On Tuesday the Local Government Committee at the Scottish Parliament were discussing the most influential planning documents in Scotland, the 3rd National Planning Framework (NPF3) and Scottish Planning Policy (SPP). Admittedly they didn’t look greatly stimulated, when I tuned in one member was yawning and another was resting her head in her hands. Perhaps this is how most people in Scotland feel about the NPF, indeed how they feel about planning.
In fact, disinterest was the subject of some of the discussions! Community empowerment and involvement were discussed but the debate was fairly superficial. How can it be anything else on a subject as broad as the NPF and SPP combined, and given the time frame expected of the committee to look into such long important documents?
There was very little mention of the specific issues we raised in our submission about the democratic deficit, community council resignations and lack of truly deliberative techniques used in the NPF consultation process.
The planning minister Derek Mackay, in his evidence, focussed on emphasising economic growth in planning. He stated that there is no essential difference between sustainable development and sustainable economic growth, they should “work in harmony“. This begs the question why then the need for both and why the need to emphasise one and not the other?
There was a general reference to communities not understanding a system that is complex and conflicting. MSPs talked about the public being confused by a plan led system that allows for decisions to be made contrary to the local plan if material considerations allow otherwise. They talked about greenbelt policies and community mistrust when development and economic arguments are seen to be the priority. So there is a sense that MSPs know the public feel disengaged and distrustful when it comes to planning.
Those who were invited to give oral evidence argued quite well in favour of increasing the community role in the planning system. Petra Biberbach from Planning Aid Scotland emphasised giving community councils greater weight, perhaps extending their role in the planning system to allow them to become more proactive. We agree and feel there is a need to extend the role of statutory consultee to other organisations. There was also promising discussion around bringing in planning to the schools’ citizenship agenda, as a way of increasing understanding of the system at an early stage for those who will be most affected in the future by planning decisions made today.
The key will be how the committee choose to address these issues. What recommendations will they make, what changes to the documents will be made as a result of this brief and eclectic discussion today? As Anne McTaggart MSP asked, what will these documents do to change the culture of the current system? The most promising element was mention of a community right of appeal from one of the committee, which we naturally welcome as a step towards real democratic planning. Getting people engaged early on in the system is all well and good but without a credible method for the public to challenge persistently controversial developments at the business end of the system we believe that, as Mark MacDonald MSP said, planning will continue to be “done to people rather than with them”.