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Scotland needs to get on with the job

The introduction of an enhanced National Planning Framework may seem a minor change to the Scottish planning system, but it could have widespread effects, argues Anthony Aitken.

Empowering Planning, the independent report suggesting ways in which the planning system can be improved to help meet Scotland’s housing needs, may have a few unwelcome recommendations among its 48 points. But it also contains a crucial change that can reinvigorate home building, and its timing cannot be faulted.

It has landed on Scotland’s new communities secretary Angela Constance’s desk just a month after the new Holyrood cabinet took office, following a campaign in which politicians of most hues talked of the need to tackle the housing crisis.

One recommendation in particular offers the key to reforming a planning system which in some parts of the country has broken down entirely.

The authors of Empowering Planning suggest the introduction of an enhanced National Planning Framework. This may seem a minor change, but it offers the key for Holyrood to take on responsibility for allocating home building requirements. This will bring the subject into the parliamentary debating chamber and allow the politicians who have promised to deliver much-needed homes to act, or be held accountable.

Since their introduction a few years ago, Scotland’s National Planning Frameworks have grown in authority, thanks to a healthy level of consultation.

“The system should not have to rely on the goodwill of councillors when everyone agrees that homes are needed”

It is now time for an enhanced version to take over from the regional strategic plans, which currently act as a middle layer between government policy and the planning authorities that apply the system. Too often, this regional level has acted as a forum for obstruction by those authorities unwilling to find the space for much-needed housing.

So endless is the argument between Edinburgh City Council and the strategic authority that frustrated developers are effectively having to use the appeals system as a recourse for obtaining consent to build homes and industrial units. This is happening in what everyone agrees is a growing city that needs to expand its stock of both.

Other local authorities have been more welcoming of development – but the system should not have to rely on the goodwill of councillors when everyone agrees that homes are needed.

By replacing the system of regional strategic plans with a national framework enforced from the top, the Scottish government can drive the system in a much more proactive manner. That would be good news for thousands of Scottish households who can’t find a suitable home, and developers who are keen to get on with building them.

Anthony Aitken is head of planning with Colliers International


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