Craig McLaren, National Director of RTPI Scotland, examines the implications of the proposed penalty clause for poorly performing planning authorities
RTPI Scotland has given evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee on the proposal contained in the Regulatory Reform Bill to introduce a ‘penalty clause’ that will enable Scottish Ministers to alter planning fees for those planning authorities that they consider are not, or have not, performed satisfactorily.
From the outset it is important to say that RTPI Scotland does not condone poor performance. We share the aspirations of Scottish Government, and others, for improved performance and resourcing of the planning system. Our mission is to promote the art and science of planning for the benefit of the public which inherently means that we aim to ensure that the performance of planners is exemplary. We believe that a properly resourced planning system, working within the right framework, is key to achieving ambitions for sustainable development, economic growth and successful places across Scotland. However we do not support the proposed clause.
We are of the view that a consistently excellent planning system can only be delivered through continuous improvement which, amongst other things, involves support for poorer performing planning authorities to learn from those that are performing well. We do not think that the proposal will work for a number of reasons.
Firstly, it would be counterproductive to withdraw funding from planning authorities that need to improve. We feel that Scottish Government should seek to incentivise rather than penalise and look to reward good performance. It would be unthinkable that an education service, for example, would have its budget cut because of failure to meet national standards of educational attainment. Given this, we feel that it is imperative that a national continuous improvement programme, including a knowledge portal, should be put in place, involving all players in the planning system.
Secondly, it is currently unclear how Scottish Government will assess whether a planning authority has ‘passed’ or ‘failed’. How will Scottish Ministers judge when they, to quote the Bill, “are satisfied that the functions of the authority are not being, or have not been, performed satisfactorily”. There is currently no indication of the timeframes that are to be considered for measuring performance – are planning authorities to be assessed over a year or a number of years? Does the assessment need to show a continued trend before Ministers intervene? What indicators are to be used? What role is there for the new Planning Performance Framework developed by Heads of Planning Scotland?
Thirdly, there is a danger that measuring performance will not recognise the complexity of situation and the number of players involved and not take account of the fact that the performance of a planning authority is dependent upon others, including planning applicants, Statutory Consultees and other parts of local authorities. And there is a concern that the performance indicators chosen may focus on the development management aspects of the planning system, given that they are often seen as the ‘front face’ of planning service. This would be unfortunate given ambitions to promote a plan-led system.
And finally, varying planning fees between authorities could potentially cause huge confusion. It would run counter to any move to simplify and unify and could potentially cause huge confusion across the industry. Applicants often cite the need for the planning service to provide certainty and predictability. This proposal, if implemented, may make this more difficult.
RTPI Scotland is of the view that the proposals contained in the Regulatory Reform Bill on varying planning fees are not necessary. However, if Ministers are still minded to take this forward these proposals they must ensure that:
- the performance criteria are clear, measurable, evidence-based and outcome-focused and examined within the context of the newly adopted Planning Performance Framework
- the assessment of a planning authority’s performance is independent and professional and undertaken by a capable organisation with individuals that have an in-depth knowledge of planning and the planning system.
- the process should involve an assessment that works towards constructive and continuous improvement
- there is a clear, staged process undertaken which includes opportunities for the planning authority and Scottish Government to discuss issues raised from the audit and to agree improvements to be made.
- the assessments are taken forward within a national continuous improvement programme, which provides the opportunity for planning authorities to mentor one another, to share good practice and innovation, to shadow one another and to share experiences.
- performance improvement strategies bring together all sectors to ensure that they are all aware of one another’s needs and perspectives.