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Review of the Scottish Planning System – Technical Paper “The Realities of Change”

31st October 2017

The reality of planning reform moved a step closer recently with the publication of the Scottish Government’s draft working paper on how the key changes proposed to the current planning system might operate in practice. The document, published earlier this month is intended to provide greater clarity for stakeholders and to assist those parties to formulate a view on the primary changes being proposed.  

In reality, the document doesn’t really deliver that clarity and raises even more questions. Whilst the Government has a view on how a number of the key areas of planning reform might look in practice, there is still a lot of detail which must be added and a clear path defined.   

The paper focuses on: Strategic Planning and Regional Partnerships, Local Development Plans, Local Place Plans, calculating housing figures, Infrastructure levy and Development Management. Ryden has considered some of the more significant and interesting proposals below.  

The Government intends to remove the requirement to produce Strategic Development Plans and instead form Regional Working Partnerships. The form the Partnerships will take has still to be clarified and won’t be prescribed within the future Planning Bill. Authorities will be left to work this out for themselves allowing flexibility in how they form their working groups. This initiative envisages collaborative working for a range of issues and not just planning, logically including housing, infrastructure and economy.

The expectation is that joint evidence gathering will be brought together to inform a single spatial strategy for the National Planning Framework 4 (NPF). Ultimately, Scottish Ministers will decide which proposals from the regional partnerships are taken forward into the NPF.

This initiative certainly still feels like a work in progress and with much still to be formalised there must be a concern that it is open-ended and the drive for maximum flexibility risks the proposal underachieving. It is after all an authority’s prerogative not to take part and of course, the Government will have the final say on what proposals are formalised in the NPF.

The Government’s aspirations regarding the future of Local Development Plans (LDP) remain as set out in the Position Statement of June 2017. The plans and the process for reviewing them would be streamlined considerably with Main Issue Reports (MIRs) being replaced by Draft Plans, a Gatecheck process introduced prior to publication of the Draft Plan and less content included than already exists in Scottish Planning Policy (SPP).   

Perhaps the most contentious provision regarding LDPs is the intention to incorporate Local Place Plans (LPPs), which themselves are to be a community’s vision for its future development.

There is a concerted drive for community empowerment and engagement within a reformed planning system. In theory this is a positive and sound aspiration. More people should be involved in how their communities evolve. However, this remains in our view a contentious issue and one with the potential for causing extensive delays to development delivery.

Nevertheless, the current proposals for LPPs have generally allayed our concerns in that regard. They will not create another tier to the system by forming a plan in its own right, but rather provide additional detail to an LDP. Generally, they must comply with LDPs (and therefore national policy) and incompatibility with the LDP could be a valid reason for declining to incorporate elements of a LPP into an LDP update. The community body promoting the LPP will be required to provide robust supporting evidence, including demonstrating appropriate consultation with local people, businesses and the development sector. In this respect the LPPs should reflect and recognise wider community aspirations.

To be effective for all, there must be a process of education amongst those representing communities in the planning process. It is important that community representatives understand the developer and what drives a business of that nature, otherwise proposals to empower local communities could simply strengthen the hand of those who wish to prevent development at any cost.

The Government recently withdrew its Draft Delivery Advice on Housing & Infrastructure given concerns over outstanding objections and its status within the development management process.   In the meantime, there has been a refocus on establishing a new approach to calculating housing requirements. 

Current proposals envisage strategic housing land requirements set out in the NPF and based on evidence calculated via the Housing Needs and Demand Assessment (HNDA) Tool. LDPs would be largely consistent with these figures and any local changes agreed through the Gatecheck review. Those authorities outwith areas covered by strategic land requirements would continue to calculate their own local housing requirement supported by an HNDA.

Interestingly, the Government is seeking to strengthen the role of planning authorities in helping to move development forward where housing deliverability is an issue. Some may argue that local authorities are often the cause of deliverability issues; failing to identify solutions to infrastructure capacity constraints, allocating land in poor market locations perhaps because there is existing infrastructure capacity in a particular location and imposing unreasonable burdens by way of developer contributions. Whilst the guidance recognises that there are a wider range of factors which influence delivery, those examples cited above are very much commonplace within the development process.

The prospect of a national infrastructure levy remains a reality with research into options ongoing and is perhaps the most challenging aspect of the planning reform agenda.  Thus far, that research has recommended the creation of an Infrastructure Growth Contribution with a locally coordinated option being the current favourite. A national formula would determine the contribution rate applied, an approach that would require two development valuations, one at the point of land transaction/negotiation and another at the point the floorspace is usable.    

Notably, this levy would not resolve the shortage of monies required for infrastructure provision and particularly that required to front fund new infrastructure to enable development and so other means of collecting those would still remain such as S75 contributions.  

A number of changes to the development management process are proposed. Simplified Development Zones (SDZ’s) will replace Simplified Planning Zones (SPZs) and promote a more holistic approach to supporting the delivery of development. This initiative is underpinned by research undertaken by Ryden which has informed the Government’s aspiration to see a rebranded and improved delivery mechanism. SDZs will be encouraged as part of the development planning process and will offer a more strategic, zoning approach to housing allocations.

The open ended nature of the Pre-Application Consultation (PAC) process will be closed with the introduction of an 18 month time limit on the submission of a planning application, post Proposal of Application Notice (PAN). This is currently very much a grey area and in our view, it is not unreasonable to require an application within a defined timescale from giving notice of a PAN. In addition, more than one consultation event will be required as part of the PAC process. Whilst this will offer communities a further chance to input into the design process it does add another financial burden on developers.

So, following publication of this recent working paper, we have a firmer indication of what’s to come in the form of planning reform although there are now new questions to be answered and much detail still needed and we know where the devil lies! Next steps…a Planning Bill is expected to be put before the Scottish Parliament by December 2017. 

Categories Planning

Marc Giles

Marc is an experienced town planning consultant of over 20 years and has a successful track record for delivering high profile and complex development projects.  He has extensive experience in all aspects of land use planning including the commercial, residential, industrial, development land and retail sectors.

Marc represents a range of developers and investors promoting residential, commercial and mixed-use schemes.  He also acts for the public sector, representing a number Scotland’s NHS Trusts and Local Authorities, providing and implementing planning strategy advice primarily related to property disposals. 

He is not only an active member of the RTPI in Scotland but is also an Associate Member of Homes for Scotland, sits on the Planning and Development Committee at the Scottish Property Federation and advises Scottish Land and Estates in planning policy matters. 

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