Scotland’s planning bill: a time consuming grind, an opportunity missed, a failure of democracy

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It has taken a few days to recover from the long sessions spent in Parliament listening to the debates and voting on the planning bill. Really, they do need to sort the seats out in there, although most tourist visitors appear to stay an average of 10 minutes, ours were two marathon 5 hour sessions followed by the final debate on the 20th June, by which time we were rolling up jumpers to use as cushions for our suffering behinds.

This was our last effort in what has been a gruelling four years of review and legislative process. One wonders if all the hours, days and weeks we put into it all have been worth it. What will this new legislation have to offer communities and those seeking to protect our planet from the ravages of poorly regulated development? Bearing in mind it is the most amended bill in the history of Holyrood, which involved the lengthiest of parliamentary time to sort out, one could be forgiven for thinking a new Planning Scotland Act should deliver something noteworthy somewhere. The sad fact is that it doesn’t. Even the housebuilding lobby are likely to be more relieved that they successfully fought off Equal Rights of Appeal than in celebratory mood about the new legislation. But more importantly, it was the public who had most to gain from what could have been a transformative bill, who will be the most disappointed.

The final debate on the bill was heated, strong language was used and perhaps frustrations of MSPs having spent so long on a bill that delivered very little were vented.  Equal Rights of Appeal was much mentioned and we thank those MSPs who spoke on behalf of communities and in particular our thanks go to Andy Wightman and Alex Rowley for putting forward amendments. It was significant that in the end, it was only the Conservatives and SNP who saw fit to vote through the new legislation.

Neil Findlay gave possibly the most impassioned speech saying “This week, the SNP, the Tories and their business allies have stitched up the Planning (Scotland) Bill. The dogs in the street know it. On equal rights of appeal and on short-term lets they have shamefully let down communities. They have been bought and sold for developers’ gold.”

Claudia Beamish gave her constituency perspective “Often, applications are made near marginalised communities, as has happened in the past with open-cast sites. Farmers are worn down and, frankly, gradually bought off by the company. In a civilised country, that is not a place where anyone should be. It is shameful that, on this matter, the Scottish Government is not on the side of the people.”

And Monica Lennon quoted Planning Democracy “We are deeply disappointed by this Bill, which has been a huge missed opportunity to transform the way we do planning. Scotland needs to take a different approach to development to tackle key issues such as the climate emergency, this Bill reinforces a business as usual approach”   She herself said to the minister that “it is quite sad that that is how communities in Scotland feel”.

This bill typifies the state of our democracy and brings into sharp relief a political system that works at the behest of the development lobby. Any amendments brought forward that seek to challenge current power dynamics, were perhaps always likely to be unsuccessful. Equal Rights of Appeal were the obvious example, but also other issues such as those seeking better regulation of hill tracks. Although to some these may appear to be amendments requiring a technical change from permitted development to requiring planning consent, these changes challenge the privilege and power of the shooting estates and as such are repeatedly ignored, misrepresented and ultimately voted down by those in power.

Many of our supporters during the campaign for ERA have told us that their MSP supported their local planning campaign and assured them that they support the community voice. Some MSPs represent their constituents by writing letters to the Minister, thereby demonstrating their apparent opposition to a controversial development. The local campaign groups are later aggrieved to find that when it comes to changing the legislation, that would make it easier to understand the system and enable them to challenge these very developments, their MSPs appear to renege on the deal and vote against real community rights.

Patrick Harvie summed it up nicely in the frank debate on Equal Rights of Appeal when he said that the public can’t win as long as “planning ministers of any political party find themselves under pressure from civil servants and vested interests’ to vote against”. Indeed, that is exactly what happened. The Minister and the party political system have required, even those who have, in the past, put forward their own private bills on third party right of appeal, to vote against their conscience. No wonder the public trust in politics is so low, when those who state in public and in their constituency surgeries that they support the principle of levelling the playing field and giving communities a right of appeal, but do not do so when the opportunity to make it happen finally arrives. What a miserable job it must be to be a politician toeing the party line, having to search for reasons to argue that black is white and to be forced to vote against something you really believe in.

Neil Findlay asked the minister whether he accepted that, “if we pass the bill as it stands, there will still be an inherent imbalance in the system in favour of developers over communities?” Kevin Stewart repliedNo, I disagree with that completely and utterly.”  It is very likely that Mr Stewart does in fact recognise the imbalances, but his position requires him to publicly deny what is glaringly self-evident.

Andy Wightman in his closing speech suggested that the Minister could have worked in a more collaborative manner, which might have at least enabled a more coherent bill, and a more constructive process. However, this would not negate the fact that Scotland’s current political agenda is dominated by an addiction to economic growth that leaves it beholden to the vested interests it should be regulating. The end result will have been similar, but it might have taken less time.

Alex Cole Hamilton said “We are told that planning bills come every 10 years. That is a great shame, and I hope very much that the next planning bill comes sooner than that

We tentatively agree, it would be great to have another opportunity to bring about some decent legislation, however some things have got to fundamentally change first, otherwise we fear it will be another energy sapping, life consuming experience of all pain and very little gain.

Having said that it hasn’t all been bad, we have had some small wins. The period before a repeat application can be lodged has been extended from 2 to 5 years. We have made a start on getting a purpose for planning. It would have been preferable if the statement of purpose had covered the whole of the planning system, but fears of litigation meant the Government limited the scope of the purpose to cover development planning, but not development management. We now have a guarantee to review Local Place Plans in 7 years time. Though not specifically stated that this will include a review of appeals, it will be an opportunity to raise the issue again. Two additional pluses have been that planning decisions are now required to be accompanied by a statement that outlines whether the planning authority considers its decision to be in accordance with the development plan and that the National Planning Framework will undergo greater parliamentary scrutiny and is required to be passed by Parliament. On the face of it not a lot to be pleased about, but the question is what would the Bill have looked like if we hadn’t put up such a rigorous challenge? For more information Cliff Hague has written an excellent piece which shows how the planning legislation has been “tweaked”, his views generally echo our sentiments about the bill.

However little we appeared to gain from the final bill itself there have been other outcomes that are far more exciting. We have over the past four years developed a strong and cohesive network of people who are passionate about getting real change. We found we had to work so hard to be heard that we had to draw on the collective voice of the community to augment our own arguments. We spent literally weeks contacting people, urging you to speak to your elected representatives, to respond to the consultations and surveys and to spread the word. We asked you again and again to send postcards, sign e-actions and write letters and you responded to our requests every time. Many of you asked for guidance on what to say to your MSP on what was a complex piece of legislation. We responded to you all, often individually, providing information and support where we could. The result was a lot of connections and a shared sense of purpose with a bunch of people who are as dogged and determined as ourselves.

Planning Democracy wrote over 50,000 words in consultation responses, we went to numerous meetings, workshops and working groups, wrote briefings, spent hours pouring through amendments trying to figure out the potential implications of them all. We tried and tried to contact the Minister, but despite two years of requesting meetings (and contrary to his declaration that his door was always open) the only way to achieve a meeting with him was to publish an open letter signed by over 87 groups in the media. Even then his tone was reluctant as he stated in a letter prior to the meeting, that he had already made up his mind. indeed he had, the Minister was not for turning.

In the end we collectively made our point very clearly, our voice was heard, that much was clear from the debates. Unfortunately, we were ignored. But this doesn’t mean we are going to go give up. We will take some time to reflect and to decide, with you, where to go next and what to focus on. The problems and implications of doing nothing are just too important to bail out now. Apart from sorting out planning we have a democracy to restore, we have a climate emergency, we have vested interests to confront and justice to be done. The good news is that we have a strong resilient bunch of people to help and inspire us to do that.

Bring it on.

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