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How the Planning (Scotland) Bill is shaking up Holyrood

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The Planning (Scotland) Bill is producing levels of engagement by MSPs not seen since the early days of the Scottish parliament, says MSP and RTPI member Monica Lennon. This can only be good for democracy

Its transformative potential has been underestimated and underappreciated for too long, but something is happening in the Scottish Parliament that is putting planning higher up the political agenda.

When Kevin Stewart, the minister for planning and housing, recently addressed the RTPI Scotland conference he sounded relieved to be away from his regular weekly grilling at the Local Government and Communities Committee, where large chunks of his Planning Bill have been tossed aside and replaced with opposition amendments.

Steering the Planning Bill through Holyrood is not the smooth journey the Scottish Government had banked on. Without wishing any harm to the minister’s ego and blood pressure, this is a very good sign that our democracy is alive and well.

The Committee has engaged extensively with people and organisations who don’t normally have any influence over planning legislation, policy or key decisions. Their passion and energy is infectious and is having a positive effect on MSPs, who are breathing new life into a Bill that is devoid of purpose.

Opposition proposals have come forward on a diverse range of issues, including putting health considerations at the heart of planning, rescuing strategic planning, equalising the appeals system, agent of change, facilitating rural repopulation and giving children and young people new consultation rights.

"Parliamentarians are doing a lot of deep thinking about why we plan, what the purpose of a modern planning system ought to be and how this should operate in practice"

Parliamentarians are doing a lot of deep thinking about why we plan, what the purpose of a modern planning system ought to be and how this should operate in practice. We are doing this in the context of an unloved and inadequately resourced public planning service, that has seen a 23 per cent reduction in local authority planning staff since 2009.

So far, there are over 330 amendments to the Bill. Holyrood officials confirm this volume of amendments hasn’t been seen since the earliest years of the Scottish Parliament and close observers are finding the activity around the Bill to be remarkable.

Deadlines remain open so it’s still conceivable that many more amendments will surface. Five members of the Committee are responsible for a high number of these amendments and a further 18 MSPs have lodged proposals, too, bringing in views from the backbenches of all parties. Usually, somewhere between five and eight non-Committee MSPs lodge amendments to a Bill. By my quick calculation, almost one in five MSPs have made a mark on the Planning Bill and the scrutiny is far from over.

“By my quick calculation, almost one in five MSPs have made a mark on the Planning Bill and the scrutiny is far from over”

MSPs from across the political spectrum are showing a willingness to test ideas and actively participate in a Planning Bill that could shape the direction of planning for at least a decade. Whatever our differences, I believe we all want good things to happen in our own communities.

It’s tempting for politicians to be reactionary and take positions that we believe will make a difference in the short-term; however, there is a more vocal understanding of the long-term and lasting impacts of some planning policies and decisions, and I believe that’s why politicians are not prepared to sit back as can be the case when a bill is perceived as ‘technical’. This is proving to be a very emotive piece of work.

From my front row seat, I have witnessed MSPs put in long hours working with their constituents and other stakeholders to think about how we should address the big challenges facing our economy, our standards of living and the health of our climate. One of the most heated debates has been around equality and in particular the link between planning and gender equality. I’ve suggested the planning minister familiarise himself with the works of Professor Clara Greed because prominent women’s organisation Engender said in committee evidence that the Planning Bill’s equality impact assessment is particularly bad on gender.

MSPs believe that planning is pivotal to the future success of Scotland and the SNP minority government is choosing to learn the hard way that complacency and mediocrity won’t be tolerated.

I’ve written before in The Planner about my aspirations for Scotland to have a world-class planning system. Concessions will have to be reached as the Bill makes its way through Parliament, but there should be no compromise on the ambition to deliver world-class outcomes for the people of Scotland.

Monica Lennon MRTPI is a Member of the Scottish Parliament for the Central Scotland Region, representing the Scottish Labour Party

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