Craig McLaren Director of RTPI Scotland outlines his take on the planning debate in Parliament
There was a debate in the Scottish Parliament yesterday to discuss the Scottish Government’s consultation on the future of the planning system Places, People and Planning. RTPI Scotland had prepared a briefing and circulated it to all MSPs in advance and this referred to our recent policy paper Repositioning Planning: Building a Successful and Sustainable Scotland, which set out key game-changers to support a new planning system.
The Official Report detailing the discussion has been published but here are some of the key things I took from the debate.
It was heartening to see a fuller Chamber than previous planning debates in Holyrood, and the tone was generally positive and constructive. All contributors appeared to recognise the importance of a good planning system and that there was potential to make it even more of a useful mechanism to support economic growth, sustainable development and the quality of life in communities. The need for stronger leadership in planning was mentioned and the value of planning and planners was often cited. There was call from many MSPs for the consultation to be widely promoted to encourage responses from across the country and from the many and varied people and organisations who are affected by planning.
A number of key issues were threaded through the debate. Community participation in planning processes featured highly with many MSPs recognising that this was something that was improving, but that we still need more work in this area. Frontloading engagement was generally seen as ‘a good thing ‘ but there were concerns about how this would work in practice. Examples of limited or no community engagement were highlighted that had resulted in some communities feeling that decisions or changes in direction took place without their knowledge. There was substantial support for local place plans to be developed by communities to become me part of the local developement plan, though questions were asked about how community groups could be resourced to do this. The theme throughout from across the floor of the chamber was to make sure that planning was undertaken with people rather than to them.
This also led to discussion about introducing third party rights of appeal. A number of MSPs seemed attracted to this and more were keen to explore the advantages and disadvantages in more detail. Others – including Planning Minister Kevin Stewart – didn’t see the value and were concerned that it would lead to a centralisation of decision-making. There was also discussion about having no appeals whatsoever in the planning process.
There was also general agreement about the need to better link community planning and spatial planning as this could help to better join up how a place developed physically with the services that were provided for that area. As part of this there was discussion on the need to ensure that the right levels of infrastructure were provided when approving planning applications. A number of MSPs spoke about the need to ensure that house builders made sure that provision was made for schools, doctor surgeries, health facilities and hospitals.
The need to resource the planning service has also highlighted by a number of MSPs and RTPI Scotland research was quoted outlining that between 2010 and 2015, around 20% of posts were lost from planning departments in Scotland; that on average only 0.63% of local authority budgets were used directly for planning functions; and that currently 63% of the costs of processing a planning application are recovered by the fee charged.
There were mixed views on the proposal for a 10 year development plan, with the positives being seen as a long term strategy providing certainty for communities, developers and investors. There were concerns however about how flexible they can be and how they could respond to change. It was also pointed out that if they were to provide a long term vision it was imperative that communities and others were fully engaged in the developing the plan.
It was also interesting to hear MSPs call for planners to make better use of technology in terms of visualisation of proposals and to use planning to facilitate broadband and other new technologies across the country.