“We will review the operation of the planning system in Scotland…”

Bob Reid, Planning Director at Halliday Fraser Munro, Advisor to the Land Reform Review Group and RICS Scotland Housing Commissioner, reflects on the Scottish Government Independent Review of Planning

It has all the hallmarks of a Woody Allen joke. “We don’t like the way you plan, but by the way could you do it quicker”.

Few of us working in Scotland would claim that the 2006 Planning Act has delivered on what it set out to achieve.  It may well have been introduced with great care and implemented with even greater gusto. Yet it is undeniable that adding layers to any regulatory system, no matter how subtle or nuanced, will just increase complexity. And that is precisely what the 2006 Act has done. Some of the measures even created additional time pressures.

If efficiency was the principal driver in 2006, we probably failed at the first hurdle. With hindsight it isn’t difficult to see how the legislation has come up short.  It would have been sensible to have removed some of the statutory planning tasks, if only to free-up planners to do ‘what is required’ more effectively. All we have done is kick-the-can down the road a while, in terms of the major issues we face, perhaps adding even greater justification for the current Review.

The terms of the review can be read on the RTPI Scotland website, and in a recent RTPI Scotland blog post.

So – setting out ‘what is required’ of the planning system must be the point of departure for this review. We know just how many place-based problems remain to be solved. But before we unpack that ambition it is also worth reminding ourselves about the scale of the resource at our disposal. There are circa 2200 planning professionals in Scotland of whom less than half work in local planning authorities (for comparison there are 5000 GPs, 11,000 solicitors, 8,000 civil engineers). Three planning schools in Scotland continue to educate up to a 100 planners a year. Whilst not necessarily the epi-centre of good urban practice (can anywhere really claim that?) we can at least boast of some excellent Scottish planning practice that is admired world-wide, in particular the legacy of Patrick Geddes.

The words “root and branch” were used by the First Minister when describing this Review – a phrase usually associated with cut backs as opposed to expansion. It is to the Scottish Government’s credit so far that they have avoided such implications. The brief for the Review clearly describes a set of ‘requirements’ and it must be the Review Panel’s job to work out how best to deploy Scottish planning effort, to deliver the changes deemed necessary. Some may even require an expansion of planning effort. Not all will require new legislation, though some amendment to Planning Acts may be necessary. Perhaps we’ll have a new Planning Act by 2020?

It should also be abundantly clear to the Review Panel that pressures for this Review are systemic and not simply specific to the 2006 Planning Act. Nor should any collective blame be solely aimed at planners or the planning system. Planning has become a political football and an easy target, a scapegoat even, for some of the wider systemic woes such as our housing and infrastructure issues. Much of this is unjustified. It is clear that systemic answers are needed, and not just about planning per se. But planning needs to be light-footed and keep up with any agenda for change if it wants to avoid those accusations of being a ‘drag anchor’.

The Scottish Government has been variously prompted and encouraged by a series of recent land, property and housing reviews. The Scottish Government has been receptive to all of these. The response could be characterised as a willingness to act. This Review is only part of its response – and tempting as it may seem to regard a ‘Review’ as the ‘political long grass’ – the planning profession should continue to engage positively.

So who is doing the prompting? And where should planners look to find this body of work?

The Land of Scotland and the Common Good” published by the Land Reform Review Group [LRRG -2014] addresses fundamental issues to do with land, including development and housing in Scotland.  It is a weighty tome of 260 pages and covers a wide set of recommendations to Government. Part Five “highlights…the need to facilitate and support more and better urban renewal and the need to provide sufficient housing to meet the needs of a changing Scottish population” [para 3 p119] The report goes on… “Land – and more precisely the interaction between how land becomes available, the price of land and the planning process – is central to both these issues, and urban renewal and delivering housing are, therefore, essential components of the current land reform agenda”.

The RICS Scotland Housing Commission [2014] followed on from the LRRG and from several other working groups.

The SHELTER Commission on Housing & Wellbeing [2015] is the most recent group to publish its conclusions and has picked up the threads from the various reports which preceded it.  The SHELTER Commission has firmly endorsed much of the earlier review work.  Of particular relevance is the endorsement of the following recommendations (I quote directly):

  1. The proposals of the RICS Commission and the Land Reform Review Group for a Scottish Land Corporation or Delivery Agency with powers to acquire, service and sell land on to developers should be carried forward.
  2. The proposals of the Land Reform Review Group for legislation to allow for compulsory selling orders, majority land assembly and land readjustment should be carried forward. (for more detail see the University of Glasgow Policy Scotland Blog)
  3. The proposals of the RICS Commission for improving the performance of planning authorities -including increasing the effective supply of land from five to ten years’ supply of land improving the training for planners and reviewing existing consents – should be implemented

The RTPI Scotland response to the Planning Review is available on the RTPI Scotland website. This response has been encapsulated in an RTPI Scotland Manifesto for the 2016 Scottish Elections “Planning in the Next Parliament: Building a Successful and Sustainable Scotland”.

Over the last 18 months I have attended many meetings in connection with the land and housing issues we face – where the need to double our present 14000 new homes per annum has been on the agenda. One would have thought the impossible was being asked. For a while ‘officialdom’ (unlike their political masters) has looked like the proverbial rabbit-in-the-headlights. Yet the reality of reaching 25,000 to 30,000 new homes per annum is not just realistic, it is absolutely necessary. Every year we fail to do this we are storing up more and greater problems for the future.  Average 2015 house price in Scotland is £200k and average salary is £26,500. It is a daunting mismatch in terms of the customary ratio of three and a half times your income being the maximum mortgage you could afford. How much does a young planner earn these days?

We’ve been in a housing crisis before, when many new homes were procured by the public sector though very few current planning practitioners were part of that experience. We built new towns and new suburbs, and I suppose we’ll have to get over any reticence about speaking of ‘Council Houses’. The fact remains that planners are well placed and have the key skill-set to successfully, affordably, sustainably plan for Scotland’s future population’s housing needs. This Planning Review is hopefully a step in that direction.

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