Resourcing Equal Rights: What Price Justice?
“Planning authorities are under increasing pressure to speed up the time taken to process planning applications. This is happening at a time of tightening resources and staff levels… Given this, the regular challenging of decisions by third parties would put more pressures on a planning service with reducing resources.”
Nikola Miller, RTPI Scotland[i]
Several groups have argued against Equal Rights of Appeal due to resource scarcity. In fact ERA does not need to be a serious expense and has significant benefits outweighing the costs. We support the full resourcing of the planning system to ensure it is equitable, and fit for purpose.
As you may be aware, our petition for Equal Rights of Appeal in planning (ERA) is currently progressing through the Scottish Parliament. We’re very pleased with how things are going so far, the Petitions Committee very quickly handed our petition on to the Local Government and Regeneration Committee, who will be discussing it at the end of May, so thanks again to everyone who got in touch with their MSP to support it, please get in touch with them again to support it through the next stage of the process. The pressure is working!
Many community groups, NGOs and individuals have contacted us, or have contacted the parliament directly to express their support for our petition. In addition however several professional organisations, including developers, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) and the Scottish Government, have submitted responses opposing our suggestions.
The arguments they present tend to be fairly routine, centring around landowners supposed right to develop property, the risk of ERA being miss-used, and the risk of slowing down the planning system and disrupting ‘economic growth’. In addition they generally claim that the planning system already takes the opinions of third parties on board, and that no changes are necessary.
All of these arguments have been pretty effectively de-bunked in the past[ii], and we of course submitted a comprehensive response tackling these submissions[iii]. There is however one argument that we would like to give particular attention to: the argument regarding the resource implications of ERA.
As Nikola Miller in the above quote points out, we are living in a climate of increasing budget scarcity within public sector organisations. In this context any legislative changes which would necessitate an additional administrative burden must be very carefully considered, and clearly shown to be in the public’s best interest.
The RTPI, along with developers such as Barratt Homes and representative body Homes for Scotland, argue that the additional costs caused by ERA would be unjustifiable.
We disagree, for three main reasons.
Firstly, many of the costs associated with ERA can be effectively ‘designed out’ of the process. In Ireland for example, where ERA has existed since the 30s, An Bord Pleanala accept the vast majority of ERA cases in the form of written submissions, significantly reducing the costs of the process.
In addition, a limited right of appeal (eg: where ERA only applies if certain conditions are met, such as where the application is for a Major Development, or breaches the Local Development Plan), will limit the number of ERA cases which can be made, and thus the costs associated.
Secondly, any additional costs of ERA are not likely to be great, and must be seen in the context of the benefits ERA will bring.
Figures suggest that in Ireland ERA is used about once for every twenty planning permissions granted. In 2013 in Ireland only 5.2% of all grants of planning permission were appealed by third parties[iv].
Furthermore, evidence from Ireland suggests the effects of ERA in terms of improving planning decisions can be very significant.
Graph 1 shows the proportion of third party appeal cases decided by An Board Pleanala in 2013 by outcome[v]. As can be seen, in the vast majority of cases permission was still granted, but with revised conditions. Permission was overturned entirely 20% of the time, while the original decision was upheld in less than 1% of cases.
This suggests that very few ERA cases are brought forward without merit, and that ERA plays a vital ‘quality assurance’ role, providing valuable scrutiny of weak approvals and improving the overall outcomes of the planning system.
Taken together this evidence suggests both: that the introduction of ERA would not lead to a massive increase in workload for the public sector, and that any additional work would provide valuable additional scrutiny, improving the quality of planning decisions, without stopping the system in its tracks.
Finally we need to consider: what is the price of justice?
At Planning Democracy we believe in the importance of a strong, robust and inclusive planning system that pays close attention to the priorities of local communities in Scotland. Planning impacts almost every aspect of our lives. The homes we live in, the schools our children and young people attend, the spaces where we work, relax and take part in our community, as well as the destinations we visit for recreation: all are sculpted by the planning system. Its workings define the physical world we live in.
It is vital that such an important system is adequately resourced to ensure it functions as well as it can. At present there is a huge inequality in arms where planning decisions only receive proper scrutiny from the developer’s perspective.
If a lack of resources is a block to introducing measures which will redress this imbalance, and improve the planning decisions which affect all of our lives, this doesn’t mean these measures should not be introduced, it means we should invest in a properly resourced, equitable planning system that will work to everyone’s benefit.
[i] Quote taken from RTPI Scotland’s response to our petition to the Scottish Parliament in favour of ERA (PE1534_G RTPI Scotland 19.12.14)
[ii] See: LINKptfBrief10MythsTPRA
[iii] See: Response to evidence from Planning Democracy regarding PE1534
[iv] Source: An Bord Pleanala Annual Report 2013 (available here)
& Annual Planning Applications 2009 Onwards (available here)
[v] Source: An Bord Pleanala Annual Report 2013 (available here)