No sooner has the dust settled on Places, People and Planning – a consultation on the future of Scotland's planning system
which closed in April and the Scottish Government has issued another publication for consultation. The Government’s external consultant team has made it through the no doubt arduous task of collating and balancing the wide ranging views expressed and last week the publication of a Position Statement (open for comment until 11 August 2017)
sees the ministers move closer toward publication of a Planning Bill which will give a clearer view of how their changes will look in reality.
The findings of the independent review last summer
with its suite of recommendations included some headline-grabbing proposals (at least within the planning and property industry), such as abandoning Strategic Development Plans, the streamlining of development management processes through new permitted development rights and combined consents and an increased emphasis on the delivery of new homes.
These ‘big ticket’ items are undoubtedly of most interest to planning and development professionals: those responsible for navigating and implementing the planning system on a daily basis. The Position Statement published by the Scottish Government last week confirms that many of the proposals consulted on earlier this year remain on the table.
Some of the recommendations that have perhaps generated the least discussion, at least within the circles that I move within, are aimed at increasing public participation and trust in the planning system. The communities benefiting from or affected by development have the most vested interest in planning decisions, in both the development planning and development management processes. Their experience of change in the built environment is longer term than for those that facilitate it.
Ambitions to increase participation and trust in planning are not only laudable but vital. However, these ambitions could conflict with proposals to streamline decision making and facilitate delivery.
There are three interesting aspects of the recent and ongoing consultations which relate to these ambitions for increased community involvement, namely; (1) local place planning, (2) pre-application consultation and (3) involving children and young people in planning.
(1) Local Place Plans
Proposals for ‘local place plans’
in Scotland bear more than a passing resemblance to our southern counterpart’s neighbourhood development plans. Research by Lichfields’ colleagues
has shone a light on the fact that neighbourhood plans in England have resulted in some of the positive locally driven plan-making that they were intended to. But they have also been used in certain locations to frustrate and stymie development, caused in part by delays in the local planning process where neighbourhood plans have ended up being prepared in a policy vacuum. Scotland has a better track record in recent years in local development plans being up to date, so this may prove less of a risk, but it is a risk nonetheless.
This also begs the question about who these local place plans are targeted at, and what their purpose will be. While they will carry statutory weight, there won’t be a mandatory requirement to prepare one. In which case, will the communities with the greatest need for inward investment and regeneration mobilise to prepare a local place plan? Or, will it solely be groups in communities that are already well-established and actively engaging with the planning system that mobilise to prepare a plan? As a result, will such plans be prepared with a protectionist agenda?
There are already examples of good practice that we can learn from. Where there are positive interactions, taking place between community groups and the development planning process that go above simply written representations, these should be explored.
As an example of the plan-making process as it stands now, I was involved in an event where midway through a local development plan consultation, the community council invited all developers promoting sites within their area to present at a very well-attended public meeting. The prospective developers outlined their proposals and answered questions from the audience. The public were then able to provide direct feedback to the developers, which has in turn also informed the community council’s own response to the local authority’s Main Issues Report. This happened well in advance of the more common first interaction between developers and a community at pre-application stage; such interaction could form an integral component of local place planning and indeed local development planning.
If a similar process was implemented on a ward by ward basis, aligned with the proposed early examination gate check, it would at the outset encourage community participation in the consideration of sites. It would also do so in the context of the consideration of the housing land requirement component of plan-making which tends to progress with relatively little interest at a community level. Yet ultimately this lack of early engagement is what results in the allocations that can later become contentious.
(2) Pre-application Consultation
The consultation earlier in 2017
asked whether more meaningful engagement with communities can be achieved within the current 12 week pre-application consultation period for major applications. In asking this, there appears to be an implication that the 12 week period might be extended. This would undoubtedly have come as disappointing news to developers.
The June 2017 Position Statement doesn’t make any suggestion to this effect, instead focussing on doing more within the same minimum period. Specifically, this will result in a requirement to feedback to communities following engagement, but presumably before submitting an application. Another proposal is that there will be a time limit for submission of an application, in other words giving a Proposal of Application Notice (PAN) a finite lifespan.
The knock-on effect is that where there is pressure for an early submission, as there almost always is, applicants will have to undertake engagement even earlier in the planning process. This will provide time to reflect, revise proposals and report back to communities (potentially in the form of a second public event) and avoid sailing too close to the expiry date of the PAN.
We’ll have to wait for the draft bill later in the year to understand the full details of these changes and their potential implications. What is certain is that the rules of community engagement are changing. The theme is more engagement, earlier in the process. Funnily enough, I’m sure that was one of the themes the last time the planning system was reviewed in Scotland.
(3) Involving Children and Young People
The proposals for focussing engagement in planning on young people are a positive step forward and long overdue. Ultimately, our children and young people should somehow be encouraged to have far more interest, than us or our parents, in the legacy of the planning decisions made today for tomorrow. At the moment, from my own experience in pre-application consultations at least, under 30s are the least represented demographic in planning for their future. My colleague Nicola Woodward has some innovative ideas for encouraging engagement in the development planning making process. (see her recent blog “Doing it for the kids
Improving engagement during the development management process as well at the plan making process could present an opportunity to directly engage young people in local decision making, particularly through the use of technology. Developers may find that by engaging with young people, perhaps through a prescribed process facilitated by schools, they are able to tap into some of the silent majority who are less resistant to, and can see the longer term benefit of, change yet don’t voice an opinion on emerging proposals. This is not a specific proposal of the Review but it seems like a good one.
The deadline for comments on the position statement is 11 August 2017. If you want to discuss what it might mean for you or your business or you would like Lichfields to make a response on your behalf please get in touch.