We are witnessing two trends in Scottish planning. On the one hand, government planning reforms are – quite rightly – urging the planning system and profession to create better places, play a more effective role in contributing to sustainable economic growth, and work more inclusively and collaboratively with communities and across different sectors.
The importance of planning has been underscored by Scottish Government’s Council of Economic Advisors, which has emphasised the role of planning and placemaking in supporting sustainable economic growth.
On the other hand, we are entering an era of massive public sector spending cuts. Local authority planning staff are being shed at a rate not seen for many years. This is only likely to accelerate as the UK government’s plan to reduce the country’s budget deficit begins to bite.
And with staff time being Councils’ primary resource in delivering their planning service (as opposed to money for projects), chopping staff numbers can have only one impact – reduced capacity in local authority planning services. Critically, how that axe is wielded will have a huge impact on the planning system’s ability to deliver on planning reform’s worthy aspirations – and we are already seeing different approaches being adopted in different local authorities.
A strong vision, embodied in a good development plan and good decision making, is at the core of an effective planning system. These things must come from local authorities. And having good, committed and motivated planners in local authorities is fundamental for success. The risk is that poorly conceived cuts can reduce planning to an administrative exercise, with an absence of vision, commitment and leadership to guide the future of our communities and places. This is a real risk: it is already happening.
aligning the trends
The planning profession, local government and central government urgently need to consider how to align the trajectories of the two trends I have mentioned – planning reform’s aspirations and the reduction in capacity brought about by spending cuts.
How can the government’s aspirations for planning be squared with local authority cuts? Or, put another way, how can we make sure that spending cuts are implemented not to jeopardise government aims of sustainable economic growth and better placemaking?
Planning is already widely criticised for acting as a brake on sustainable economic growth. Indeed, this was one of the spurs for planning reform over the last 10 years. The impact of public sector spending cuts that we are now seeing in local authorities is likely to make that brake rub even more, applying more drag and slowing economic growth – at precisely the time when the objectives of growth and planning reform are more important than ever.
These are not easy issues to deal with. Making planning work well in a time of swingeing budget cuts is a thankless task. But marginalising planners and planning is nihilistic. What we need to do is focus on the value that planning can bring by local authorities acting as the heart of the planning system.
the answer: cut regulation and be more proactive
In the spirit of planning reform, let’s focus those cuts on the regulatory and procedural elements of the planning authority’s function. Pare those down to the absolute minimum, and maximise the resources that can be devoted to the proactive, creative planning that can contribute to sustainable economic growth: setting visions for our communities, regenerating our town centres, improving access to opportunity in communities most in need, supporting economic activity in rural and urban areas alike – the things that can really make a difference.
I’m not suggesting a laissez-faire Thatcherite approach to public sector cuts, as was proposed in the 1985 White Paper “Lifting the Burden”. What I’m suggesting is re-focussing scarce resources on the positive, proactive and visionary aspects of planning.
This might seem counter-intuitive to hard-pressed local authority managers – cutting spending on their statutory role and boosting the non-statutory. But if planning is to emerge from the coming cuts as the visionary and positive force for change that it should be, we must avoid marginalising ourselves as administrators.