Blog: Delivering Planning Reform – Time for Change



Alex Orr
Alex Orr

There is no doubt that the planning system in Scotland is indeed of urgent reform.

This is borne out with latest figures from the Scottish Government which indicate that in quarter one (April to June) of 2015/16, the 20 decisions made on major housing developments indicate an average decision time of 64.4 weeks, the slowest yet. Indeed, four of the 20 applications had a timescale of over two years.

It should be noted however that three quarters of major housing applications were decided in a time quicker than the average of 64.4 weeks.

Major developments include applications for developments of 50 or more homes, as well as certain waste, water, transport and energy-related developments, larger retail developments, and other types of major developments.

Planning as we know touches everyone’s lives – shaping the communities around us. From the bungalow extension to major housing developments on the Green Belt. A neat balancing act requires to be performed by the Planning Authority. On the one hand the requirements to deliver residential and commercial developments, as well as other interests to boost economic growth. On the other, the requirement to protect the countryside for future generations.

This is a difficult act – the more governments seek to ensure communities get a fair say about the projects that impact their local community, the lengthier and more complex the planning process gets.

Politicians of all persuasions have identified a clear requirement to deliver more housing. However, while we as citizens also largely acknowledge this requirement - Edinburgh’s population for example is growing by 100 people a week - when it comes to such developments many oppose these as not being suitable near them and they should be located elsewhere. This is often accompanied by vociferously lobby of local councillors, MSPs and MPs.

Scotland, like England is going through its own planning reforms, acknowledging the failings of the current system. The Scottish planning minister, Alex Neil MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Rights has announced a review of the planning system to be undertaken by an independent panel chaired by Crawford Beveridge.

The panel “will review the operation of the planning system in Scotland, identifying the scope for further reform with a focus on delivering a quicker, more accessible and efficient planning process, in particular increasing delivery of high quality housing developments”.

Its aims are to:

  • Ensure that planning realises its full potential, unlocking land and sites, supporting more quality housing across all tenures and delivering the infrastructure required to support development.
  • Streamline, simplify and improve current systems and remove unnecessary blockages in the decision-making process.
  • Ensure that communities are more engaged in the process.
  • Continue to meet our statutory and international obligations in protecting and enhancing Scotland’s nature and environment.

In short, the Review aims to achieve, a quicker, more accessible and efficient planning process in order to build investor and community confidence in the system. It is also open to ‘gamechanging’ views and ideas.

Planning development damages development in a variety of ways. We only have to look to the UK oil capital of Aberdeen to see what the impact of a protracted planning process has had on the city.

The city has been chronically short of Grade-An office buildings capable of serving as headquarters for multinationals attracted to the oil and gas sector. With the price of oil tumbling however, a number of applications made during the heady days when there was demand for space have been approved, only for the companies to find themselves in a very different economic climate. The considerable shortfall has now become a considerable surplus.

In 2009 the planning system was amended to compel developers of major planning applications to carry out pre-application consultation with local communities. While admirable in its intent to formally involve communities in shaping proposals, it adds 12-weeks and further expense to the developer’s timescale.

Added to this is the period the Planning Authority takes to determine the application once it is submitted. It is not unusual for this process to take a year. If a legal agreement is required before consent is issued another year can potentially be added to this.

A shorter planning process which addresses the interests of all required is a challenge. Greater resourcing of Planning Authorities to deliver set targets provides a clear opportunity, with support offered those failing to do this and penalties for persistent offenders. Given the current cash constrained environment, and with Local Authorities faced with what they perceive as more pressing priorities, this is going to prove difficult to achieve.

One thing that may be examined in streamlining this process is to look at ensuring that the other consents required, in addition to planning itself, such as road construction consents and building warrants be run together, saving precious time.

Local Development Plans, which highlight locations for future locations are put together over years and in terms of the economic realities of determining applications are almost outdated from the day they are approved.

Five-yearly cycles to update plans are not quick enough to adapt to changing economic realities and there could be interim guidance provided.

As always in such matters the proof of the pudding will be in the eating as to whether the recommendations from the review process, expected to report in spring 2016, are indeed ‘gamechanging’. More importantly of course will be what proposals Scottish Ministers will come forward with to respond to these recommendations.

Information on the Scottish Government’s Review of the Scottish Planning System can be found here.

  • Alex Orr is managing director of Orbit Communications