The Scottish Government has this week set out its thoughts on how it would like to reform the Scottish planning system, in ‘Places, People and Planning: A consultation of the future of the Scottish Planning System
This consultation paper was informed by an independent review that reported in May 2016 and by topic-based working groups in September 2016. I was delighted to be invited by Kevin Stewart MSP to join the Housing Working Group and to see much of what the working group discussed reflected in the consultation. – although the challenge of delivering more housing is far from resolved.
The consultation document sets out proposals for plan-making, community involvement, building new homes and reducing bureaucracy. Some of these proposals are more developed than others and some leads have clearly been taken from the system in England and Wales.
For the purpose of this blog I will concentrate on the proposals for the plan-making system and for delivering more homes.
01 Making Plans for the Future
- Embedding community planning, by introducing a statutory link to the development plan. The notion that the development plan is the spatial manifestation of the community plan is a good one and before something similar was scrapped in the English system, it was a good way of securing community buy-in to the plan-making process;
- Removing strategic development plans from the system – but not strategic planning. The scale and coverage of new regional planning arrangements are up for grabs through the consultation process;
- Giving Scotland’s National Planning Framework (NPF) and Scottish Planning Policy stronger statutory status. The NPF is to be an enhanced national spatial strategy with greater clarity on regional priorities;
- Replacing the Local Development Plan (LDP) Main Issues Reports (MIRs) with Draft Plans. LDPs are to have a 10 year life, unless an early review is ‘triggered’. Everything is proposed to be set out in the LDP, rather than supplemented by statutory supplementary planning guidance (SPG), hopefully this will prevent the adoption of sub-standard plans, on the promise of future SPGs.
- Front-loading examinations, with a ‘gatecheck’ of the technical evidence to establish soundness before the go-ahead to prepare the Draft Plan. Gatechecks are proposed to be chaired by the Directorate for Planning and Environmental Appeals, a DPEA Reporter. An examination at the end of the process would still be used for any unresolved issues. The ‘gatecheck’ and examination would best be undertaken in public where supporters, objectors, the community and those with development interests can have their say in front of the Reporter.
- Site allocations are to be supported by economic and market appraisal information. Also, less consultation is proposed on allocated sites, for example by reducing or removing requirements for consultation before the application is made. But there is to be no planning permission in principle for allocated sites, a recognition that this probably wouldn’t work in practice.
- Replacing Action Programmes with Delivery Programmes – it would be helpful if these were also independently assessed, as part of the plan-making process.
Issues of viability and a recognition that the development of housing in particular is complex and dependant on developer, market and financial confidence are picked up in the consultation document’s section 03. This is considered in context of the persistent problem of delivering enough homes. This is an issue that NLP has identified in ‘Location as a Barrier to Housing Delivery in the Central Belt’, research which was published in 2015 and was commended by the RTPI through their Research Excellence awards in 2016 (this can be viewed here
). Quite simply, if housing land is allocated in locations where buyers won’t buy and builders won’t build, it will not be taken up and homes will not be provided.
03 Building More Homes and Delivering Infrastructure
The review has established that planning should make sure that enough land is available for housing development and also should take on an enabling role. It states that existing communities need to contribute to this process by accepting that further development is necessary to ensure that everyone has a home. This is a point well-made and not without its challenges.
Proposals include the NPF setting national and regional aspirations for housing development that are flexible enough to reflect changing market circumstances over a 10 year period. But it is also recognised that if housing development targets are set at national or regional levels they will have little practical effect if they do not take account of local circumstances, developer priorities or commitments to invest. Given the amount of debate on this issue, there is precious little by way of a solution offered. Views are sought and a promise is made to revisit policy and guidance on effective land, based on the consultation.
Critically, the consultation identifies that land allocated in LDPs needs to be supported by appropriate evidence that it can be developed.
There is a call for all major applications for housing to be accompanied by appropriate information on development viability. This is to weed out the sites that have little chance of development – regardless of their planning status – that are essentially ‘bed blocking’ and preventing the allocation or granting of planning permission on other, more viable sites.
A challenge is laid down to local planning authorities to use the tools already available to them to assemble land to unlock development opportunities, to de-allocate or bring forward alternative sites when others do not progress as predicted in LDPs.
Proposals are emerging for Simplified Planning Zones, particularly for housing schemes and views are invited. Zones would be identified in the LDP and would essentially be approved master plans with clear development parameters, design guidelines etc. All environmental assessment requirements will have to have been met.
Infrastructure planning is considered and a new ‘National Infrastructure and Development Delivery Group’ is proposed which would help prioritise infrastructure investment, contribute to proposals for an infrastructure levy (detailed proposals for the levy will come forward separately but the principle is established in the consultation paper), consider developer contributions and the funding of infrastructure more generally, enable better co-ordination of LDP strategies and infrastructure investment plans.
It is claimed the proposals to replace SDPs with regional partnership working will empower planners to advise on spatial priorities for infrastructure investment. A regional infrastructure audit of capacity is to be completed to provide reliable evidence to inform strategic investment decisions.
So there are some interesting propositions for future change that will suit some more than others. The consultation is open until 4th There is real potential here to shape the final outcome and this should not be lost:
- SDPs are to be lost and so input on expectations for regional planning must be shared;
- In particular the housing industry should put forward workable solutions for the thorny problem of identifying effective land and ensuring meaningful housing land allocations;
- Support should be given to proposals to streamline the system for consenting allocated sites; and
- feedback should be given on the ‘gatecheck’ and examination process proposed for LDPs.