Chasing the Holy Grail

Michelle McGuckin, Convenor, West of Scotland Chapter

These are exciting and challenging times for the profession with planning under the spotlight through the Scottish Government consultation  Places, People and Planning which closes on 4 April. This will bring about crucial changes to the way we work and design spaces in the future. As Planners we need to engage fully in shaping the future Planning Bill.

RTPI West Scotland Chapter Panel Discussion on Planning Reform

The RTPI too has sights set on the future.  On 26 January the West of Scotland Chapter explored whether RTPI Scotland’s recent policy paper Repositioning Planning: Building a Successful and Sustainable Scotland, could deliver the changes needed to strengthen the system.  A panel comprising Professor Cliff Hague, Nick Wright, Robert McKinnon and Stuart Tait[i] answered a series of questions on the paper’s proposals. The key points from the discussion are summarised below.

Historical perspective

Starting in 1947, tracing the steps that have led to where we are today, we noted the original system was essentially a public service set up to manage a largely public delivery sector. It was based on three core themes:

  • a development plan including a development framework with development proposals;
  • the requirement for planning permission for defined developments; and
  • the identification of exceptions for the requirement for permission e.g. agriculture and forestry.

The 1947 system has been tweaked several times (in 1975, 1996,  2006 and now 2017) with support and opposition to regional planning alternating; there was reference to this resulting in a ‘shoot the messenger’ approach.

New Audience, Same Tools

Over time, the key demands on the system we have become familiar with have been upended. Using essentially the same instruments the system now serves the private sector as the main mode of delivery whilst simultaneously seeking to be more inclusive with stakeholders. The review does not specifically identify this issue and the panel considered whether its absence might skew the logic behind the proposals and consultation responses.

Holy Grail

The panel deemed the closer alignment of spatial, economic, infrastructure, transport and resources as crucial to enabling sustainable economic growth and creating quality place. However, despite being the aim of many previous administrations, it was recognised that its realisation remains the Holy Grail.  And in this regard, the opportunity to review the current system is welcomed as is the opening offered by emerging city regions.

Regional Partnerships: The Glasgow Effect

The panel discussed the ways in which regional planning around Glasgow has always been different from the rest of Scotland,  a direct result of the long standing powers and duties delegated to partnership working e.g. Clydeplan Joint Committee (not Board). A number of factors are deemed critical to the delivery of effective and relevant regional strategies and development priorities:

  • agreed single governance for joint working arrangements (authority);
  • a clearly defined role and remit (influence); and
  • dedicated resources.

Embedded knowledge

Long-term joint partnership working in Glasgow has enabled hard-won, longstanding relationships. The embedded knowledge associated with these processes should be safeguarded. And whilst not advocating to enshrine the current Clydeplan governance, there was general agreement that strengthening the current arrangements could be a very effective tool to progress regional partnerships.

Development industry and housing

Additionally, the development industry does not see an advantage in housing figures being addressed at a national level, instead preferring regional targets.

International comparison

A brief discussion followed comparing the Scottish commitment to regional policy with Germany where strong regional planning has been consistent across decades and the integration of fiscal measures, investment, economic development and infrastructure strategies, social and housing policies and, environmental protection are at the heart of a wider planning agenda.

Making it work

Overall, it was agreed the consultation paper is not clear on how the twenty proposals fit together. There is an element of misalignment in objectives and ‘woolly’ ideas with no clear description on how each component part works on its own, or in combination with others. This is perhaps to be expected of a consultation paper, however, it presents us with some issues. For example, the proposals simultaneously suggest local place plans and a strengthening of the National Planning Framework. The panel agreed this could increase tensions between strategic and local planning but the devil would be in the detail.  As a result it is difficult to comment or compare alternatives as not every respondent is starting from the same position.

Questions arising from Scottish Planning Review: a personal view

As a strategic planner, in relation to the Scottish Government consultation, here is a list of questions that I think require further consideration:

  • What does 10 year plan period mean for certainty and development delivery?
  • If plan preparation takes place over two years, what happens in planning authorities during the remaining eight years of the ten year plan period?
  • The gatecheck has merit but the devil would be in the detail. What would it look like?
  • The Consultation paper refers to a citizen panel. What is meant by that?
  • The proposals appear to leave a lot of power with the Reporter. Is this the case?
  • What is meant by the regional partnerships referred to in the paper? Many are fledgling relationships and the lack of statutory powers could put regional spatial planning at risk of being overlooked.
  • NPF has never addressed housing figures yet there is mention of aspirational housing figures cascading down to specific geographies. What does this mean in practice?
  • Is the focus on delivery a threat to the planning profession? Perhaps planners are not the right professional to focus on delivery – this is not how many planners were/are trained?
  • The paper fails to define what it means by community involvement. The terms community empowerment and local place plan could suggest communities could have a veto to approve development plans. However, the purpose of planning is not to deliver what every community wants. Instead it is to balance the often conflicting priorities of a wide variety of communities and development proposals. The parameters of engagement need to be made clear or there is a risk of serious disenchantment. How might the proposal address this?
  • There is a current distrust of the profession and that the planning system is extremely imbalanced. In what way do the proposals address this?

Taken together, the twenty proposals offer little clarity on how the reformed system might work. The planning system should provide strong direction and give certainty to developers and could be more transparent and speedier than the current system. However, this strength and transparency requires a collaborative approach to regional strategy with identified priorities and agreed housing figures. What are your views?

These are the views of the author.


Cliff Hague OBE - Professor Emeritus of Planning and Spatial Development at Heriot-Watt University; Past President of the RTPI and of the Commonwealth Association of Planners; Past Chair of Built Environment Forum Scotland; Independent Consultant;

Robert McKinnon – Chair, Strathclyde House Builder Committee at Homes for Scotland; Land Manager, Miller Homes;

Stuart Tait - Clydeplan / GCV SDPA Manager; Board Member, Central Scotland Green Network Trust & Metropolitan Glasgow Strategic Drainage Partnership;

Nick Wright – Immediate Past Convenor; RTPI Scotland, External Examiner; University of Strathclyde Department of Architecture; RTPI Representative, National Review of Town Centres External Advisory Group; Independent Consultant.


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