Engage with Purpose

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Attending the Parliamentary debate on the planning bill last week it seemed that the conclusions were pretty damning. Alex Rowley reminded the Government that there was a “majority in Parliament that does not believe that the Bill is good enough”. In general it seemed there was ‘disappointment’ with the Bill and many MSPs felt that it was ‘underwhelming’ and there was ‘a significant amount of work to do’ to make it acceptable. The Lib Dems stood alone in opposing the legislation because they couldn’t ‘endorse the centralised nature of the National Planning Framework’. Tom Mason Conservative MSP for North East Scotland even suggested  “it would be much better to tear this one up and start again“

Centralisation was a common theme, the Conservatives being particularly critical of the amount of centralising proposals in the Bill, ‘Its a power grab’. The National Planning Framework was one example given as an example where the Government are wanting to have more control, wanting to ‘sign it off’.

There was disappointment in how many of the committee recommendations the Minister had rejected. It seems he is not one for listening, in fact at times he just doesn’t seem very interested, something about his manner and the way he is dealing with this gives the impression he has little interest in the subject. Time for a change? Perhaps planning will not be his brief for much longer.

Despite strong calls for the legislation to introduce a statutory purpose the Minister has rejected the idea, preferring the aim of planning to be vaguely set out in policy. Surely as Cliff Hague put it in his evidence to the committee back in March

What is the alternative to having a purpose? There are presumably two possibilities. One is that there is no purpose, in which case why are we doing it? The other is that there is a purpose, but we are not prepared to say what it is, and that is not a great piece of administration.”

Norman McLeod Government lawyer stated the real reason for the Government wishing to avoid a statutory purpose

My observation is that we can set out a purpose of planning in policy terms. If that were to be put in legislation, however, it would have legal effect. If it were to have legal effect, it could be used—and people would want it to be used—to challenge decisions and alter how things are processed at all levels of the planning system. We would therefore need to be very clear that that purpose of planning was what we want it to be.”

Hmm as Professor Hague pointed out, indeed this is not a great piece of administration.

No wonder we are in such a mess.

As Andrew Robinson a resident of Haddington put in his articulate letter to the Scotsman on 2nd June. The “outcomes (of planning decisions) are poor as is immediately evident in East Lothian. Communities see inappropriately located development of poor quality appearing without any input from planning authorities working in the public interest

The situation in East Lothian described above was articulated by Iain Gray MSP for East Lothian in the debate on 29th May.

 “Our problem is that our previous local development plan has been systematically ignored for years by developers, with the support of Scottish ministers and their reporters. Every town and village in East Lothian has suffered from inappropriate housing developments, some of which have included hundreds of houses, some of which have increased a village in size by as much as 30 per cent and some of which have joined one village to the next in a way that we have tried to avoid for many years. All of that has happened because of developers appealing planning decisions that have been refused. In most years, we have seen 80 per cent or more of those appeals being upheld. Indeed, in one year, 100 per cent of developer appeals against local planning decisions were upheld.

In many cases, those developers are playing the system. Some of them had planning permission for housing in agreed local development sites that they simply refused to develop while they pursued other sites, successfully arguing to the reporters that, because they were not progressing housing elsewhere, they had to do it in a particular place to meet population needs”.

These concerns are echoed by so many around the country including those giving evidence during the committee scrutiny of the Bill.

As Mr Robinson of Haddington rightly suggests, “the Bill should be judged in terms of its potential to address these major concerns about the way planning is being done and indeed what its real purpose is”.

Perhaps the fact that the Minister is unwilling to even set out the terms of engagement as to why we are doing planning is all we need to know about the Scottish Government’s true purpose? “Line the pockets of developers, centralise power and screw those that have to live with the consequences”. You can see why they wouldn’t want that on the face of the Bill.


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Clare Symonds

Clare Symonds is the Chair of Planning Democracy.

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