Blog: 17 December 2018Empowering the masses - not the few - in Scotland

Encouraging local authorities to empower communities across the country is a mantra that I think we can all agree is a good thing. The devolution of power from the Scottish Government to local authorities works best when the benefits are felt by the masses, and not just the few.

One of the most critical decisions that the 32 local authorities in Scotland make relates to the building of new homes in their area. Their work with public and private developers helped deliver more than 19,000 new homes in 2017/18. This is 800 more than the previous year, but significantly down on the number of new homes that are actually needed to be built across Scotland each year.

The statistics show that Argyle & Bute Council had a 44% reduction in new housing being built in 2017/18 compared to the previous year, and for Scottish Borders Council there was a 32% reduction. On the other side though, there are positives with a 62% increase in house building in Aberdeen, for example.

While these numbers clearly demonstrate the supply of new homes, they don’t paint the full picture. We don’t see the finer detail such as how many times the local authority refused planning permission (for instance, on allocated sites), when a development was granted planning permission but hasn’t been built yet, or whether in fact the local authority is maintaining an adequate five-year housing land supply.

There is also no indication of how many planning applications were submitted and subsequently lobbied out of the door, or even before then, when housing site allocations were being identified.

As a Planning Consultant you would think my biggest gripe would be when I see a housing development - which is effective, well located and is clearly needed - being refused planning permission (…or its delivery being held up through the consenting process). Whilst this is frustrating, we at least have the appeal process to potentially overcome this.

There is one issue that I find slightly harder to swallow, and that relates to housing site allocations. So often over the years I have witnessed small local groups meddling and pressurising local authorities to remove (or refuse) land that has been assessed by professional Planners as being appropriate as a housing allocation. The crux of the issue is that these are housing sites which could provide much needed new homes which could, for example, entice first time buyers, free up existing stock through ‘downsizing’, remove people from bed and breakfasts, housing of multiple occupation and at the same time provide a boost to the local economy in terms of increased construction activity and retail spending.

In this regard, Shelter, the leading homeless charity, said recently for every £100 million invested in the construction buildings in Scotland, £210 million of economic activity is generated in the wider economy, and up to 1,270 jobs are sustained.

Because local authorities are not allocating enough land as a result of these local pressures - most often political - we are seeing deflated housing allocation numbers presented back to the Scottish Government that don’t reflect what the country needs. You could say we are guilty of ‘planning for decline’. This results in fewer houses being built than are needed with a vicious circle that helps no-one in either the short or long-term.

So how do we overcome this? Well for me, the Scottish Government has a greater role in sorting this issue out.

By having a consistent Scotland-wide approach to the delivery of housing allocations would help remove the quirks and meddling that exists in the system at the minute. It would also give everyone an opportunity to get involved in planning, by offering people a way of engaging in the process to both challenge or support land allocations. At the same time, it would improve public trust with a standardised approach, get more people involved in the process with the Scottish Government having a bigger platform to engage than local authorities. Finally, it would continue to empower people to decide the future of the places where they live. Surely this makes sense?

It remains to be seen whether the amendments proposed as part of the emerging Planning (Scotland) Bill will help solve this problem, but whilst the housing crisis continues, we need to take positive action at a national level.

As featured in the Planner.

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Planning (Scotland) Bill, Planning, UK Housing, Scottish Government