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October 21, 2015

Planning goes under the microscope – again

It doesn’t seem long since Scotland’s planning system underwent a major review with significant changes coming on the back of it. But it seems these changes have not been substantial enough to satisfy the Scottish Government demands for a planning system that’s fit for purpose. Cab Sec for Planning, Alex Neil MSP has just appointed an independent panel with a remit to come up with some game changing ideas. Planning Democracy, the group that campaigns to give communities a stronger voice within the planning system, has written this open letter to the review group. 


Planning Democracy

Open letter to the members of the Independent Planning Review Group

Dear Crawford Beveridge, Petra Biberbach and John Hamilton,

Planning Democracy welcome the news that the Scottish Government have decided to carry out a root and branch review of planning.  We recognise the opportunity that a review of planning offers to take stock of a period of considerable change, address issues and bring forward a truly progressive agenda that further enhances Scotland’s planning system.

The planning system in Scotland always faces a range of significant challenges. At present for example, there is considerable pressure to ensure the system plays its part in delivering the levels of new and affordable housing, essential for people’s quality of life.  We certainly aspire to see housing needs addressed and, as we are sure you aware, it is crucial that new housing is built in high quality settlements, which embrace principles of sustainable urban and rural design whilst also protecting and enhancing sensitive parts of our natural and cultural heritage. As with all development, it is also vitally important that housing sites are established through meaningful consultation with local communities. These considerations of sustainability and participation ensure that what we build now will contribute for the long-term to a fairer, more prosperous Scotland.

We are pleased to see that community engagement is one of the strands of the review.  It is now  nearly 10 years since the major changes introduced by the 2006 Planning Etc. Scotland Act were brought into force. The Act promised to transform public engagement in planning, particularly by front-loading meaningful opportunities for the public to shape development. We believe that it is now timely to review whether the changes introduced have delivered against their intended aims and objectives. Ideally we would therefore like the panel to carry out a comprehensive analysis of public participation in planning as part of the review, including a commitment to hearing the perspectives of individuals and communities who have sought to use the mechanisms available to participate in decisions that affect their lives. 

We are aware that the panel might not wish to recommend a review of appeal rights. However, we, as you will no doubt be aware, maintain that the fact that communities in Scotland have no (qualified) right to appeal planning decisions made in favour of developers is a significant shortcoming of the planning system. We would ask you to consider the implications that a lack of equality in appeal rights has on the public’s perceptions of planning. Current land reform and community empowerment legislation is considered far more progressive and radical by comparison in the way that it moves towards a more participative and empowered society. It is clear that the conspicuous inequality of appeal rights is an increasingly incendiary topic amongst communities. We maintain that there is continued and growing dissatisfaction with a system that seeks to adhere to principles of participatory democracy but stops short of ensuring all actors have equal rights.  Given that front-loading was viewed as an alternative to a third party right of appeal, we believe that the panel should therefore consider an equal right of appeal as an alternative when evaluating the current system.

Planning Democracy would also welcome the opportunity to give our perspective which is based on both substantial research and ongoing engagement with many commnuities throughout Scotland.
We would therefore be interested to learn more about the ways in which the panel intend to approach the public engagement element of the review. Would it be possible to offer our perspectives in more detail to the panel? If the panel do intend to seek evidence then we would be willing to assist in any way possible.

We appreciate that you have considerable work to do, but we would also request that you consider looking into two further issues:
1. The enforcement  of planning conditions. This is an issue that Planning Democracy seem to be hearing a great deal about. To ensure that people are not subjected to unwarranted levels of environmental impact and that public trust in the operation of the system is maintained it is imperative to ensure developments comply with planning conditions and agreed environmental limits.  We believe that the panel should consider investigating current enforcement powers and the ways in which they are being resourced and used.

2. Repeat applications. This issue is regularly raised by members of the public. The current idea of a plan-led system guiding development yet retaining the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances is sound. However, if a local authority has decided against a particular type of development any party making repeat applications should be required to explain how they have addressed the concerns raised previously. Rigorous efforts should be made to ensure that developers do not profit by simply wearing down planning authorities and particularly local communities for whom there are often considerable personal costs involved in sustaining participation.

We would be grateful for your consideration of these issues.
Yours sincerely
Clare Symonds
On behalf of Planning Democracy
Planning Democracy is a Scottish Charity that campaigns for a fairer more inclusive planning system in Scotland    SC041051