All of us with an interest in Scottish planning are now reading and digesting the recommendations of the independent panel whose review of the planning system, Empowering Planning to Deliver Great Places, was published on the 31st of May.
The review took many people by surprise when it was announced by Alex Neil in September 2015 and was widely interpreted to be a result of development industry lobbying. Even though we’ve long argued that there are serious problems with the existing system, it’s fair to say our hopes weren’t sky-high for the review. We were worried that the ‘gamechanging’ ideas Neil promised would end up making the playing field even more uneven for communities across Scotland. Despite this, we submitted a written response and also had the opportunity to give oral evidence at a session in November. So what do we make of the report and its recommendations?
With 48 recommendations crammed into its 41 pages there is a lot to take in and, perhaps inevitably, there seems to be a mix of the good, the bad and the downright ugly.
In fairness to the panel, their recommendations suggest they have approached their task with a fairly open-mind and a commitment to shaping a more positive role for planning in shaping the future of places. This is welcome. For too long planning in Scotland has been reduced to the role of an environmental traffic warden. It’s high time that we developed a planning system that is capable of proactively bringing about democratically agreed change in the built environment rather than just reacting to market pressure for development.
Recommendations about strengthening and improving development plans and more effectively joining planning up with the land reform, community planning and community empowerment agendas could all be important steps in this direction. Particularly if allied to new mechanisms to proactively assemble land and infrastructure for development, funded by taxing land value and better capturing the increases in value that often come with the grant of planning permission. [Remember that, at the moment, we gift most of this publicly generated ‘value’ back to private developers – a generous subsidy to the development industry despite the fact that we are struggling to fund vital infrastructure and services].
The review’s concern to ensure that all voices, especially the traditionally excluded, are heard in planning is vitally important. The idea of communities being empowered to produce their own plans is also a very positive idea, especially if linked to the use of community land trusts and other mechanisms to ensure that communities can remain involved in implementation and share in the long-term benefits that often accrue from development. We also agree that planning services need to be better resourced, skilled and equipped to play the more positive role all of this would involve.
Some of the more detailed issues addressed by the panel have also concerned Planning Democracy and our many community supporters, including the problem of repeat applications, and a lack of effective enforcement.
So all in all, many of the recommendations made chime with suggestions in our evidence and could be genuinely gamechanging – though, as ever, the devil will be in the detail and in that regard the report gives us little to go on. There is very little detail on any of these proposals and all of these recommendations could yet be interpreted in very different ways to very different effect.
The lack of detail in the review is not the only concern. The breadth and range of recommendations no doubt reflect the wide variety of perspectives put to the panel, but ultimately means there is less sense of a fully worked through vision for change and the key measures that would be required to it. A clearer sense of which changes should be prioritised could have produced a more powerful result.
Despite expressing some concerns about the dangers of centralisation many of the more technical recommendations also seem to default back to suggestions for more central control through e.g. an expanded national planning framework, more detailed national planning policy, more national powers to determine methodologies for calculating housing land or to designate simplified planning zones etc. It’s not clear how such centralising measures can be easily squared with a commitment to local control (on which see more below).
On housing and other issues, there is inevitably some focus on whether the planning system is a barrier to market-led delivery. It’s to their credit that the panel at least sit on the fence on this issue (no doubt in the face of considerable pressure). But on the other hand, there’s relatively little focus on the development industry and on the need to challenge and change its practices in order to realise many of the more progressive aspirations that are articulated here. If we are to create better places Scotland needs a debate about the social responsibilities of the development industry and how we can shape markets that serve the public interest (at least as much as it needs more talk of culture change and performance management measures for already stretched public sector planning departments).
This is part of a perhaps understandable but ultimately worrying pattern where important tensions are not fully acknowledged in the review. This is evident in relation to important issues around community engagement too. The panel frame this in terms of shaping consensus and overcoming conflict. Yet this ignores the fact that there are fundamentally different interests in how land should be used and developed. Such naivety will tend to work in the interests of the already powerful (who are well-placed to set the terms of any consensus!) and will work against the effective inclusion of traditionally excluded groups (who aren’t).
The same might be said of any decision to deregulate planning control by reviewing permitted development rules. You only have to look at the chaos caused by the decision to deregulate office to residential conversions in England for evidence of this, the result has been to line some people’s pockets whilst consigning many others to live in inadequate accommodation. That’s one way of addressing the housing crisis but it can’t be described as a good way.
A falling back on the merits of pre-application consultation, despite an absence of any clear evidence that it has worked since being introduced by previous reforms and in the face of mounting concerns expressed by community groups across Scotland, is also worrying. This also applies to the recommendation to effectively grant planning permission in principle for sites designated in local development plans. Neither of these ideas is inherently bad but each will only work democratically if accompanied by really significant changes in existing practices. In the absence of such changes to the ways pre-application consultation and development plan engagement gets done they are likely to further disempower communities.
If the facipulation (facilitation/ manipulation) that too often characterizes ‘charettes’ is still held up as good practice then the prospects for transformative change look even more doubtful. As the review notes elsewhere, however, there is an appetite to explore more creative forms of engagement that could perhaps make all of this work. We can only hope that this will be matched by the political will to resource change on the required scale. And to ensure that it happens in the face of scepticism and even resistance on the part of many professionals.
…And the Ugly
From a PD perspective the ugly in the review relates to the outright rejection of the case for an equal right of appeal (ERA), despite our concerted campaigning on this issue. This comes even though very nearly half of non-professional respondents supported ERA in their written representations (by our count 49.6% and not 44% as wrongly argued in the review of evidence conducted for the panel).
But we can’t say we’re really surprised by this. ERA was one issue that we suspect the panel never really had an open mind about. A similar groundswell of public support for the idea was previously rejected in 2005 and the evidence from submissions to our petition [link] suggests that there is still entrenched opposition to its introduction amongst planning professionals and the development industry.
It’s the weakness of the arguments put forward for rejecting ERA that really qualify this as the ugly side of the review, however. The panel argue that:
The evidence shows that a third party right of appeal would add time, complexity and conflict to the process, and have the unintended consequence of centralising decisions, undermining confidence and deterring investment. We believe that using time and resources to focus on improved early engagement would provide much greater benefits (p38).
Presumably evidence here means the opinions of assorted development lobbies since we have seen no concrete evidence put forward to justify any of these claims and have addressed all of these points in our campaign (to take an obvious example, it doesn’t seem like a lot of investment was deterred in EIRE during the Celtic Tiger years!).
The shonkiness of the arguments on ERA are also underlined by the raising of concerns that this would be a centralising move. As we argued in our oral evidence, Scotland already has a model for considering planning appeals at the local level in the form of local review bodies. Moreover, in their earlier discussion of existing (developer) appeal rights the panel themselves make recommendations for ways of blending the central ‘check and balance’ provided by reporters with more local input. If such a solution can overcome the centralisation of existing appeal rights, why does it not overcome the problem in relation to ERA? And why is centralisation such a major concern in relation to ERA but not with regard to the issues where the panel recommends the centralisation of strategic development planning and housing land allocations? Inconsistencies like this are regrettable. The fear is that they reveal some underlying, conservative assumptions about how the planning system should operate, who should be involved and how.
So there it is, the good, the bad and the ugly. And now the hard work begins, trying to win support for a more radical interpretation of the panel’s suggestions. We clearly need to keep fighting the good fight. We hope you’ll join us.