We are fast approaching the end of the first stage of the planning bill, we await the committee report and the stage 1 debate.
It has been a really crucial part of Planning Democracy’s work to be involved in what is likely to be our biggest opportunity for a decade to speak on behalf of communities and to influence legislation in a way that takes the community perspective into account. As such all social life has been on hold as we do as much as we can to represent communities and influence discussions in the first stage of the planning Bill.
We feel we have had more than a moderate degree of success so far, including giving people direct access to speak to MSPs in Parliament, we illustrate some of their stories here.
As regular readers will know the bill was first published in December and a call for evidence was put out. Many of you responded giving the poor committee clerks who were in charge of reading through the evidence and publishing it all online rather a huge workload.
Gradually the evidence appeared on the Local Government and Communities Committee website and it became clear that there remains significant public interest in the planning Bill. The Government’s own research unit (SPICe) produced a breakdown of responses, it appears that 148 of the 254 responses were from ‘civil society’.
So once again, another well done for all of those groups and individuals who have taken the trouble to respond to another consultation on planning. Including Alex Cragg who aged 14 took time to write his own representation.
Please continue to sign our postcards and share our e-action
Many of you have also written to or visited your MSPs.
Its all crucial stuff and so far you have made a huge difference to the way this Bill is being perceived.
If you haven’t done so yet please contact your MSP‘s.
Following the written evidence the Local Government and Communities Committee have conducted their oral evidence sessions. It seems that this short period of parliamentary scrutiny has elicited a better debate than was had in the previous 3 years of the Government’s planning review. Some hard questions have been asked, particularly around Local Place Plans, the need to ditch strategic planning and some parts of the local development plan process as well as Equal Rights of Appeal. It is clear that the community have some political champions within the committee and that the committee and many others feel that this Bill is unlikely to resolve the problems that various people have with planning.
Planning Democracy were asked to give evidence and so two of us (Clare Symonds and Dr Andy Inch) went along on the 28th February. (You can read the transcript of our LGCC evidence session here) It was a great opportunity to represent the communities we have regular contact with and to try and put over a community perspective and to have a chance to explain why we think Equal Rights of Appeal is important.
A number of other evidence sessions followed ours including evidence. You can access them all here.
The final evidence session brought in the Minister to answer questions on the Bill. With all due respect it was a poor performance, full of obfuscation and avoidance of questions. I am not sure if anyone was impressed with the 3 hour session, but you can see for yourself here.
A more inspiring but less formal part of the evidence gathering was arranged by Scottish Environment LINK (of which Planning Democracy are a member) and hosted by Andy Wightman MSP, where community groups were able to meet with MSPs directly. Each case represented illustrated how different aspects of the planning system aren’t working for the public.
This provided us with a chance to highlight some of the main issues we want addressed in the Bill directly with MSPs:
Helping people get involved in planning at an early stage
One major theme of the Bill has been Local Place Plans. We have always had concerns that these are a weak mechanism of engagement. We believe that if people are to put energy into developing their own place plans then they should have some status and become part of the development plan. However we do think they are rather a distraction. Rather than focussing so much on this new mechanism we need to improve the mechanisms already available to people through Local Development Plan consultations. Our primary concern if the loss of engagement opportunities in the development plan process. One key stage being lost is known as the Main Issues Report, which is an important early stage for people to get involved in. Many people haven’t had a great experience of this part of the process, but we don’t think that is a reason to lose it. The participation techniques need to improve and more resources need to be poured into improving it, rather than ditching what is the most important part of development plan process.
The proposals currently on the table mean that communities will only become involved when a proposed plan is drafted. This means that much of the important discussions about housing numbers and so on will have already been had (at the evidence gathering stage and gatecheck) and people will only be able to comment on a plan when many of the important decisions have been made. Overall, we want to see far more community involvement in the whole development planning process than is currently proposed.
Our experience shows that people find it hard to engage in development planning, not because of their own lack of skill or efforts but often because there are significant obstacles put in their place or because they are not aware that they should be getting involved. This is not to say that some communities don’t have success, just that it is not made at all easy for them. This is reflected in the Kilmacolm community experience in Inverclyde, where they had to go to extraordinary lengths to set out why they wanted to protect a meadow site of exceptional quality from being released from Greenbelt status and re-designated for housing.
Case study Kilmacolm Inverclyde
The area zoned for housing in Kilmacolm
For more info on the Kilmacolm campaign go to their Facebook page
Save Our Greenbelt – West of Quarry Drive & Planetreeyetts – Kilmacolm
Despite not knowing about the Inverclyde Local Development Plan consultation until the last minute, members of Kilmacolm village came together and formed a residents association in time to input into their plan. Together they put in their objections to removing part of their village from its designation as greenbelt to the Council Planning Policy Team. Despite their swift actions they found that their submissions were ignored. They found that it was not easy to understand a lot of what was going on, not least the fact that it practically required a doctorate to understand the all-important housing figures that led to this decision being made to release greenbelt land for housing.
But the group persisted and received some help from our own peer support network, enabling them to make sense of the figures. In less than a year they wrote a 75 page report which details their arguments about their concerns on the new designation and set out exactly why they don’t want their meadow to be lost. This is a well researched, well argued report that details surplus housing numbers, the amount of new build already in the village, the relevant development plan policies. It demonstrates the need for the meadowland to remain protected as important recreational green lung for the village and provides the specific details of the stages of consultations and how many local people were involved.
It is a heroic effort and thank goodness their efforts have, to date, been finally heard by most of their councillors who, last week, voted to have the Kilmacolm meadow remain as greenbelt land in their Local Development Plan. But they are aware that they can’t rest on their laurels. They need to maintain a constant vigilance in order to protect their meadow from aggressive speculative house builders. For it is by no means guaranteed protection, as can be seen from more recent activities on the site.
How does the planning bill help communities like these? When will the rhetoric that supports ‘frontloading’ actually enable communities to engage effectively in development plan consultations? What does the Bill do to ensure that once they have taken part, their views will be listened to, acted upon and that the development plan provides them with some form of certainty for the future?
How will the Bill ensure that communities even know about the local development plan consultations? It was by chance that Kilmacolm resident found out there was a consultation happening. PD are asking that local authorities be required to establish an opt in register so that communities can ask to be put onto a list to ensure that they will be alerted to any development plan consultations and updates as well as planning applications. Local Authorities should be required to notify communities in accessible language that ensures they understand the implications of the development plans and in plenty of time for them to establish groups and discuss with their own communities.
Centralisation of decisions:
During our evidence session we also expressed concern about the centralising nature of the planning bill. We said “The Scottish Government is taking a lot of new powers when we already have a very centralised planning system. The bill provides for considerably greater centralisation”.
Park of Keir case study
Residents around the Bridge of Allan and Dunblane formed a group to oppose a development which would see part of their historic landscape turned into a housing development to finance a tennis centre, 6 hole golf course, hotel. This is a celebrity endorsed development which received around a 1000 objections which were sent to Stirling Council. Planners recommended refusal and it was turned down in Dec 2015. However possibly because of the celebrity endorsement the application was called in by the Minister to determine.
In the words of the campaign group “We won the argument at the Public Inquiry stage, (with huge costs in volunteers time and fundraising for legal costs). The planning system was overruled by the Scottish Minister. No reasons were given. The power wielded by one individual is shocking. In our opinion the Planning system and public funding bodies are being manipulated to get housing on a lucrative greenbelt site. The public asset that is our greenbelt is being sacrificed for private gain”.
For more information go to: http://www.protectparkofkeir.com/about-us.html
We don’t believe that this centralising bill offers any assurances that decisions made by Scottish Government are done so in a manner that is transparent and in the public interest. It is not only us who are worried that the Bill doesn’t guard against the diminishment of local democracy when Government call in decisions. How is the call in process subject to democratic scrutiny?
As Graham Simpson (Conservative MSP on the LGCC) put it during one of the evidence sessions
“in what way is the Minister democratically accountable”?
The committee also raised the issue of appeal rights for communities. It has been refreshing that Equal Rights of Appeal has had a reasonable airing, the issue has been raised in every subsequent session to ours, with some interesting results. Most notably the fact that Edinburgh City Council (and it turns out Fife Council too) have both come out in favour of providing communities with a right of appeal.
In his evidence David Leslie from Edinburgh City Council stated
“the planning system since its start has built into it a right of community engagement. Most Local Authorities are looking at ways for more meaningful engagement. The Council has reached a position where our experience of frontloading has not been enough to generate community trust and confidence in the planning system.
We are asking ourselves what more is required to do that. Some of what more could be required is tools like Local Place Plans and other tools of engagement.
But there does still seem to be at the end of the process in certain circumstances a lack of opportunity for the community to feel that they can question the way in which a decision has been made.
We have set out certain circumstances where defined community bodies (and we use the same terminology as in the community empowerment act) could be given some form of quality of right of appeal”.
Graham Simpson (Conservative MSP on the LGCC) followed this up saying it was a refreshing, unusual and progressive perspective and suggested that possibly Edinburgh City Council be used as a pilot for ERA.
Certainly, with the amount of public disquiet happening around planning in Edinburgh at the moment this would be a welcome suggestion. A packed meeting of around 250 people on 18th April concerning the Meadowbank developments showed the strength of opinion on yet another controversial application and the way the consultation has been handled. It may, in the future, be another case where appeal rights for communities should be considered in cases the local authority is making a decision on its own applications.
The issue of the right of the developer to appeal decisions has also been raised as a means of equalising the system. Planning Democracy maintain that better planning decisions are more likely to happen if both parties (developers and communities) have equal rights. This case illustrates how councillors sometimes feel obliged to make decisions against their better judgements, because of the threat of appeal from the developer.
Case study Pattiesmuir, Fife
In Fife, an application to which there are 5 or more objections must go ‘to committee’. Until recently, this provided a chance for the democratically elected Councillors to have their say and, if they so minded, support the case made by objectors and refuse the application. A small, but significant, housing development in Pattiesmuir in Fife raises the issue of the impact of an unbalanced system of appeals. An application to add eight houses to a tiny hamlet of 24 dwellings received 28 objections because the effect on the amenity of existing dwellings and residents was potentially overwhelming.
Councillors who really opposed the development felt obliged to pass the decision for fear of the developers appealing the decision. The pressure on the councillors not to incur the Council expenses on yet another developer appeal led them to make what they felt was the wrong decision. If the community also had the right to appeal the decision would not be biased in favour of one party and perhaps a better decision, based on the merits of the application and quality and need for the development would have been made.
Finally, the issue of repeat applications was raised by one group who have had to respond time and again to a developer’s inability to accept the answer no to an application.
Case study The Terminator Application at Lamington, South Lanarkshire
The bonnie banks of the Clyde at Lamington
A rural community in South Lanarkshire have, for 9 years, been opposing a quarry development along the banks of the Clyde at Lamington. The community are no strangers to quarry development, being a stone’s throw from the opencast in Douglas and sand and gravel quarries at the foot of the iconic Tinto Hill. But a particular application for a sand and gravel extraction site has been the thorn in the side of many for too long. The quarry is hugely unpopular because of its impact on prime agricultural land and a popular tourist scenic area, as well as raising concerns about flooding and traffic impacts to mention a few.
The developers first lodged an application in 2009.
This was refused by the local authority but in 2011 they came back with another application, which was again refused.
The developer appealed this decision to the Scottish Government, but the appeal was dismissed.
Not satisfied, the company then took to the courts, but the judges supported the Government and local authority decisions.
It was the hope and expectation of the community at the end of the last application that it was the end of the matter.
But undeterred Paterson’s application has reappeared Terminator like, once again.
For it is the right of the developer, to put in repeat applications and to appeal decisions relentlessly and it is a frequently used developer tactic to do this, until eventually they get success, no matter how controversial or environmentally damaging the proposal.
The experience of planning for this community is a war of attrition which they can only lose. So far preventing the quarry has cost the community £123,000 and years of angst, effort and uncertainty. But the real injustice lies in the fact that the developer has significant rights and resources at their disposal, whilst communities have none in comparison.
NB: the decision about this application will be made 1st May, 10am at South Lanarkshire, Almada St, Hamilton for more information go to Clyde River Action Group CRAG Facebook page
Should the developer win his war of attrition and finally be granted planning permission then this would be a classic situation where a right of appeal for the community would be highly justified.
However, this situation might never arise if something was done to address the oft used tactic of repeat applications. Currently local authorities have discretionary powers to refuse to determine repeat applications if a similar application is submitted within two years of each other. However, two years is a very short time, for communities to consult and raise awareness of a new application, to do this after such a short period can be exhausting. There is no justification for an almost identical application to be applied for in such a short period of time. We are asking for the period during which a local authority can refuse to determine an application be extended to 10 years and for fees to be increased every time a developer applies with the same application.
We hope that those MSPs who came and chatted to the community representatives will consider these points and others that were raised. It is important that all MSPs understand the implications of the Bill for communities as we move into the next stages of the Bill, where amendments are put forward.
We are working very hard to introduce a number of amendments to the Bill, particularly on the issues above.
Come and join us outside Parliament on the day of the stage 1 debate, (date tbc)
Continue to keep MSPs minds on the needs of their constituents and the people of Scotland as the Bill progresses its way through its parliamentary stages.
This is a once in a generation opportunity, please continue to help us.
Feature picture courtesy of Image © Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body with thanks