Make planning ahead the priority if you want to have a say in proposed developments

RTPI Scotland Convenor, Pam Ewen, writes on issues in community engagement in planning

There have been some unflattering and alarmist headlines on the planning system in Scotland.

The carbuncle awards took a swipe at the quality of some of Scotland’s places and buildings and there followed a suggestion by an alliance of heritage and environmental bodies that the system needs a “refresh” with the potential “creation of a body or process that is truly independent of government”.

Although these comments may be critical of how the planning system functions, they also highlight the vital role it plays. They illustrate that a democratic process that works with a range of interests to create great places for people is an imperative for a modern, forward-looking Scotland.

The Scottish planning system is held in high regard across the UK. A strong policy framework at national and local levels provides the context for decision making. We have an upfront approach to planning, where through strategic and local development plans, communities, organisations, investors, landowners and people of all ages can engage and influence how their place should look in the future.

Too often, attention focuses reactively at the planning application stage, when in fact the key principles in how major applications should be determined, and where development should and should not be located, is set out in development plans. The related engagement process provides for unresolved issues to be considered by an independent reporter. I believe this provides a clear, open, transparent and fair process for any interested parties to have their views considered.

Planning is about creating great places for people. It does this through providing vision on how best to shape our communities over the short, medium and long term. Planning isn’t about saying “no”; it is about implementing a positive vision of a sustainable future. Given this, the planning system has an important role to play in delivering the right developments in the right place at the right time whilst protecting the best of our built and natural heritage. There is a presumption in favour of development and more than 94 per cent of planning applications in Scotland are approved, thanks in large part to planners working with developers and communities to discuss and agree what’s best for the area.

Engaging communities in the discussion has been a core part of planning and the planning system for more than 40 years. The Royal Town Planning Institute Scotland believes that communities have a vitally important role to play in developing a vision for the future of places where they live, work or play. We believe that community engagement in planning works best when based around building a positive and holistic vision on the future of a street, neighbourhood or town, rather than a one-off reactive debate on a specific development.

It is more effective to invest time and resources in community engagement at the early stages of development plan preparation than introduce any new body or process. Increasingly imaginative and creative approaches are being used to engage communities that bring together all the interests in an area to discuss the opportunities, ambitions, challenges and constraints for future of a place.

Change is constant and planning is a way in which we can manage change. We need new homes across the country, new offices, industrial units and new sources of energy supply and infrastructure. These new developments and their related industries play an important role in growing the Scottish economy and providing jobs.

We should concentrate minds on how best to invest resources in planning and provide stronger leadership across both public and private sectors. This includes politicians. This is what will allow us better to protect and enhance our environment and manage the change to a low-carbon economy for the future.

This artilce was published in The Herald on 12 March 2015. You can see it at

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