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Carrot or stick?

Words: Huw Morris
Derek Mackay

A controversial Scottish Government proposal to slash funding to poor performing planning authorities cuts to the heart of the debate of how to raise standards.

No-one condones poor planning performance but how to tackle it is generating much heat in Scotland. It all boils down to the familiar debate of whether to use a carrot or a stick.
First the carrot. The Scottish Government has increased planning fees by a whopping 20 per cent. With more resources in the system, Scottish planning minister Derek Mackay believes now is the time to get serious about performance. 
Hence the stick. Under a proposal in the Regulatory Reform Bill, Scottish ministers will introduce a “penalty clause” to allow them to alter planning fees for authorities they consider have not performed satisfactorily.
Mackay is a firm believer that the penalty clause will drive standards. Ironically, he told a Scottish Parliament economy, energy and tourism committee meeting in September: “if I were a council leader – which I was – I would probably not like the mechanism”. However, it will improve “behaviour and outcomes, and there will be no loss of income because planning authorities will step up to the plate”.
RTPI director of Scotland and Ireland Craig McLaren disagrees, saying “it will be counter-productive to withdraw funding from planning authorities that need to improve”. Use incentives not penalties and reward good performance, he argues.

"Effective planning is about creating positive sustainable outcomes for our communities"

How the Scottish Government will assess whether a planning authority has “passed” or ‘failed” is unclear. McLaren says there is no indication of the timeframes for measuring performance.
“Are planning authorities to be assessed over a year or a number of years? Does the assessment need to show a continued trend before ministers intervene? It would be unthinkable that an education service would have its budget cut because of failure to meet national standards of educational attainment. Given this, we feel that it is imperative that a national continuous improvement programme, including a knowledge portal, should be put in place, involving all players in the planning system.”
Convention of Scottish Local Authorities development, economy and sustainability spokesperson Stephen Hagan says the proposal fails to recognise the complexity of planning and that its performance often depends upon others.
“Planning relies on the interaction of a range of stakeholders: the applicant, national agencies, and local communities, as well as the planning authority,” he says.
“Effective planning is also not just about time taken to reach decisions. It is about creating positive sustainable outcomes for our communities. Already 93 per cent of planning applications are approved. The penalty clause would only serve to increase financial uncertainty in a local authority’s funding arrangements. Our view is that planning fee levels which are being kept at a level below England’s are still not adequate to cover costs of the service.”
So what are the alternatives? Malcolm MacLeod, chair of Heads of Planning Scotland (HOPS), says his organisation is working with the Scottish Government on planning performance frameworks. “We need to make sure these are used as a clear record of quality of planning decision-making, as well as speed of delivery.” HOPS is also working on performance standards that can be reached through best practice and benchmarking. “That is our preferred approach obviously, without the need for any penalty.”
Emma Hay, senior project manager at the Improvement Service, says HOPS’s frameworks are “a good starting point for understanding the components of a high-quality planning service and taking targeted action to continuously improve”. The Improvement Service offers a national skills development programme for staff and members, covering leadership and technical skills.
“People are at the heart of high-quality public services and with the right support a lot can be achieved,” she adds. “Naturally this needs resources, be it effective use of current resources or additional resources.”