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08/09/2015

What's set to change in Scottish planning policy?

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As ministers prepare to review Scotland's planning system, Neil Gray, town planning partner with Rapleys LLP in Edinburgh, explains what changes might be in store for Scottish planning into 2016

Neil Gray of RapleysIt’s 10 years since the Scottish government last looked at planning reforms - with the Modernising the Planning System white paper. For some, the resultant Planning Etc. (Scotland) Act 2006 introduced widespread new legislative and procedural changes, but our system may already be creaking at the seams, prompting a flurry of activity in recent weeks.

In some areas of the system there is certainly room for improvement. Planning authorities are taking longer to make decisions on local and major planning applications. Disgruntled communities, who oppose plans for developments such as wind farms, find the appeals system a black hole. Town centres are declining as shiny new retail parks extend their offerings. The housing market continues to suffer the post-recession blues; homeless numbers are increasing and affordability, stock and new builds remain a key issue. Need we continue?

Back in the summer, the current Scottish minister for planning, Alex Neil, told us the likely areas of reform would be the current two-tier development plan system and housing delivery, which were, and still are, widely cited as causing unnecessary delays in the delivery of development projects across the country. It appears the Scottish government is keen to improve and streamline development planning and housing delivery.

"Planning authorities may need to be better resourced and additional, cost effective, technology and media could be necessary to digitise decision-making further"

With the Scottish Parliamentary elections coming up in May 2016 the dialogue on planning is firmly open, with changes on the horizon to tempt voters to the polls. So what might we be able to predict, or place a wager on, as we turn the planner’s corner on 2015 and look forward to 2016?

Just last week, Nicola Sturgeon announced: “a root and branch review of the planning system with a particular emphasis on increasing the delivery of high quality housing developments" as she presented A Stronger Scotland (PDF) the government's programme for Scotland 2015/16. That’s surely one area for planning reform. But does this go far enough, or will it have a (positive) effect on housing only?

What's in the programme?

The programme also announced reviews into the planning system more widely. It pledged to unlock new sites and deliver required infrastructure alongside ‘streamlining’ procedures and involving local communities in the decision-making process. All this while maintaining a focus on the protection of Scotland’s environment.

The focus is on delivering high quality housing, which is welcome, and the reference to ‘unlocking land and sites’ is interesting - but does this apply to green as well as brownfield sites?

Pledges to make the planning process “quicker, more accessible and efficient” will prove challenging. Planning authorities may need to be better resourced and additional, cost effective, technology and media could be necessary to digitise decision making further.

Another area for reform is the matter of infrastructure delivery. To inform the reforms, the Scottish government commissioned research into infrastructure delivery in summer 2015 to make the case for, and show the value of, linking investments in infrastructure with development - and vice versa. The research asked if infrastructure policy, allocation and investment have a long-term vision, effectively utilising masterplanning rather than ad hoc developments. It means exploring whether local authorities need to or can take investment from developers and make more effective use of its borrowing powers. It also prompts the question of how we can have upfront and upstream infrastructure - and use this to minimise risk for developers, investors and communities.

The idea to extend Scotland’s Enterprise Areas (EAs) scheme by three years to 2020 is also welcome, as this will further provide companies (particularly those that are science based) business rates relief and streamlined processes to deal with planning applications. This will speed up the planning system, but more could be done.

What needs to change?

An area that appears not to be on the reform agenda, however, is how sustainable development will be central to the delivery of the new reforms.

A Stronger Scotland discusses sustainable investment across infrastructure and human capital – areas in which the planning system can play a key role and may already offer some key tools. For example, Scottish Planning Policy that was reviewed in 2014, provides for planning decisions and development plan policies by considering the sustainable aspects of a project like the net economic benefits of development.

"We all wait with interest to see if the new plans will be quite as impactful as Nicola Sturgeon hopes, or whether we will have to go another ten years before we see real change"

To evolve this effectively, we need to carefully examine where new housing can be located to maximise sustainable development. This needs to cover questions such as, can we rely on brownfield? What role should town, city and village extensions play? Do we need new settlements? What role should the National Planning Framework have in facilitating and influencing this? What is the green belt’s future? Can we make more use of digital communication and media?

In 2005, The Deputy First Minister stated: “We have consistently said that our objectives for modernising planning are to make the system more efficient and to give local people better opportunities to participate in the decisions that affect them. This is what our modernisation of the planning system will deliver – a fairer, more balanced system.”

As we reflect on this decade old vision, perhaps the system is more modern (we don’t write many planning application forms anymore as online submission statistics show an increase year on year). However, we don’t think the system is more efficient as there remain delays and increasing uncertainty about both development plans and major planning applications (statistics currently show a lengthening delay). Finally, local people are still not getting better opportunities to participate in the decisions that affect them.

We may be in for a few changes, but we all wait with interest to see if the new plans will be quite as impactful as Nicola Sturgeon hopes, or whether we will have to go another ten years before we see real change and, hopefully, improvement.

Neil Gray is town planning partner with commercial property and planning consultants Rapleys LLP in Edinburgh


Read more: Scottish ministers confirm further planning reform is on the way

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