Independent review calls for Scottish planning system transformation

Planning specialist Marc Giles, a partner at Edinburgh-based Ryden, talks us through the main points 

An independent review of the Scottish planning system has been published – proposing 48 recommendations to strengthen and transform the planning system from a regulator to an enabler of sustainable development.
The independent panel was appointed by the Scottish Government in September 2015 to undertake a root and branch review of the system. The review now proposes a “fundamental rethink of the system as a whole and a planning profession that is bold and clear about its purpose, demonstrating a contribution to society.”
There are six key outcomes in the review within which there are a number of recommendations.  There is a very strong emphasis on ‘empowering’ those within the planning industry but also and significantly the wider community and other interests.
Here, Marc Giles of commercial property firm Ryden explains the main points…
Strong & flexible development plans
While the primacy of the development plan is unquestionably maintained, there are proposals to replace strategic development plans at city region level with an enhanced National Planning Framework (NPF), which in turn must be more integrated with wider government policies and strategies.  In essence, strategic planning authorities must adjust to proactively coordinate development with infrastructure delivery at city-region level.  In tandem, the role of Scottish Planning Policy (SPP) should be expanded.
The panel also recommends removing the Main Issues Report (MIR) and Examination stages of the Local Development Plan (LDP) review process.  A move focused on streamlining the current system and front loading the consultation process alongside the introduction of an ‘independent gatecheck’ review.  The latter will focus on key elements like housing requirement, transport appraisal and spatial strategy and “all those with an interest” should be part of that review at an early stage.
Should the issue of housing land requirement be debated by “all those with an interest” at a time when the focus of discussion should revolve around delivery?
Attempts to further streamline the development plan system are to be supported, although removing the examination process is an interesting move.  Our previous planning system (pre-2006) was often criticised for allowing authorities to effectively ignore the recommendations of Reporters at local plan inquiries and subsequent reforms placed greater emphasis on the Reporter’s role and recommendations, prior to the adoption of a plan.  Whilst there are clearly concerns, predominantly at a local level regarding the over-centralisation of planning decisions, the current system does provide for an independent view on matters at a stage in the process when all sites and issues can be considered in the round.
LDPs will move to a 10 year review cycle with a 20 year vision of place rather than policy and the preparation process cut back to 2 years.  The emphasis is to refocus LDPs onto delivery rather than being caught up in an eternal cycle of review.   There may be concerns regarding the length of this cycle relative to the dynamic nature of economic circumstances.  Nevertheless, this streamlining is a positive move and should see an end to the much publicised process of ‘planning by appeal’ experienced across a number of local authorities over recent years and driven by the extensive delays in delivering LDPs.
The delivery of more high quality homes
In removing the need for strategic development plans, the panel recommends that the enhanced NPF should define regional housing targets as the basis for setting housing land requirements in LDPs.  There is an aspiration to work towards ‘real-time’ modelling with projections for need and demand more closely linked with deliverability.
The definition of effectiveness should be clearer, which will require an open book approach from developers and a greater appreciation and understanding of development viability from within planning authorities.  There is likely to be some sensitivity around this issue amongst the housing developers who will no doubt require guarantees on how that information will be used.
Infrastructure first approach to planning and development
The inadequacy of infrastructure has long been a constraint to bringing forward major new development and we are pleased to see the thrust of our recommendations set out in Planning for Infrastructure echoed through the panel’s review.
Early and better information on infrastructure capacity, and better and more consistent cross-agency working is key to overcoming capacity issues and therefore, a national agency with statutory powers is a positive proposal.
Greater clarity and transparency over the level and nature of developer contributions for infrastructure has long been a persistent gripe from within the development industry.  A move to satisfy those concerns and a more concerted effort to drive the delivery of infrastructure to enable the significant levels of new housing required across the country is welcomed.  Proposals to minimise the use of S75 planning obligations will therefore be supported by the development industry, particularly the prospect of a ‘national standard’ template.  It may not be all positive news however, as the prospect of a national or regional infrastructure levy to capture land value uplift may dampen initial positivity around the rationalising of S75 agreements.
Efficient & transparent development management
Efficient decision making within statutory timescales will remain an important focus for planning authorities and the panel has also revisited the prospect of issuing combined consents for planning, roads and drainage.
The primacy and certainty around the development plan should be strengthened and recommendations are proposed to afford allocated sites Planning Permission in Principle (PPP), exemption from pre-application consultation requirements, and fast-tracked appeals.  The development industry will undoubtedly welcome this approach.
The quality of pre-application consultation with LPAs and consultation by developers must be improved with a suggestion for applicants to hold a minimum of two community events allowing opportunity for further dialogue and feedback.  This proposal follows a common threat within the review of increasing public involvement and confidence in the system.
Stronger leadership, smarter resourcing and sharing of skills
The need for training within local authorities in issues such as development economics has long been advocated as a means of improving performance and engagement with the private sector. The panel advises that training for elected members should be mandatory and enforced. In addition, training in community engagement for the development sector must also be initiated.
The development community will welcome the proposed ‘dramatic’ increases to planning fees assuming there is a corresponding improvement to the planning service.  If monies are not to be ring-fenced then question marks may remain over the prospect of an improvement to resources and performance across all authorities.
Collaboration rather than conflict – inclusion and empowerment
A sigh of relief from the development industry but no surprise to see the matter of third party rights of appeal dismissed as adding unnecessary delay, complexity and conflict.
Nevertheless, there is a lot within this review to encourage local communities and representative bodies alike.  The panel has certainly set out to empower the local community across all ages and aspires to a continuous and active engagement in the planning system by all, with a particular focus on young people.
In this regard, the most significant recommendation is that which enables communities to bring forward their own ‘place plans’, which will form part of the development plan.  The panel’s sentiment in seeking to raise the profile of planning in society and encouraging communities to take part in the process is welcomed.  This is however, a potentially controversial proposal and along with other elements aimed at ‘empowering’ local communities could in fact cause greater delays in the system than current exists.  We should be cautious about over-engaging and presenting opportunities to extend a process which we are trying to streamline.
There is a lot in the review to feel positive about regardless of your experience with the planning system. It presents a mix of unsurprising suggestions, some bold aspirations and others which should be treated with caution.  The Scottish Government has already committed itself to a new Planning Act but it seems likely to be later in the year before we see a considered response and have a better understanding of next steps and timescales.