Scotland is at a crossroads… again. Every 10 years, we seem to end up back in the same place, rehearsing the same old arguments. I am not referring to Scotland or the UK’s constitutional future but a topic that is almost as contentious: planning.
The Scottish parliament will shortly debate the Planning (Scotland) Bill, which will set out the framework for all planning decisions in Scotland for probably another decade.
The bill’s objectives include streamlining the planning process, while delivering the development of more high-quality housing and encouraging greater community engagement. Anyone who has had the slightest involvement with planning in their personal or professional lives will realise that is a tall order.
The bill has gone through a tortuous process in parliament. The committee that considered it recommended more than 200 amendments. The Scottish government predicts that the combined cost of these amendments and the reforms in the bill itself would lead, over the next 10 years, to £75m in additional costs for councils and more than £1bn for the development industry. Local communities could incur additional costs of up to £12m. Interestingly, the only body expected to save money is the Scottish government.
The amendments were widely criticised, and a series of further amendments have now been brought forward for debate in June. It appears from the amendments currently on the table that the objective of streamlining some planning processes might be achieved, although the new system may not encourage better development or community engagement, and will certainly not lead to a more transparent and robust planning system.
At the heart of the bill is a fundamental change to the development plan system. Scotland currently has a two-tier system where strategic development plans (SDPs) set out the vision for our city regions and the local development plans (LDPs) implement that vision. These plans are updated once every five years. Under the new regime, SDPs will be scrapped and a national planning framework (NPF) will become the new top tier. The bill suggests the new development plans might only be updated once every decade.
It is proposed that there will also be a new process of regional spatial planning – regional-level planning frameworks – that will significantly influence the content of both the NPF and LDPs. Crucially, the new regional spatial strategies (RSSs) that must be produced by local authorities will not be subject to any independent scrutiny or ministerial oversight.
This is significant and needs to be seen in the context of the recent failure of the SDP for south-east Scotland. In that case, the independent examination of the plan led to recommendations that at least 30,000 new homes should be added to its original target. The planning minister ultimately rejected the plan in its entirety because he did not believe it was supported by an adequate transport assessment. That was regrettable, but at the end of the day the minister’s decision demonstrates the benefit of independent third-party oversight. If the plan had been produced as an RSS under the new system it could have been approved by the councils despite its clear and fundamental inadequacies.
The possibility that development plans might only be updated once every 10 years and be heavily influenced by an RSS, where the planning authority is both judge and jury, is of real concern. The minister’s current proposals undoubtedly mean he will have less difficult decisions to take, and that costs to his administration will fall (by around £2m, according to his predictions), but it will not make for a better planning system. There is a real need for leadership in the planning system to ensure that the next round of development planning actually delivers the economic growth Scotland needs. The bill as it stands does not achieve that.
Ewan MacLeod is a partner in the planning team at Shepherd and Wedderburn