Review of the Planning System: what should we wish for?

RTPI Scotland’s Senior Vice Convenor, Nick Wright, gives a personal view of the Review of the Planning System.

The Scottish Government’s Review of the Planning System is a great opportunity to make planning work better for the country. Here are six ideas from my experience:

1. More engaging development plans

The Scottish Government hit the nail on the head in the latest Programme for Government: planning needs to be quicker, more accessible, more efficient and better at enabling high quality new development to be delivered on the ground.

Combining better community engagement with delivering more development is always a challenge – simply because some developments are not welcomed by some people. For me, better community engagement is not necessarily about more community engagement, but about doing it better.

This year’s overall winner of the Scottish Awards for Quality in Planning, Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park Authority for their LIVE Park Main Issues Report engagement, demonstrates that better engagement on plan-making really can help produce better plans. This excellent short video explains how they have changed how planners engage with the public: leading discussion, providing accessible information (see also these practical ideas from Planning Democracy) and – fundamentally – thinking from the public’s point of view.

I know from working with them that Loch Lomond style engagement doesn’t need to cost any more money; it’s about thinking and doing things differently. Scotland has an excellent development planning system. We just need to better use the tools we have to support engagement and delivery together.

For engagement to support delivery, we as planners need to be clear with the public about what they can and cannot influence, moving away from black-and-white discussions about whether people want or don’t want new development. In my experience those discussions tend to end up in confrontational dead-ends that benefit nobody (except the planning consultants and lawyers employed by either side).

2. Call for Sites: an uncomfortable bolt-on that needs to change

The Call for Sites stage before Main Issues Reports is an uncomfortable bolt-on. It does not sit well with the original spirit of the Main Issues Report not to be a draft plan but an exploration of spatial options (see Circular 6/2013 paragraph 67).

If we can find a better way of assessing potential development sites that complies with Strategic Environmental Assessment requirements, we should abandon Call for Sites. They directly limit the ability to have mature discussion about how our towns and cities should function and operate in the future, instead driving the debate to NIMBY/YIMBY confrontations about covering the countryside with houses and wind turbines.

If Calls for Sites cannot be abandoned for legal reasons, let’s encourage proper discussion about the future of our urban areas by expanding them into ‘Calls for Sites and Ideas’. Then they won’t just be about developers putting forward new housing sites, but encouraging everybody in a local community to put forward ideas about how their place could improve in the future.

3. Linking with Community Planning: focussing on place

There’s already much good work being done to implement the Scottish Government’s aim of better integrating statutory Community Planning and spatial land-use planning. Nationally, RTPI Scotland and PAS have separately been working with the Scottish Government and local authorities to draw out practical lessons and guidance for all Community Planning Partnerships. More outputs from that should be published in the coming months.

Locally, a number of Community Planning Partnerships are pioneering better integration of Community Planning and land use planning. To take one example, Angus Council has restructured much of its service delivery around People and Place and is using a series of charrettes to set new agendas for its town centres.

Town planning, street design and public spaces will be an important part of delivering better town centres, but they are not the starting point. How people use the town centre, how businesses could perform better and how the town centre could become a focus for more activity is the starting point. Agendas for change could include anything from how parks are maintained to charging regimes for the leisure facilities; planning and urban design need to slot into that bigger picture.

Local Development Plans have their part to play by integrating more effectively with Community Plans – effectively becoming the place-based delivery plans at the local level, an approach that East Ayrshire and Highland are developing.

4. Using Strategic Development Plans to deliver infrastructure

At the last shakeup of the planning system in 2006, regional strategic plans (which previously covered every part of Scotland) were reduced in scope to just the four main city regions, and became known as Strategic Development Plans. Do we still need them?

If Scotland is serious about its cities being engines of growth, as was highlighted by a government minister earlier this week, supporting infrastructure needs to be properly planned. That is where Strategic Development Plans, coupled with a more forward looking National Planning Framework, could really add value. By linking future infrastructure investment, the emerging City Deals and planning policy, Strategic Development Plans should be seen as the focus for delivering co-ordinated urban and economic growth at the city region level – similar to Local Development Plans being the delivery plan for Community Planning.

But that means that Strategic Development Plans need to be given a stronger role amongst the network of Scottish Futures Trust Hubs, City Deals, Community Planning Partnerships and all the other organisations involved in delivering infrastructure.

Without more effective strategic planning, the risk for our city regions is that infrastructure investment is slower, un-coordinated and fails to give the certainty that private sector investors need to make the most of its potential.

5. Streamlining the planning application process

The application process needs to be leaner. Processing planning application has become much more complicated over the 20 years since I started work as a planner doing that very job. The process needs to be mapped and any unnecessary stages stripped out. But let’s not go down the line of automatic refusals after a certain time period.

Also, the consents needed for a development to take place need to be looked at in the round: planning, building control, licencing, environmental health. This came up strongly in the Scottish Government’s Fraser Review of town centres in 2011, which highlighted how the complexity of consents for, say, a new cafe creates an expensive, time-consuming barrier to start-up businesses.

This issue still needs to be addressed if we are to make it easier for new businesses to create jobs and animate our towns and cities. How can planning applications and all the other necessary consents be brought together in a single consenting process? Recent experiements such as Simplified Planning Zones in Hillington Park industrial estate (Glasgow) and Renfrew town centre need to understood and rolled out nationally.

6. Reporters should be mediators, not judges

The role of the Scottish Government’s Directorate for Planning and Environmental Appeals (DPEA) should be reviewed. Removing responsibility for local decision-making to central government, such as Reporters ruling on development plans, isn’t compatible with the Scottish Government’s community empowerment agenda. I believe Reporters should become mediators: facilitating local parties (the local authority and others) come to a decision that they all agree on and take ownership of, rather than imposing an external decision on them.

And why not apply mediation to planning appeals too? The government has led much discussion about the use of mediation in planning over the years (see this Guide for example), but we’ve never bitten the bullet. Mediation is increasingly common amongst the legal profession, so why can planning not go the same way? Now is a great opportunity to apply the spirit of the government’s community empowerment agenda to disputes in the planning system. And if the parties in dispute can’t sort out their differences amongst themselves with the Mediator’s help, the courts will continue to be there as the last resort.

And finally…

The Scottish planning system is far from broken, but it could work much better. I’ve suggested half a dozen ideas to make that happen. You might have different ideas. Feel free to share ideas with RTPI Scotland and others.

This blog post also appears on Nick’s personal blog. Follow it here.

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