The Planning Review – Effective Development Planning?

In a guest blog, Dorothy McDonald, Assistant Manager of Clydeplan, discusses issues raised by the planning review in taking forward development plans 

RTPIImage_17People seem to like our tiered system of development planning. You know, the triangular hierarchy of NPF, SDP and LDPs through to development management decisions. It make good theoretical sense and others including academia, and those down south, Celtic colleagues in Wales and Ireland, and those in Europe and further afield, must look at that diagram and think that this small nation of ours has really got things sussed. Indeed some are seeking to emulate that system.

However the review panel and others, question the efficacy of the system particularly in relation to delivering development.

The most recent thinking, within the draft planning and delivery advice and the review recommendations, aims to shift the focus of development planning from preparation and policy, to infrastructure, delivery and outcomes. This is commendable and supported by all of us with an interest in the creation of great places for people.

  • The review recommends that NPF (and SPP) are to be enhanced and possibly integrated, to include setting regional housing targets for local development plans (R2, R4, R12). NPF is also to provide a clearer vision for infrastructure investment and development across the city regions which links more directly to relevant delivery and investment programmes. It is also recommended that Planning and Architecture division should be recognised as a leader and co-ordinator of the place agenda within the Scottish Government and resourced to reflect this. (R36)
  • SDPs are to be removed from the system, replaced by an enhanced NPF, however SDPAs are to be “repurposed” to support housing delivery, to coordinate cross boundary thinking to inform local development plans, to play a crucial role within a new national infrastructure agency and to be given a statutory duty to cooperate with the Scottish Government in producing the NPF. (R2, R17)
  • LDPS are to focus on place, be based on community led locality plans, avoid policy duplication, include a clear schedule of infrastructure costs and move from plan preparation to plan implementation within a longer term cycle. (R23, R44)

And for all tiers of the system, planning services should aspire to become leaders and innovators within the context of public service reform. R36.

There is room for improving the effectiveness of development planning however, part of the issue I would suggest, is related to an occasional misunderstanding of roles. In one sense, the system of development plans does not actively do anything other than confer on the planning authority the ability to grant planning permission to land and we can all cite any number of examples of where Planning Permission has been granted and never implemented. Thereafter their locus and influence on both delivery and infrastructure is very light.

Where development planning can and often does plays a strong role, is in working collaboratively with delivery partners including other services, the key agencies, communities and the development industry.

To effect real bite to development planning activities and the translation to outcomes, the scope of the review recommendations rightly goes beyond the current remit of development planning teams (national, strategic and local) and into wider territory of government and service delivery.

So effective development plans.

Yes let’s have an effective policy context that has more clarity and bite. For example regional housing targets which are clear, have buy–in, and can therefore be unambiguously translated into local development plans. And yes, less duplication of policy and more place based plans. This will lead to more certainty, clarity, community involvement and a smoother ride for planning applications.

But effective development plans…that deliver.

Yes but this will continue to present challenges unless planning teams are resourced, skilled, and constituted in an appropriate manner. A number of the review recommendations may assist including those that call for greater alignment of development planning with wider government strategies and corporate services; more commitment from chief executives; and the need for a corporate structures requiring key infrastructure providers to co-operate in delivering plans.

On resources however, as we know planning services account for 0.63% of local authority budgets, and many development planning teams, certainly all of the strategic planning teams, are constituted and resourced primarily to prepare the Plan. In budgetary terms, the Planning and Architecture Division is also a small player within government.

Irrespective of this limitation, the ambitions of development planners remain high and the need for further culture change to improve working practices within planning authorities is important. In that respect the review recommendations which highlight the central and coordinating role that planning should play within public service delivery, assist with imbuing confidence within the profession. Culture change is however a two way street and others, including corporate and community planning, and the development industry, also require to work with the development plan.

In relation to the regional tier specifically, the review panel acknowledge the value of planning at a city-region scale saying that the city-region remains a critical scale for planning. However they question the impact of SDPs, and consider that collaboration and co-ordinated action are now more important than production of a plan. They therefore recommend that SDPAs are repurposed to pioneer a different way of working where planners proactively co-ordinate development with infrastructure delivery at the city-region scale and suggest deletion of SDPs.

Whilst I broadly agree with the sentiment that development planning activity should be more positively and proactively orientated (“repurposed”), within all tiers of the system, I do not agree with the final conclusion to delete SDPs. The value of planning at the city region scale will only be fully realised when aligned with more effective regional governance involving coordination of land use, transport, the economy, housing, infrastructure and City Deals, and in that context a regional planning strategy seems even more important to ensure the alignment of strategies, land use and delivery. And I am not alone in saying that! (Review of the Strategic Development Plans in Scotland, 2014)

Personally, a good result from this would be: publication of the advice on planning and delivery; enhanced clarity within development plans such as in relation to housing targets (which has been emerging as the new system has been bedding in and maturing post 2006 Act); invigorated activity around Action Programmes; renewed recognition of the importance of planning within government; and an undertaking to consider the systemic changes that are required to support delivery and outcomes, which is likely to extend across government services and potentially into local government reform.

Finally let’s all remember that when this planning system of ours is being asked to deliver more development of better quality, this is within the context of a prolonged recessionary period, combined now with a Brexiting Britain, all of which has effected confidence within all sectors but particularly within construction, retail and development sectors. Send for reinforcements!

These are the views of the author.


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