Planning reform afoot?

Jamie Grant highlights some surprises from the Scottish planning system review.

In September 2015, Scottish Ministers appointed an independent panel to review the Scottish planning system.

Its report 'Empowering Planning to Deliver Great Places' was published in May 2016, and Scottish Ministers published their response in July.

Despite a title that suggests another planning document with an urban housebuilding focus, the review looks well beyond this core topic. It assesses the structure of Scotland's approach to planning and the tools currently available against six foundation outcomes that the Government and the panel agreed define a successful planning system (see panel).

FOUNDATION OUTCOMES FOR A SUCCESSFUL PLANNING SYSTEM

  • Strong and flexible development plans
  • The delivery of more high quality homes
  • An infrastructure-first approach to planning and development
  • Efficient and transparent development management
  • Stronger leadership, smarter resourcing and sharing of skills
  • Collaboration rather than conflict - inclusion and empowerment

None of this feels particularly new, and in recent years best practice approaches to planning in all spheres have become notably more collaborative. However, the approaches that the report concludes are best for delivering these outcomes do contain a few surprises. 

The focus recently has been on regularly updated plans, but the report concludes that a longer, ten-year lifespan for Local Development Plans (LDPs) is more suitable to deliver desirable outcomes and efficient use of planning department resources. However to maintain relevance, flexibility to update plans should be introduced.

Development plan examinations and reporter involvement in the emergence of LDPs could be removed by a process of gate checking. 

The primacy of the development plan should be retained (although they should lean hard on Scottish Planning Policy to avoid repetition). However, structure plans should be chopped. To plug the gap this would leave, and aid uniformity in delivery, the National Planning Framework should be enhanced, integrating fully with government policy and strategies and effectively addressing region-wide infrastructure issues, including housing land delivery.

To facilitate this, new mechanisms should be established so that planning authorities can assemble land and provide infrastructure. This could be helped by a corporate structure requiring all key infrastructure providers to co-operate in delivering the local development plan. Such a structure would place a demand on local authorities and their partners to become much bolder in their approach to infrastructure investment. This could prove difficult with current human and capital resources.

Planning fees for major applications should be increased substantially to assist moving the service to full cost recovery. With such a commitment should also come greater performance. To aid this and to increase high quality decision making, some specialist areas of planning support (GIS, environmental assessment, conservation etc.) should be pursued under shared services.

There seems to be a rebalancing at play here. While local authorities appear to be getting more power, the stick to beat them with is also getting bigger and centralised oversight becomes far more significant. Perhaps this isn't unreasonable given the planning system's failure to deliver in some key areas, but the failures to deliver are as much about markets and funding as they are about systems.

Anyone working with planning authorities recently cannot help but feel they need far greater support before their under-resource starts becoming a significant barrier to economic development. In that regard, increased fees, if they are ring-fenced and associated with clarity and certainty in decision-making, do not seem unreasonable. We eagerly wait to see how the change will play out in the months and years ahead.