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Why Scotland’s planning review could dampen community voices

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Aedán Smith, convener of the Scottish Environment LINK Planning Group, explains why Scotland's planning review could dampen community voices.

The planning bill being scrutinised in Holyrood is the culmination of two years of work to review the Scottish planning system.

Scottish ministers’ aim was to “achieve a quicker, more accessible and efficient planning process in order to build investor and community confidence in the system”. The review involved extensive consultation and stakeholder engagement, for which the ministers should be commended. But despite a promising start, the bill’s first draft has been criticised and will need significant changes if the original aim is to be achieved.

It might make planning quicker – but only by removing vital consultation and environmental checks; e.g. the bill would stretch the National Planning Framework (NPF) and development plan cycles from five to 10 years, at a stroke cutting consultation opportunities in half. It would then merge national Scottish planning policy and regional strategic development plans into the NPF and make the NPF part of the development plan.

This would remove two more distinct consultation stages, and increase ministers’ powers to set the development framework. It would also remove supplementary planning guidance, often used for local environmental policies, and introduce ‘simplified development zones’, which would grant consent for specified developments up front (including in protected areas).

Perhaps most worryingly, the bill would delete main issues reports (currently the most important development plan consultation stage, whereby communities get a chance to consider different options for how their area might develop) and replace them with an undefined but much lighter touch, technocratic ‘evidence report’.

Each of these stages requires environmental assessment. Their loss would also mean a big reduction in scrutiny through strategic environmental assessment, an area where Scotland has so far led the rest of the UK. Nor does the bill seem to consider introducing even the most limited appeal rights for communities.

"If the bill’s aim is to build community confidence, modernisation of the unequal appeal process is urgently required"

If the stated central purpose is “to focus government and public services on creating a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth”, then applicants for planning permission can’t continue to be given an automatic right to begin a review of a refusal while no other party has a right to instigate a review if a plan is granted.

Aedán Smith MRTPI is convener of the Scottish Environment LINK Planning Group

Image credit | Shutterstock


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