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the modernisation of Scottish planning | does it go far enough?

Unlocking Planning’s Potential: Scottish Government publication

This article was published in the Winter 2009 edition of Urban Realm magazine. If you’re interested in a succinct summary of the main elements of current Scottish planning reform, read on.

For much of the planning profession, August 3rd 2009 was a big day. It marked the start of a new system for handling planning applications across Scotland – a change that is likely to impinge on anybody who reads Urban Realm.

The changes that took place on August 3rd are just part of wider planning reforms that are being introduced by the Scottish Government. Earlier in 2009, the Government overhauled the two tier “development plan” system of Structure Plan and Local Plans. This 30 year old system is being replaced by Strategic Development Plans (in and around Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee) and Local Development Plans (throughout Scotland). But more than just the names are changing – local authorities are being pushed to prepare their plans faster and more frequently.

August 3rd saw the introduction of a series of new regulations relating to “development management” – previously referred to as “development control”, and renamed by the Government in an apparent attempt to make it sound more benign. The main changes relate to how planning applications, appeals and enforcement are handled. I’ll explain those in more detail later in this article.

culture change

There is another dimension to the Government’s reforms – culture change. Many people regard this as the most fundamental element of the planning reforms. It is about changing the behaviour of everyone who is involved in planning – local authorities, the planning profession, consultees, architects, developers, local communities and anybody else who comes into contact with planning. The basic point is that legislation alone cannot make planning better. What is needed, we are told, is a more “can do” culture amongst throughout the public, private and voluntary sectors. We should all behave responsibly and maturely, and be more understanding and respectful of each other’s roles in the planning system.

Personally, I believe that culture change is fundamental – particularly in the private and public sectors. But I don’t think it will be straightforward. Changing people’s habits is never easy. Nor do I believe that sufficient effort is being made for culture change really to take root as widely and deeply as it needs to. (Have you heard about culture change? Are you clear what you need to do to change things?)

All this talk of change begs the question how exactly does the Government intend to make planning “better”? What is the point of these reforms?

There are two basic aims. Firstly, to make the planning system more efficient and fit for purpose – so that planning helps sustainable economic growth, rather than hinders it as is frequently claimed. And secondly, to make planning more inclusive, with the aim of enabling local people to be more involved in decision making about their communities. Since the change of government in 2007, there are subtle signs that the efficiency agenda is perhaps being given slightly more emphasis.

development management

So much for the broad sweep of what planning reform is meant to be about. What of the detail?

I will focus here on the new development management regulations which came into force on August 3rd 2009. What follow are the bare essentials. My purpose is to give you an outline of the new system without losing you in the detail. For that, visit www.scotland.gov.uk/planning.

The new system contains a number of basic ingredients. Much of the change focuses around the development hierarchy. This is a completely new concept in Scotland. For the first time, development proposals are divided into National, Major and Local developments.
National developments are defined in the National Planning Framework. There are a dozen or so – including a high speed rail link to London, the Replacement Forth Crossing and the 2014 Commonwealth Games facilities.

Major developments are anything else which is over certain thresholds laid down in law. These developments will be fairly substantial – for example, over 2 hectares or 50 housing units, 10,000 square metres of industrial floorspace, or 5,000 square metres of retail floorspace. For these Major developments, an entirely new requirement for “Pre-Application Consultation” is being brought in. You will have to hold at least one public event before a Major application is submitted. Critically, you are required by law to formally notify the planning authority 12 weeks before the application is submitted. Take note, project managers!

Local developments – which will be the majority of planning applications – will largely be determined by planning officers, more so than before. One of the most controversial elements of the new legislation is that refusals of Local applications will no longer have the right of appeal to a government Reporter. Instead, unsuccessful applicants can ask for a “review” of the planning officer’s decision by their Local Review Body – which will be composed of a small group of local Councillors. This is really an appeal by another name. The controversy centres on the independence of these Local Review Bodies. Will they really act as an independent review body? Or will they be tempted simply to rubber-stamp their planning officer’s decision?

A general point about planning appeals and “reviews” is that proposals can no longer be changed once the appeal has been submitted, nor can further information be put forward once the appeal or review has been lodged. This means that you have to prepare your case upfront, when the planning application is submitted to the planning authority. It’s also worth bearing in mind that you will only have 3 months to submit an appeal or review, not 6 months as before.

There are plenty of other changes too. Enforcement has been given a thorough shake-up; appeals procedures have changed in other ways; a nationwide “eplanning” programme has gone live for the submission of planning applications online; from 2010, more small developments like house extensions will be exempt from applying for planning permission – and many other things too. Check out www.scotland.gov.uk/planning if you want to find out more.

the backdrop

Don’t forget that the backdrop to all these changes is efficiency, inclusiveness and culture change. The changes to development planning – faster and more frequent Strategic Development Plans and Local Development Plans – are an important part of the government’s strategy for that. All built environment professionals, not just planners, will be expected to pay more attention to these development plans and get more involved in their preparation.

Now you know why August 3rd 2009 was a big day for the planning profession – as well as architects and other built environment professionals. Whether August 3rd should have been a big day for planners is another question entirely. Why? Because I can’t help but think that it indicates just how much we have become defined by legislation and bureaucracy, rather than the creative side of planning. But that’s another story.


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