Plan idea can be quite good, a platform where people can express their needs and what they would like to have as an overarching strategy for development. And I think it is important to have this conversation before anything (!) is thought through. It would obviously have to be structured and have some ideas at the table of our own. But be receptive and accept that it might not be the thing that comes out of the consultation.

Hajni Biro profile picture Hajni Biro

Hajni Biro recently graduated on the BSc in Town and Regional Planning programme at the University of Dundee. She is a graduate volunteer at PAS and a student representative of the Scottish Young Planners Network (SYPN). She translated for the Contemporary  Architecture Centre Budapest (KÉK), as well as represented the Shelter Scotland in Dundee as a community champion and advice plus assistant. She spent the summer at the Planning and Economic Development Division of the Dundee City Council as an intern.


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