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Local democracy and national developments

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Earlier this month North Ayrshire Council voted to remove all references to Hunterston power station from the first draft of its development plan. This was following numerous objections it received during consultation – it sounds like they are listening to local voices!

This creates an interesting situation in the planning system. Hunterston is a national development – it is listed as one in the National Planning Framework 2 (NPF2). Under the recent planning reforms Scottish Government intended Councils to draft development plans ‘in accordance’ with the NPF, but the North Ayrshire’s vote makes it clear they intent to propose a plan at odds with the national framework.

The Council must now run a consultation on its second draft plan, this one without the Hunterston designation, which is likely to happen in May. After that, the plan gets submitted to the Government for approval.

We’ll have to wait and see what the Government will do. Will they directly over-rule the Council and impose the designation of Hunterston power station in the plan? Or will they allow the development plan to pass at odds with the NPF? If the second is the case, the planning act makes it clear that the most recent plan will prevail when an application is determined.

However, as always in the planning system, multiple things are happening once. There has already been an application for Hunterston which is going to public local inquiry (PLI) sometime this year after North Ayrshire Council objected to its energy consent. The Council’s final development plan may not be adopted before this PLI begins.

At PD we’re less interested in the outcome of this application and more in the process of decision-making and to what extent citizens are involved. In this line we’ve always criticised the way in which national developments were designated in the latest NPF, in particular Hunterston where its late inclusion meant there was almost no local input into the decision-making process.

National development status was designed by the Government to smooth large developments through the system by establishing the ‘need’ for the development at an early stage. However in our view, none of the national developments received nearly enough scrutiny from the public before being given this greenlight.

With the recent vote at North Ayrshire Council the Hunterston story could be good news for a better process. If the ‘need’ for specific national developments can be revisited at the development plan stage there is a better chance public scrutiny will come to bear on proposals, as has happened here. The healthy arguments over local and national interests, and social/environmental/economic considerations can be had more easily at this stage for large developments.

Naming Hunterston in the NPF seems, at this point in time, to be a good thing. It has allowed good public discussion to take place; but, if by naming Hunterston in the NPF makes all future arguments and discussions academic, it will not have helped create a discursive, participatory system where people can genuinely engage.

The Government should allow the ‘need’ for Hunterston, and all national developments, to come under public scrutiny again at the local development plan stage. It should not over-rule the local Council’s decision to knock Hunterston from its plan.

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