The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley

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Reflecting during his Burns night supper, Dr Andy Inch takes a wider perspective on the planning bill and why we are where we are with planning.

 

Part 1:  The wrong answers to the wrong questions?

“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley”

 

Burns’ words from ‘To a Mice’ are often translated into modern English as the “best laid plans of mice and men”. I wonder if they ran through the head of Scotland’s Planning Minister Kevin Stewart as he tucked into his haggis on Burns Night this year? If so, he’d likely have needed a wee dram or two to take the edge off.

 

The Planning Bill will enter stage 3 of the parliamentary process after being buffeted by a seemingly record-breaking number of amendments that analysis by the RTPI suggests will impose some 63 new duties on already resource-strapped planning authorities.

 

This is only the second time that a Scottish Government has made use of its powers to legislate on planning matters since devolution. It’s hard to imagine this was what they had in mind when they surprised many people by calling for a “root and branch review” of Scotland’s planning system back in 2015.

 

So how did things go so awfy a-gley? And what does that tell us about the state of planning in Scotland?

The suspicion was always that the review was a response to the concerns of the development industry and particularly the volume housebuilders’ complaints that the planning system in Scotland has acted as a brake on development, preventing the private sector from building the homes the country needs.

This has been the dominant story framing the process and has been uncritically accepted by the government and large parts of the planning profession in Scotland. And it’s troubling for several reasons.

The largely anecdotal evidence for it has been taken at face value, rarely being questioned or interrogated. But acceptance rates for planning applications in Scotland run at around 94%. Some of those decisions could perhaps be made more quickly but timescales for decision-making have been improving in recent years too. Bear in mind too that this has happened during a period when planning departments in Scotland have suffered the biggest cuts of any local government service. And remember, delays can be caused by developers as much as the planning system. These stats don’t suggest a sclerotic planning system, throttling development and requiring fundamental change. But even arguing about these numbers involves buying into the dominant story and its depressingly narrow view of planning as a means of facilitating development by the private sector.

And there are good reasons not to. For a start, for the story to work we have to believe that a leaner, more streamlined planning system will free the entrepreneurial energies of the private-sector to meet societies’ needs. However, there is little reason to believe that would be the case. The private sector has never built the number of new homes Scotland needs. Neither the interests of landowners or the business models of developers are geared towards meeting housing needs in the public interest. Rather they are geared towards maximising profits in their own self-interest.

This has recently become glaringly obvious in England where deregulation has led to a significant increase in the number of planning permissions being granted for housing with only limited effects on the numbers of new houses built. Somewhat incredibly, this has prompted Conservative governments to openly discuss a return to council house-building and the need to better tax development land values.

So what if this isn’t about evidence at all? Concerns about planning systems distorting free markets have been seen in many countries around the world over the last forty years. Often on the basis of little or no actual evidence. There is therefore good reason to worry that this is actually a wider ideological tale being told with a Scottish accent. This means it’s important to question what happens when we act as if the dominant story is true, whether it is or not.

Given long-term shortfalls in new housebuilding there is a clear public interest in developing more housing. However, it is important that this isn’t exploited to argue against strong regulation of new development and for the interests of a development industry which is itself a major part of the problem. Unfortunately, widespread acceptance of the dominant story about planning reform suggests that is exactly what is happening in Scotland. And as a result there is a very real danger that planners are ceding any remaining authority they might have had to lead a more positive debate on how Scotland’s places should develop.

This was well illustrated by a report from the Transport for New Homes group that gained some media coverage in October, 2018. They found that new housing developments are overwhelmingly being built in unsustainable, locations that reinforce car-dependence, effectively prioritising profits over the health and well-being of people and the planet.

The analysis was stark but what’s more worrying is that this was hardly news to most people. When it comes to new housing we’ve been building crap for decades and pretty much everyone knows it. The space standards, environmental standards, infrastructure and services provided in most new development are just not good enough. Meanwhile, the CEOs of housebuilding firms are ‘earning’ salaries that would make a Premier League footballer blush. But by failing to consistently call it out, the planning profession has become complicit.

The recent Raynsford Review of Planning in England also makes for salutary reading. It reminds us that planning should be a means of creating healthier, fairer, more sustainable places in response to pressing societal challenges like climate change and the housing crisis. Instead, however, planners have become little more than “environmental traffic wardens” policing the worst excesses of a development process that doesn’t serve society well.

In short then, accepting the dominant story means persisting with the wrong answers to the wrong questions, accepting that an unreformed development industry is the best way to build our future and failing to make the case for a stronger and more expansive form of planning.

In part two I will go on to consider how the dominant story has affected relations between the public and the planning system and why Kevin Stewart’s headache might not have ended on the 26th of January.


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Clare Symonds

Clare Symonds is the Chair of Planning Democracy.

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