Democracy is a funny word. It’s made up of the ancient Greek words demos and kratia. For Plato and Aristotle demos meant the workers too busy to help maintain the polis. kratia carries the meaning of having power over someone or something — like the words ‘aristocracy’, ‘bureaucracy’, ‘meritocracy', etc. Enter english Philosopher Thomas Hobbes. The basis for Hobbes’ understanding of democracy was that without the state, society would be a bellum omnium contra omnes, a war of each person against every other person. Society without the state is a “nasty, brutish and short” war machine.
This is the idea that forms the theoretical underpinning for western liberal democracy — we the People willingly enter into an unwritten contract with the State, who we trust to exercise their kratia in a way that serves the good of the entire demos. In contrast to Plato, we now understand demos to mean everyone — all of society. Except, notwithstanding his good intentions, there’s a problem with Hobbes’ philosophy. In order for it to work effectively, it dislocates the demos and kratos — those who have power from those who that power is supposed to be used for. This happens in varying degrees.
The planning application process is based on this Hobbesian idea of democracy. The process is meant to exist for the many who delegate the responsibility of overseeing the process to the few — the planning department. When Mrs Smith in Ballysomewhereorother wants to add a two-story extension to the back of her house the process usually works. The planning department sends out a letter to the neighbours notifying them of Mrs Smith’s plans, giving them the opportunity to exercise their democratic right and object, support or ask questions. All well and good — most of the time; unless the Jones’ next-door are harbouring a grudge about the time you accidentally sprayed a bit of weed killer on their perfectly manicured lawn and decided that this might be the opportunity for some passive-aggressive neighbourly revenge. Having worked for years as an architect, I’ve seen it all! But, generally, small domestic applications go relatively smoothly.
But what happens when there’s a large, complicated planning application? Take for example the current application by Castlebrooke investments to demolish a significant part of Belfast city centre and build multiple new buildings. A scheme that is being contested by the SaveCQ group. For the Smiths and the Jones’ applications like this, often called masterplans, are sometimes complicated to understand. The architects speak archispeak, the developers speak pounds-n-dollars, the drawings are a mass of tangled lines, odd shapes, bright colours and, more often than not, we only find out that there was a planning application when the buildings are finished — too late.
There’s also the thick, dense tomes that every ten or so years are drawn up by the council to help give some shape to the future planning of the city, like Belfast City Council’s (BCC) consultation on the Preferred Options Paper for the Local Development Plan. The plan is currently in the middle of a lengthy process of consultations, reviews, revisions and more consultations. You may not have even heard of it, but it is a pretty important document. It will help shape the future development of our city for the next fifteen years. BCC says that in preparing the Local Development Plan they aim to work with “local people, to create a clear vision of how the council area should develop and what it will look like in the years to come.” The good intentions of those wielding the kratia. While there is always an opportunity with these kinds of things for the public to respond, the information is often hard to come by and difficult to understand, and so the process is missed by most and the kratia drifts slowly away from the demos.
This is why the South Belfast Partnership Board have launched their Leave No One Behind report. I attended the launch event on the 16th February, at an event in Belfast’s Accidental Theatre. The report is based on feedback gathered at a symposium — attended by over 150 people — hosted in partnership with Belfast Area Partnerships, South Belfast Neighbourhood renewal partnerships and Queens University Belfast.
The report aims to bring a community perspective to the development plan. A bottom-up rather than top-down approach, ensuring that BCC engages fully with all local communities in a collaborative way. Speaking at the event, Dr Satish Kumar from Queens University said that “the target of the council’s development plan must be to tangibly improve the lives of the people who actually live in the city.” This sounds pretty obvious, but the reality according to groups like SaveCQ is very different — BCC is allowing large-scale developers, whose sole focus is financial gain, to negatively change the face of the city for years to come.
The extent to which the council are willing to adopt the ideas in the Leave No One Behind report remains to be seen, but it does open up some interesting conversations around the idea of giving the community more planning powers or maybe even in some cases all planning powers — radical I know.
I, like Karl Marx am not a Marxist, but I like Marx. There is one post-Marxist thinker I like a lot — Henri Lefebvre. Lefebvre is a really important thinker when it comes to matters of the city. He said that we all have a right to the city. By that he meant that cities are really important — they shape us and we shape them. Geographer David Harvey put it like this: “the freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.” What Lefebvre meant often gets dumbed down to a slogan or a ‘nice’ idea but it was in-fact pretty radical. He wanted to fully repair what he saw as a dislocated-democracy and recouple the demos with the kratia, eventually seeing the State “wither away” with power being managed by the grassroots — i.e the demos. Not everyone's cup of tea I know! But when we think about the future planning of our city it’s worth thinking about who is making the decisions. For whose benefit are those decisions being made? Who gets to profit from those decisions? And, perhaps most importantly: who gets left behind?