The latest independent Scottish planning review and its impacts

27 June 2016

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Planning etc. (Scotland) Act 2006, so it is perhaps fitting that the long-awaited report of the Independent Review of the Planning System was published at the end of last month.  The panel was tasked with undertaking a ‘root and branch’ review of the planning system, to have a ‘fundamental rethink of the system as a whole’ to encourage ‘a planning profession that is bold and clear about its purpose, demonstrating a contribution to society’.  

The panel made 48 recommendations to ensure the system becomes better ‘equipped to deal with future challenges and opportunities’ and refocus it away from ‘micro-management of the built environment’: It is focused on six key outcomes:

  • strong and flexible development plans
  • delivery of more quality homes
  • an ‘infrastructure-first’ approach to planning and development
  • efficient and transparent development management
  • stronger leadership, smarter resourcing and sharing of skills
  • collaboration and empowerment.

If the speed of the 2006 Act, and its secondary legislation is anything to go by,  implementing the findings of the Review will take several years and it will be important to strike a balance between short and long term objectives and to ensure potential ‘quick-fixes’ are not lost in bureaucracy.  A radical rethink of the system should consider issues such as a national infrastructure body, the abolition of Strategic Development Plans (and adoption of their targets within the National Planning Framework) and a 10-year Local Development Plan cycle. 

Affording allocated development sites Planning Permission in Principle could be a key mechanism to avoid unnecessary duplication and delay.  However cutting out a stage in the preparation of development plans, by removing the rigour of the Examination in Public, could result in a propensity to challenge allocations, particularly if the opportunity to dispute non-performing sites shifts to a 10-yearly basis.  If such a move is to be considered, provision must be made for a formal process which takes account of the replacement and supplementation of under/non-performing sites, in order to motivate development to come forward and ensure an effective land supply at all times. 

The wider use of Simplified Planning Zones, as a means of stimulating development with regard to upfront infrastructure and high quality, large scale housing, is a positive move.  The goal of reducing the Development Management burden is also laudable.  This would require frontloaded assessments, briefs and masterplanning in order to promote an ‘infrastructure-first’ approach, without undermining the quality of place created.  Focus must remain on streamlining the process, rather than becoming entrenched in minutiae.

The establishment of multi-authority services and mandatory training for elected members, would allow smarter working.  Properly resourcing the system will be key to its success.

It is clear that the planning system is stretched at present: the proposal to increase planning fees may therefore be prudent, but only if the increased funding is ring-fenced to improve service provision.  Discretionary charging for services already occurs in some authorities, however there must be a structure and an ability to rely on pre-application advice which is provided at cost. 

The idea of a land value tax upon allocation could be detrimental  to the delivery of development.  Similarly, calls for a levy, where allocated land or sites with consent are not being brought forward as originally programmed, is worrying.  The reasons for non-delivery will often be difficult to determine, and placing financial penalties on allocated sites would be counterproductive to stimulating development.  Similarly whilst mechanisms for unlocking land for development, including land assembly and upfront provision of infrastructure, should be investigated. 

It is clear that the culture change promoted in 2006 has been successful, but further change is required if we are to make the system fit for the future.  The establishment of a national infrastructure body would certainly create a stronger framework for infrastructure provision, as would reinforcing planning as a central function of a local authority.  It will be  interesting to read The Scottish Government’s response, which is expected before the summer recess.

 

 
 

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Catherine Thornhill

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