New Scottish planning policies unveiled

9th September 2014

The Scottish Government has published two key documents relating to the town planning system in Scotland.

National Planning Framework - now in its third version - is a statutory document which maps out the Government’s Economic Strategy. It promotes a series of initiatives and investment priorities of national significance, such as Enterprise Areas. Sustainability and Placemaking are central to NPF3.

The document is intended to inform as wide a readership as possible in all economic sectors and layers of Government. It aims to be aspirational and visionary in its outlook.

If NPF3 represents the “where” in Scottish planning, Scottish Planning Policy (2014) represents the “how”.

SPP has refreshed Scottish Planning Policy (2010). It reflects new market realities and wider legislative changes. It identifies planning outcomes which support the vision set out in NPF3 and provides greater detail on how these opportunities will be delivered via the multitude of major and local developments that will pass through the planning system.

Up-to-date development plans are given a central focus in SPP. Scottish town planning operates a plan-led system. Because of this, it is logical to accept the importance of having a clear vision that is relevant to the aspirations of all local level stakeholders. This said, currently only half of Scotland’s local planning authorities (excluding National Parks) have plans less than five years old.

What is even more concerning is that all but three of the 19 local authorities that sit within the four Strategic Development Plan areas have local plans older than the SDP itself.

This can have potentially serious implications for issues such as the housing land supply. Enough land has to be identified at a local level to address the housing requirement set out at a strategic level. The infrastructure requirements to support housing growth also need to be clearly identified.

This lack of clarity only leads to delays in the system, which undermines the intentions and outcomes of the planning system that the SPP articulates.

The new SPP makes it clear that in the absence of an up-to-date LDP, a presumption in favour of sustainable development will become a ‘significant material consideration’.

Anyone who has engaged with issues such as sustainable development will know how subjective a term this can be. In trying to bring forward proposals with certainty and confidence, the development industry does not want to rely on indefinite concepts such as sustainability.

This lack of clarity and imprecision also relates to affordable housing provision. Presently, affordable housing contributions sought for sites can range up to 40% - 50% in some areas of acute need. The updated SPP tries to pin this figure to a site’s viability for residential development and directs planning authorities to set contributions to “generally….no more than 25% of the total number of houses” (Paragraph 129).

Scottish Planning Policy serves a unique purpose: it can guide both planning authority and developer at times of dispute over often very subtle differences in interpretation of subjective concepts. It acts as a third party measure to assess a proposal’s suitability in planning terms.

Whilst the urgency to update plans is welcome, the loss of precision in much of the language could perpetuate planning arguments and inhibit, rather than promote, sustainable development.

The presumption in favour of sustainable development introduced by the Coalition government to the English planning system two years ago has failed to make an impact on local planning decisions, according to recent research by Turley.  This suggests the Scottish Government endorsement of sustainable development may not have the desired effect on local planning decisions. 

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