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From ambition to reality: repositioning the Scottish planning system

Scotland is undergoing a comprehensive review of its planning system and the RTPI has three clear recommendations, as Kate Houghton explains

Planners in Scotland will be well aware of the significant review of the planning system that is under way. 

Following the wide-ranging inquiry and subsequent report of an independent panel the Scottish Government published a consultation paper, Places, People and Planning, in January 2017. The proposals included vary in their level of detail. Some are clearly outlined and the route to implementation is apparent. 

Others remain closer to ‘principles’ for change, and it is here in particular that RTPI Scotland has sought to lead the thinking on refining the ideas.  

To this end, we are publishing a series of ‘think pieces’, the first three are:

  •  A statutory chief planning officer in local authorities;
  •  Making an ‘infrastructure first’ approach a reality; and
  •  Making local place plans work – collaboration rather than conflict.

"This visionary and collaborative approach is particularly wanting in infrastructure delivery in Scotland"

A statutory chief planning officer in local authorities proposes just that. Structural changes in local authorities over the past decade have often meant a lack of the proper consideration of the spatial implications of corporate investment. Inspired by the precedent of chief social work officers and chief education officers, the chief planning officer post would introduce duties for consultation with the planning service. 

This could help to integrate corporate strategies, including local outcome improvement plans, with local development plans (LDPs). The duties could be applied to an existing post and need not impose extra costs on local authorities. The post could deliver big benefits by helping to reposition planning from a primarily regulatory function to the powerful visionary and collaborative tool we know it to be.

This visionary and collaborative approach is particularly wanting in infrastructure delivery in Scotland. Across the country development is frequently stalled because the infrastructure – transport, education, health – needed to support it is not being delivered. To overcome this challenge the Scottish Government has voiced its support for an infrastructure first approach to development. 

"A major theme of the planning review is more positive engagement of communities in planning"

Making an infrastructure first approach a reality proposes a two-pronged process – a national mechanism with responsibility for auditing national infrastructure needs, and overseeing the delivery of these needs (including through informing a new enhanced National Planning Framework or National Development Plan) would be established. Additionally, a new non-local infrastructure levy is called for. This could fund some national priorities, as well as regional priorities identified by the proposed Regional Planning Partnerships. 

A major theme of the planning review is more positive engagement of communities in planning. There is a particular focus on how to link up other policy initiatives, including community empowerment and community planning, with spatial planning. Places, People and Planning proposes the introduction of local place plans – spatial plans prepared by local communities – in theory not dissimilar to English neighbourhood plans. 

But making local place plans work considers how community-led spatial planning could succeed in the very different Scottish context. There is widespread support for greater community involvement in spatial planning, but there are concerns that introducing a new tier of statutory plans will be a resource demand too far on critically stretched planning departments.

We propose supporting the preparation of local place plans in ‘priority areas’, defined as those identified through community planning-led local outcome improvement plans, and ‘areas of major change’ as identified in LDPs. 

At the time of going to press two more think pieces are in the pipeline. The first synthesises an updated plan-making process accounting for the changes to LDPs proposed in Places, People and Planning. The second takes a twin-pronged approach to the housing challenge: regionally defined targets for housing delivery to be included in the NPF, and stronger local delivery programmes to implement those ambitions. 

Kate Houghton is policy and practice officer for the RTPI in Scotland 

Find out more

The think pieces, and the rest of RTPI Scotland’s input to the planning review, can be read on the RTPI website.

Follow us on Twitter for updates @RTPIScotland

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