News: 4 July 2016The outcomes of the Scottish Planning Review

With the initial results of the Scottish Planning Review published, at Barton Willmore our first port of call was to check to what extent the comments we submitted to the review panel had been taken into account (call it intrigue!). Having done so, we are pleasantly surprised to see that much of the ‘structural change’ we (and no doubt others) suggested had been taken on board and are encouraged that overall, the review suggests a series of recommendations which should improve the system. However - and there is always a however - we can’t help but think this was the easy part and are slightly disappointed that a number of big questions posed to the panel have been left unanswered. If the intention of the review is to be “root and branch”….doesn’t this need to focus on more than the mechanics?

To find out if other professionals were thinking along the same lines, Stephen Tucker, our Planning Partner and an ex-convenor of the RTPI, joined an RTPI South East Scotland Chapter panel discussion on the review outcomes. Pam Ewen, formerly of TAYplan and now Head of Planning at Fife Council, Nikola Miller of Homes for Scotland and Ken Ross of Ross Development and Renewables Ltd also joined the discussion and it was clear from all, that the review is perceived to be a good opportunity for change - exactly what type of change however still appeared intangible. There was recognition that Town Planners have a moral obligation to seek the best system and strive for the best outcomes for people and places across Scotland. But how the review will support this was still elusive. It outlines great potential for change, but is very light on concrete details.

It sits in the context of a retreat from development and placemaking by Government that has been ongoing since the 70’s. “Without this driving force of government led development” said Stephen, “steered for the public good and delivered through development plans, planning will always struggle to be plan led and an effective lever for change.” The conclusions of the panel seemed to be that there is potential, but we are as of yet unclear how this will play out – particularly now that the driving force behind this review, Alex Neil, has now stepped down.

At Barton Willmore we are all for progress, and positive thinking, but our overarching view of the recommendations is that they don’t go far enough. Yes, the review rightly focuses on key areas which do need to be improved, but we can’t help but think that the review is missing the radical vision required to move the profession forward. To us, several key areas of concern have gone unanswered. For instance, there is no attempt to address the highly politicised nature of the system which causes no end of frustration and delays to our clients…..brought to the planning process by local politicians who, at times, don’t recognise the need for new development. The only suggestion to deal with this is more training. But haven’t we tried this before? Our experience is that you can train elected members on the system, explain the necessity of new homes and the desperate need for development, but in many cases they will ignore the evidence and follow the loudest voices - often those that are opposed to development - irrespective. Perhaps we just need to accept that planning will always be like this?

There is also no clear method set out in the review outlining how to engage with and capture the views of the silent majority - those who don’t have the time or the inclination to be involved in community council meetings or attend charrettes. Your average 20-30 year old is busy studying, working and focusing on their own life. They don’t want to be involved in this system as it stands - if they did they already would be - and nothing radical has been proposed to change that.

A review of the key proposed changes

Development Planning

Beyond these wider, cultural failings we applaud the positive changes proposed to the system;

  • The removal of Strategic Development Plans was widely called for, including by ourselves, and this has been recommended with the aim of simplifying the system.
  • Similarly, we called for national housing targets and these are recommended as a new feature of a more delivery driven National Planning Framework.
  • Scottish Planning Policy is to be updated, taking a significant layer of policy away from Local Development Plans, allowing them to focus on policy that is relevant at a local level, rather than duplicating national policy.
  • The proposal to remove the Main Issues Report stage from the Development Plan process and its replacement with a draft plan harks back to the system we had pre the 2006 Planning Etc. (Scotland) Act and is also great news.
  • Supplementary Guidance has not escaped unscathed and it is recommended that it be ‘removed or limited’. We feel that this is a positive step which will reduce consultation fatigue amongst communities and will result in greater technical oversight of policy.

The recommendation to move from a five-year cycle of development plans to a ten-year cycle is interesting, but we’re not convinced. There is concern that this may create inflexibility – for instance in allocating sites for housing. How are developers going to see it when they need to wait eight years to promote a site again? It also separate’s the local plans from the local government election process which may make bringing the plan in over two years tricky, dependant on how close adoption falls to a local election.

An element of the English planning system that has been identified for consideration is a move to include plans produced by communities as part of the development plan. As a leading UK wide consultancy, we are apprehensive about this suggestion because our own experience in England tells us that the production of these plans is very time intensive for already overstretched local authorities to support and that less than 5% of localities that can have one do. As a result, their introduction has only empowered a very small minority of the public. Getting these plans to such a standard that they can be adopted into development plans is likely to be challenging, though we accept that this proposal would support the community empowerment agenda.

We are also somewhat concerned by proposals to take oversight of compliance of development plans with national guidance, policy and legislation out of the hands of Reporters. In our opinion, it is vitally important to have impartial oversight of the planning system, particularly as it is a quasi-judicial system. Removal of impartial oversight could lead to an increase in legal challenges to plans.

Infrastructure

Thankfully infrastructure, a key area of concern throughout the industry, has not been overlooked. The review panel have suggested that a new body be set up to provide an overview of the ‘strategic business case’ for front funding infrastructure as a specific element of the planning service at a city-region and local level’.

Bringing together key agencies to better plan infrastructure is a commendable aim and we hope this will bring the strategic insight that is so desperately needed. However, any discussion on infrastructure needs to be focused on delivery and any new body created must also have funding to match this commitment and we hope to see clearer proposals on this moving forward.

We also support the efforts made to deliver the school capacity needed in Scotland to cope with our growing population. The demand on schools is often felt most keenly in strong market areas where there is pressure for housing. We support the panel’s recommendation to engage with the Scottish Futures Trust and going forward we hope to see more funding become available in market hotspots such as Edinburgh to deliver much needed new schools, with additional capacity for growth.

Continuing on the theme of infrastructure funding, we note the suggestion that Community Infrastructure Levies could be used to capture land value uplift as well as the continued use of Section 75 agreements, albeit in more limited circumstances. We would caution that careful considerable of viability must be a feature of any new planning obligation proposed.

Leadership, Resources and Skills

Proposals to encourage the movement of planning back up the management structure in local authorities is something that we sought in our initial response to the planning review. We support the recommendation for chief executive sign off of development plans, but we are concerned that this will not go far enough in moving planning to the top of the management structure. Surely a “root and branch” review needs to look at ways to improve resources and skills at each level of the local authority hierarchy?

Community Engagement

Community engagement will always be an area of conflict in the planning system by its very nature. Often the point when individuals feel galvanised to comment on, and engage with, planning is when it is on their doorstep. That being said, we believe that it is important to do better in engaging with the public, particularly moving away from legalistic newspaper adverts that fail to reach a significant audience. Efforts to encourage more engagement are supported, but we had hoped for more concrete proposals as to how this could be achieved.

Conclusions

It was always our view that the system itself is not the problem – our clients told us this loud and clear during a survey we undertook last year – although it could certainly be improved… what system couldn’t?

However, fundamentally, the core problem with the planning system is cultural and stems from political apathy towards driving development forward, particularly at a local level. We do not have a culture that supports development and that proactively engages with a wide range of people, or that gives the profession the credit it deserves. We need a system which works, for all of its users.

The review proposals set out ideas that will certainly be beneficial, but significant questions have been left unanswered – those relating to local political participation in the system in particular…and what about implementation and timing: how long will we need to wait to experience these changes?

Infrastructure investment and joined up thinking will likely go some way to improving delivery, but it needs to happen now. The review has not set out a radical rethink of the system that will get us the 50,000 affordable homes we need and that the Scottish Government has promised in the next five years. To achieve that we need political and cultural change and we need it quickly.

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