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News Analysis: Scottish planning system needs simplifying

Words: Laura Edgar
Scotland / Shutterstock_278587181

As part of the Scottish Government’s programme A Stronger Scotland, the country’s planning system is undergoing a “root and branch review”.

According to A Stronger Scotland (pdf), the review aims to “increase delivery of high-quality housing development by delivering a quicker, more accessible and efficient process”.

Organisations and individuals across Scotland have been asked for their views and an independent review panel has been established – minus a chartered planner.

So what do you think about the planning system and what should it to deliver? The Planner finds out.

Q1. What do you think are the key issues with the planning system and what needs improving?


Nicola Barclay, director of planning, Homes for Scotland: The number of houses currently being delivered falls far short of what is needed. 

The main areas that I would like the planning review to focus on are: streamlining the system; finding a solution to how we deliver the infrastructure that is required to service the houses; and ensuring that there are sufficient resources to deliver this new system. This is a big ask with shrinking resources within local authorities, but there are ways that they could work smarter.

Margaret Bochel, director, Burness Paull LLP: Planning needs to be given its place in local authority priorities, and resourced accordingly, including looking at how planning services are supported by other council services. It needs to have more power to facilitate the delivery of communities that people really want to live and work in. That means giving the public sector a much greater role in delivery, whether through land assembly or upfront provision on infrastructure, giving action plans more status, imposing penalties on all parties if sites aren’t delivered and requiring developers to focus on design quality.

David Stewart, policy lead, Scottish Federation of Housing Associations (SFHA): For the SFHA and housing associations, the planning review (and hopefully its outcomes) are closely tied up to the need for more quality affordable housing in Scotland. The Black Commission found that the need for housing in Scotland had reached a “crisis”, impacting on wellbeing, social justice, and the potential for sustainable economic growth. A recent study funded by SFHA, Chartered Institute of Housing, and Shelter quantified the level of need - finding that Scotland needs 12,000 new affordable rented homes a year for each of the next five years.

The planning review could potentially help deliver a solution, but only as part of a wider suite of measures - increased funding for affordable housing, funding for infrastructure provision, and work on land availability and land reform.

Q2. How radical is the review going to be and to what extent can it be radical?


Barclay: It will depend on how much legislative change they are willing to push through. I do believe that a lot could be done within the current system if there was greater co-ordination and sharing of best practice across the country. We do need a radical overhaul of how infrastructure providers interact with the planning system. The review panel must also look at how the whole system is funded. From increased planning fees for a fast-tracked service, to a strategic infrastructure fund to deliver the necessary schools, health centres and other community facilities required to help communities grow. They should look at long-term borrowing, with a 30-year payback period.

Pam Ewen, convenor, RTPI Scotland: The review could be as radical as government wished it to be. What we have to remember is our current system is good - it is not broken and therefore there are some major changes, game changes. That should be considered, but I don’t consider it’s a radical overhaul of the current system that’s needed.

Stewart: It is difficult to second-guess, but there has been a lot of discussion and debate and there seems to be appetite, for example, for local authorities and the public sector to play more of a hands-on role in larger developments (with the Dundee Waterfront often cited as an example of good practice). There needs to be realism though, about the role of planning and what it can achieve on its own. It is just one of a number of factors in delivering housing and development – there can be a danger of thinking that as long as there are lots of approvals for housing, then we can meet our targets. There are other issues, such as capacity in the building industry, funding for affordable housing and ownership of land that are just as important. It’s important to remember that prior to the last recession, the planning system was delivering relatively high numbers of housing.

Q3. What do you think works about the current system?


Bochel: The underlying principles of the planning system are fundamentally sound. The plan-led system provides a framework for decision-making and a degree of certainty for communities, developers and investors and should be retained. The need to think strategically and make decisions in the interests of the wider community, balancing often competing interests for the public good is core to the current system.

Katherine Sneeden, director, Jigsaw Planning: The changes introduced since 2009, together with the huge shift to online submissions, have made a significant positive impact on the way projects are processed and delivered. The availability of material online for planning history checks, policy documents etc, has speeded up the process in terms of advising clients on projects as well as informing members of the public.

Q4. What does Scotland need from its planning system? How can it better serve the needs of the country?


Barclay: Scotland needs a planning system that is simple to interact with, without multiple layers of process. It is no wonder that communities feel locked out of the system. If we have a clear steer within National Planning Framework about the numbers of housing that we need on a national and city region basis, we could remove Strategic Development Plans (SDP) from the process altogether. Replacing SDPs with Strategic Infrastructure Plans would identify all the infrastructure required to deliver the growth, and would allow the limited resources to be focused on delivery.

Bochel: Planning is fundamental to creating high-quality places with planning decisions impacting on the lives of every citizen every day. It provides the foundations for delivering all public sector services and needs to be recognised as such. To give that role credibility everyone in the development process must deliver, not just planners, and we must all be able to respond more quickly to ever-changing economic and social circumstances to continue to meet the needs of all sectors of our communities.

Ewen: Scotland needs a more simplified system to assist in achieving two key things: 1) Greater speed in the system, and 2) More of a focus on enabling deliverability of that growth. Scotland is a diverse country, and therefore there needs to be flexibility in any system to reflect the different needs across our diverse country.

Sneeden: The planning system needs to be all about certainty in terms of prospects for applicants, process for third parties and collaborative working from planning authorities. This review is an opportunity to again look at whether we are achieving this, and what can be done to improve it.

Stewart: I think the planning system can be part of a move to guide and promote development, by setting out where development should be and working to help achieve strategic goals and targets. New guidance on Housing Need and Demand assessment is a positive step. Achieving the overall objectives is partly about system reform, but resources are also important – if we are to meet our goals of significantly increasing the number of homes developed and reduce delays, then planning authorities need to be properly resourced.

• This is an extended version of the article that appeared in the December issue of The Planner.

Image credit | Shuttershock and iStock