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May 5, 2020

Planning goes behind closed doors 

Only at times of genuine crisis does it become really clear where true priorities lie. In relation to the NHS it was clear from the start that Covid-19 was the number one priority and a consensus was built around that premise. The planning system however, which we are told values early public engagement above all else, has developed no such consensus around how it should operate during the crisis. Instead, it has become apparent just how little value is placed on transparent decision making, open to public scrutiny. Democracy it seems can be dispensed with when it suits.

Rule changes during the Covid-19 pandemic favour property developers and risk shutting the public out from the planning system, according to Scottish civic groups.

They warn that new emergency rules allowing more council planning meetings to take place in private with no public scrutiny could be “normalised”. The rules were introduced in consultation with developers but not community groups, they say.

There are also fears that in some parts of Scotland council officials, or small groups of senior councillors, could make decisions on controversial developments with little or no involvement from members of the public or opposition councillors.

Campaigners are now calling for planning decisions that are not critical to public health, or the national economy, to be put on hold while public gatherings and official meetings are restricted to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Local authorities have been urged by the Scottish Government to relax planning restrictions on businesses where planning can “contribute to economic and social recovery” during the Covid-19 outbreak. Councils across Scotland have suspended or restricted the normal operation of planning committees.

Along with new emergency rules, senior planners at the Scottish Government have issued guidance requiring developers embarking on major new projects to undertake online consultation instead of public meetings. Major development proposals are being allowed to progress after online-only public consultation events.

The rules were introduced after consultation with industry bodies representing property developers, such as the Scottish Property Federation and Homes for Scotland. However, key groups representing communities in the planning system said that they were not contacted by civil servants when they were drawing up the new regulations.

The campaign group, Planning Democracy, has written to MSPs on the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government and Communities Committee, expressing concerns about the changes. “The government appears to have taken the easy option to reduce public engagement, albeit temporarily, and renege on democratic commitments,” the letter said.

“Including the community sector in initial discussions might have gone some way to dispelling the inevitable public suspicion surrounding new regulations or relaxations of rules.”

Planning Democracy’s chair, Clare Symonds, told The Ferret: “Again the planning system is captured by the interests it is supposed to be regulating and relegates communities to the bottom of the pile.

“There are hugely powerful vested interests in the world of planning who would be happy to see a gradual dismantling of the planning system. We must ensure that none of these changes lead to long-term damage to the interests of local communities and to the environment.”

Short-cut executive processes aimed, properly, at keeping crucial services operating should not be used for important planning decisions.

Her concerns were echoed by Terry Levinthal, director of the Edinburgh conservation group, The Cockburn Association. He has written to the City of Edinburgh Council about its decision to suspend the planning committee and increase the number of decisions taken by delegated officials.

“We believe that short-cut executive processes aimed, properly, at keeping crucial services operating should not be used for important planning decisions,” Levinthal said.

“The suspension of council’s planning committee and development management sub-committee should also mean the suspension of decision-taking on applications, with perhaps the exception of minor householder applications. Determining a planning application is not a critical public health or strategic economic decision.”

In coming months, the City of Edinburgh Council is due to take decisions on high profile projects such as the Quaich Project in West Princes Street Gardens, and the future of the much-debated city Christmas market.

Levinthal argued that “civic and public regard” should be “placed above any short-term administrative processes that might result from the current public health crisis.” There was also unease within The Cockburn Association that the new arrangements could persist.

“Our concern is that emergency measures put in place, reasonably, to deal such situations tend to remain in place, with the justification shifting from crisis management to recovery management and then beyond, until the changes are normalised,” Levinthal said.

“When given the choice of making speedy decisions for the benefit of industry comes across participation and community engagement, the former always wins out.”

Levinthal added: “No doubt, the call to stimulate the economy after Covid will be used by many to call for even more deregulation, describing the statutory planning system as an impediment to recovery or growth. The fact that communities rely on it to protect amenity and ensure civic benefit is seldom heard by politicians.”

The Ferret has previously published details of undeclared meetings held between Scottish politicians and developers at the annual MIPIM property conference held in Cannes.

We have also revealed how the Covid-19 crisis has led to the weakening of environmental inspections at thousands of industrial sites and the relaxation of limits on pesticides at fish farms. Scotland is also the only nation in the UK to have rolled back freedom of information law because of coronavirus.

Scottish Greens communities spokesperson, Andy Wightman MSP, was disappointed that “none of these changes increase the openness or transparency of the planning process”. It was “particularly concerning that the planning process now risks excluding members of the public,” he said.

“The Coronavirus (Scotland) Act gave local authorities the power to exclude the public from their meetings on health grounds, but there is no reason why meetings that have moved online should not include the public to some degree: the technology is there and indeed being used,” he added.

“Some of the changes to the planning system are designed to be temporary, but changes that exclude communities from decision making are not helpful and should be rescinded as soon as possible.”

Covid-19 has also delayed Scottish Government plans to consult on the regulation of short-term lets, as well as other measures to reform the planning system.

The Scottish Government stressed that the new planning rules were temporary. “Public consultation events cannot take place as a public gathering just now, so the new legislation allows that crucial engagement and community influence to happen through online methods,” said planning minister, Kevin Stewart.

“We supported that with guidance on pre-application consultation, and engaged with community representatives in developing that guidance.”

He added: “In a letter published earlier this month, the chief planner and I have already made it clear that this is a temporary, pragmatic change during the emergency period and that we retain our commitment, not just to return to the previous arrangements, but to further enhance this community engagement as part of our wider reform of the planning system programme.”

Homes for Scotland, which represents house building companies, pointed out that protecting citizens from coronavirus was everyone’s number one priority. “In terms of longer term social and economic recovery, building the homes that Scotland so desperately needs will be of fundamental importance,” said planning director, Tammy Swift-Adams.

“We have therefore worked with the Scottish Government to find pragmatic temporary solutions to the new challenges the pandemic has placed on the planning system and wider regulatory consents process. On pre-application consultation, our priority has been to ensure that no member of the public, local authority staff or applicant is put at risk.”

She added: “Alternative public consultation arrangements have been put in place to protect those participants for public health reasons. The pandemic presents an unprecedented challenge to local and national governments and we commend all efforts to ensure it causes minimum disruption to people’s lives.

“Making decisions in the public interest is a core duty of local authorities and it is positive to see many of them coming forward with emergency decision-making arrangements.”

David Melhuish director of the Scottish Property Federation, a trade association for commercial and residential property companies, said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced unprecedented change to society, including the functions of local authority services. The extent of economic damage and impact on people’s livelihoods is beyond anything seen in centuries.

“Our members are responsible for delivering new and regenerated places for people to work and live, and investment for the wider economy. The planning service is key to unlocking these activities.

“We have therefore engaged with the Scottish Government constructively on how to support the planning service functions during this crisis, including on new, temporary approaches to support community engagement for pre-application requirements and procedures.

“Our discussions proposed pragmatic, responsible solutions to ensure the planning service does not grind to halt during this lockdown, causing a backlog that would take months to kick-start after the government allows wider business activities to resume. This lag would pose longer-term risks to jobs and recovery.”