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What does the future hold for the Scottish planning system?

5th July 2017

Most of those involved with the Scottish planning system have been anticipating the Scottish Government’s final proposals for further planning reform to come forward later this year.  However, last Thursday (29 June) we were provided with an idea of what to expect in the form of a Position Statement

The statement discusses the proposed reforms following the consultation on Places, People and Planning earlier this year and is also subject to a consultation process until 11th August. Comments can be sent to Planningreview@scot.gov.

So what will be the consensus of opinion, a jump for joy at the prospect of what’s to come or a sigh of exasperation and a slump of the shoulders!?

In my view there are a number of commitments which stand out as very firm and clear agendas, they are: a push for strengthening the plan led system; empowering communities; the importance of housing and infrastructure delivery; and stronger leadership with more effective resourcing.

The Scottish Government sends a clear message that the planning system will be very much plan-led.  Within this objective there are a number of actions proposed such as the removal of Strategic Development Plans in favour of ‘partnership working’ and greater roles for national policy in the form of National Planning Framework (NPF) and Scottish Planning Policy (SPP). These proposals have the potential to streamline the plan-led system, but, there is a risk of over-centralisation and the prospect of local circumstances and development issues being missed.  The flexibility around the working partnerships could allow for more ambitious thinking and creativity but requires drive and enthusiasm to really become an effective means of moving forward. 

Extending the Local Development Plan (LDP) plan period to 10 years potentially provides greater certainty over how places will evolve, particularly for communities.  Nevertheless, there remains concern that it will result in plans becoming stagnant and outdated.  To counter this the Government proposes provisions to enable the review of LDPs within the 10 year periods. My concern however is that this initiative just creates more delays subject to the final decision on the circumstances and process for amending a plan within that 10 year period.

Delivery of development is highlighted and this is a positive feature.  We must move away from seeing legacy allocations maintain through LDPs with no realistic prospects for delivery.   

There is certainly sound logic in promoting a ‘Gatecheck’ process before a draft LDP is published.  This should remove the debate around such issues as housing requirements and supply from the current Examination process.  That said, those issues would have to be comprehensively resolved prior to proposing allocations in a plan, otherwise, the Examination remains an arena for debating such principles and the plan review process will not be any more efficient than it is now.

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 a contentious issue and one with the potential for causing extensive delays to development delivery.

The introduction of Place Plans and more extensive community engagement has the potential to run counter to the key objective of planning reform, which is to make the system more efficient.  To be effective for all, there must be a process of education amongst those representing communities in the planning process. All too often there is a starting point of ‘no development please’ at a local level and a real disrespect for, and distrust of, the development industry.  It is important that community representatives understand the developer and development industry generally otherwise these proposals will simply strengthen the hand of those who wish to prevent development at any cost.

It is not uncommon for community organisations to have their own agendas which are not aligned with the wider views of those they represent.  The ‘silent majority’ are not always heard in the development process, which reinforces that education is essential if community empowerment is to have a positive outcome.  

Unsurprisingly, housing and infrastructure delivery are key priorities of the Scottish Government and are given significant weight in the Position Statement.   There is often far too much debate around housing requirements and supply and as such, proposals to provide greater clarity and certainty are welcomed.  The intention appears to be that these matters will be addressed at a national level within NPF and SPP and the proposed removal of SPPs, which have up to now set the housing requirements for city regions, thus increasing the importance of getting it right from the top down.

It is good to see the prospect of a zoned approach to development. Ryden (in association with Brodies) was commissioned to undertake research for the Scottish Government into the use of Simplified Planning Zones (SPZs) and equivalent mechanisms outwith Scotland.  The aim being to assess the potential for a more flexible and more widely applicable land use zoning mechanism than SPZs provide at present.  This research is ongoing but will inform the Government’s final proposals.

The principle of ‘infrastructure first’ remains at the forefront of the Scottish Government’s reforms but it is clear that a lot more work is required before firm proposals for change can be identified.  The prospect of a national delivery group remains at this stage an aspiration. Moreover, the prospect of an infrastructure levy remains live, although there is no longer an intention to remove the right to modify planning obligations.

Finally, the Scottish Government remains committed to investing in a better and more efficient planning system through measures such as improving leadership and skills, increased charges for services and generally seeking to improve performance. Thus far, we have seen significant increases to planning fees brought forward and this will be followed by other revised charging structures. Whilst we would expect there to be support in principle from the development industry, this will only be on the basis that these increased charges bring forward a more efficient and better resourced planning system.

For more information on the Position Statement or for advice on any other planning issues please contact: marc.giles@ryden.co.uk.   

Categories Blog Planning

Marc Giles

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

Marc advises developers, occupiers, landowners and investors across the private sector as well as public sector clients including the SFT and a number of NHS Boards.

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