Last month we sent an open letter to the Minister, it was signed by 87 community and environmental organisations and academics (others continue to ask to add their names). We said that the one key theme of our collective experience is that people feel very strongly that there is a need to change a planning system that leaves them feeling disempowered and disregarded, particularly with respect to rights of appeal.
The letter was accompanied by an article in the Herald and followed up by another in the National. As a result of this attention the day before the debate on the planning bill, the Minister has now agreed to meet us.
Seemingly in response to our open letter and the growing political momentum for change, several built environment professional organisations (the Royal Town Planning Institute, Royal Inc Chartered Surveyors and Chartered Institute of Architects) have now teamed up with commercial and industry bodies (e.g. Homes for Scotland) to reaffirm their opposition to any reform of appeal rights.
This is disappointing and revealing in equal measure, exposing their opposition to any real change and continued unwillingness to engage with the detail of the arguments being put forward for equal rights of appeal (ERA).
The letter repeats well-worn claims that assumes ERA is a blunt instrument that will open the door for commercial competitors to raise vexatious appeals or undermine local democracy by centralising decision-making.
These are valid enough concerns. But as we have consistently argued, appeals are not a blunt instrument. Rather, the system can and should be designed to promote the kind of planning we want to see. It would be simple to screen out vexatious appeals whether by commercial competitors or anyone else for example. It would also be possible to reimagine how appeals are heard to ensure more local input into appeal decisions. After all, that already happens in Scotland through Local Review Bodies.
It’s particularly disappointing that the RTPI and PAS continue to roll out the tired claim that ERA would undermine efforts to get people involved earlier on in the planning process. As our evidence to the Communities and Local Government Committee in Parliament made clear, the idea of people being involved early on is a good one. But even if you do get it right, the discretionary nature of the planning system in Scotland means that subsequent decisions can still undermine peoples’ efforts by departing from an agreed plan.
Until the gap between the plan and the decision is acknowledged as a key obstacle to the so-called ‘frontloading’ of engagement, meaningful community input will remain elusive. We have consistently argued that, rather than undermining early engagement, a restricted right of appeal for both communities and applicants could be a very effective way of addressing this issue. It would be a significant incentive for everyone to make sure they positively input into plans. It would also provide an important mechanism to ensure that decisions reflect the plan-led system everyone says they want.
So why do the profession and other groups who claim to have the interests of communities in mind continue to repeat these arguments even when they have been shown to be shonkier than the planning case for a Donald Trump golf course? And why won’t they address the detail of the arguments that are actually being made for change?
Tellingly many of their objections to ERA could just as easily be levelled against the existing rights of applicants for planning permission to appeal against decisions they don’t like. If granting communities appeal rights would undermine local decision-making and add to the work of already stretched planning departments, surely allowing applicants does too? So why aren’t these organisations collectively calling for the government to abolish appeals altogether?
This gets us closer to the heart of things. At root this is an argument for the maintenance of double standards and long-established privileges.
The development industry have a clear commercial interest in applicants being allowed to appeal whenever they want, no matter how much that undermines democratically agreed plans.
The professional bodies meanwhile seem to believe they are the only people qualified to define the public interest – ignoring fifty years of legal and policy change that have clearly established that people have a right to participate in decisions that affect their lives and the environments they are lived in.
The professions’ somewhat paternalistic understanding of the public interest is revealed in the letter when it is patronisingly suggested that appeals will pit communities against one another. The sub-text here is that people should leave it to the experts in case they get hurt. But it’s not appeals but development itself that frequently pits communities against one another.
Nor, is it right to argue that equalizing appeal rights will exacerbate inequalities between communities who are more and less able to engage. This is an important issue but you don’t reduce such inequalities by maintaining an unequal playing field that ensures no community gets a proper hearing.
Of course, appeals aren’t the be all and end all of planning. Nor should they be. Scotland needs a planning system that can enable people to come together to debate how places should change. It needs to have real powers to make sure that agreed plans are implemented. The process needs to be democratic and the outcomes need to be better for people and places than they currently are – on this we no doubt agree with many of the signatories to the letter. The debate about appeals is, however, a bell-weather for attitudes to change and commitment to a plan-led system where the public voice matters. In this much at least, the planning establishment continue to display a mixture of barely concealed antipathy and basic misunderstanding about what real community empowerment means.