5 important things that happened in Scottish Planning in 2016

RTPI Scotland Director Craig McLaren looks back at the important things that have happened in Scottish planning in 2016

It has been an incredibly busy year for planning in Scotland in 2016, especially given the ongoing planning review, a Scottish election and debates on providing more housing. We saw Royal Assent given to the Land Reform Act in April which has implications for  planning; secondary legislation and guidance was rolled out from the Community Empowerment Act; the e-development portal went live; a range of events and exhibitions celebrated the Festival of Architecture; and events like the World Towns Congress brought people  from across the world to Edinburgh in June. Here are, in my view some of the key things that happened, in no particular order.

1. The Planning Review 

The biggest thing in Scottish Planning in 2016 has undoubtedly been the ongoing planning review. 2016 saw the publication of the independent panel’s report, which was widely welcomed. RTPI Scotland especially welcomed the tone of the report and many of the ambitions it contained. In July Scottish Ministers accepted the report’s recommendations in their entirety and announced that a planning white paper was to be published before the end of the year, followed by a Planning Bill in 2017. Scottish Government began the process of fleshing out the detail of the recommendations through a series of working groups and new research. Although this was done within very tight time frames it created a buzz around planning that has helped instigate new thinking and ideas. Scottish Government has to be commended on the inclusive way they have taken this forward throughout the year.

2. The Scottish Election

The 2016 Scottish Election brought in a SNP minority government and a large number of new MSPs. RTPI Scotland had set out its stall with our manifesto containing 7 ‘asks’ of a new government including a commitment to providing a home for everyone who needs one. Housing became a key part of the campaign and manifestos and the new government has said it will work to provide 50,000 affordable homes over the 5 years of the Parliament.  This was followed up in the December budget which reconfirmed £3 billion of funding to support it.  There appears to be a real interest in planning amongst MSPs – we have met with over 20 of them in the year.

3. A New Minister 

The election brought a Ministerial reshuffle with Kevin Stewart taking on the role of Minister for Housing and Local Government, a portfolio that included planning. However, let us not forget the contribution that Alex Neil made as Cabinet Secretary covering planning in the first quarter of the year in supporting the planning review and constructively challenging planners – and others – to maximise the potential of the system. Kevin Stewart has continued to take this forward and has a firm grasp of his brief as we move towards the publication of the new consultation document that will shape our future planning system. He has carved out time for dealing with planning issues and talking to people about what can be done.  RTPI Scotland has been involved with a number of meetings and forums he has chaired or been involved in and where he has shown a keen interest in the issues and a real desire to hear about solutions to them.

4. City Deals 

The year has seen commitments from both UK and Scottish Governments to City Deals which now mean all Scottish cities have resources towards these. This has to be welcomed. However there is a need to ensure that these are used to best effect in that they invest in the infrastructure that can truly make a transformational change to our cities. This means linking investment to long term planning so as to look beyond short term priorities and to integrate investment with development priorities. Infrastructure – and it’s funding in particular – is proving to be a major issue in the planning review so we need to make best use of the investment we can attract to ensure it delivers the biggest impact we can muster.

5. Scrutiny of Performance and Resources

A perennial issue in Scottish planning was again highlighted in 2016 – how much (or little) investment there is in the planning service and whether planning authorities have taken the culture change agenda on board. The planning review acted as a catalyst for this debate as did the quarterly planning application processing figures. Whilst we have seen some progress there has been no major breakthrough in terms of processing times for major applications with issues arising from signing off Section 75 agreements a persistent issue. However it was interesting to read about the progress made by planning authorities on the markers set out in in their Planning Performance Frameworks which take a more holistic view of what is deemed good performance. Despite differences of opinion on progress on performance the Plannning Review has helped to develop an emerging agreement across sectors on the need to invest in the planning service and for money generated through planning applications to be reinvested into development management.  The consultation issued by Scottish Government in December on raising fee maximums is the start of a more detailed debate on this.

All of these highlights will continue to have an impact on 2017. That could well be a defining year for planning in Scotland given the imminent Scottish Government consultation and proposed planning bill. As ever, RTPI Scotland will be working hard to influence the debate and show the value of good planning.

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