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December 14, 2020

A mockery of democracy

The thing about democracy is that while we may disagree with those we elect, the way to resolve those disagreements has to be through the ballot box. If we don’t like them then we should be able to vote them out of office. But that principle seems to have been set to one side when it comes to the planning system. Latest figures indicate that a significant majority of Council decisions to refuse planning permission are routinely overturned on appeal by the Scottish Government. As one ex-councillor commented, it  ‘makes a mockery of local democracy’.

Scottish Construction Now

The large number of planning application decisions overturned by the Scottish Government is “making a mockery of local democracy”, according to a former councillor.

Figures published by the Press & Journal, revealed that 80% of applications turned down by councillors in Orkney have been approved on appeal by Scottish Government reporters, while 12 of the last 18 major housing developments have been overturned in Dundee — more than 66%.

Nationally, the Scottish Government has approved on average 40% of appeals submitted since April 2015.

But figures for Angus, Fife, Perth and Kinross, Highlands and Islands, Orkney show significantly higher rates.

Jimmy Black, a former councillor who served as depute convener of planning on Dundee City Council, explains how the rules can make it difficult for those approving sites.

“Councillors, when they consider planning applications, are bound by a very strict set of obscure rules, which means they can only object to developments for technical or legal reasons,” he told the Press & Journal.

“Simply not liking a development isn’t enough, but I’m fairly sure whether councillors or their constituents like a development or not is a very important factor.

“That leaves officers in the difficult position of finding acceptable reasons for decisions taken by councillors which, on the face of it, seem hard to justify under the rules.

“Maybe the best example was mobile phone masts, although they seem to go through much more easily now. The temptation is to leave unpopular decisions to the reporter, who doesn’t have to stand for election locally.

“I suspect some developers factor in the costs and time involved with an appeal to the Scottish Government whenever they propose doing something unpopular, like building a new housing scheme near existing homes.

“Clearly Scottish Governments over the years have not trusted local government to make good decisions. That’s a shame because it turns local councillors into consultees rather than decisionmakers.

“With the exception of nationally important developments, like railways or roads, and working within a clear framework of rules, it seems to me councils should be allowed to live or die by their own decisions.

“If a council strangles economic development through poor decision making, let the electors kick them out.

“And, equally, if councils allow over-development to the detriment of their communities, the ballot box is the way to get rid of them. Where they act illegally, the courts are there for that.

“A strong example of the government overriding local wishes is the saga over the site of the old Kingspark school.

“The council eventually bowed to a strong and sustained community campaign and rejected the proposed Persimmon housing scheme — the Scottish Government reporter overruled it. To me, that made a mockery of local democracy.”

Will Dawson, convener of Dundee City Council’s planning committee, said allowing applicants to appeal, and those decisions being made by government reporter, was part of the “robust process”.

He said: “Planning decisions are made in accordance with the Local Development Plan, the Tayplan Strategic Plan and Scottish Government legislation, which have all gone through a rigorous and lengthy process of draft and re-draft to take into account the views of everyone who has a stake in the built environment.

“All of this information goes on to form the basis of officers’ recommendations; however, most of the applications decided on by the planning committee will use the policies of the local development plan, which has also been agreed by the council at the city development committee.

“Most of the applications highlighted here as being granted on appeal were recommended for approval by officers when they were initially brought to the planning committee.

“Members can, quite rightly, disagree with the recommendations of officers at the committee. There may be differing views on applications that come to planning committee, but as long as decisions are based solely on material planning grounds, the decisions are valid.

“Applicants that are unhappy with the planning committee’s decision have the right of appeal. This is a key aspect of the planning process.

“The most critical point to make is that the planning system in Scotland allows for different views.

“However, it is important to stress that the overwhelming majority of Dundee City Council planning decisions are not appealed and none of the planning committee’s decisions which were subject to appeal were challenged on the basis that the committee acted unlawfully. As such, I believe that we have a robust process.”

The Scottish Government said the majority of planning decisions are still made by ocal authority planning committees.

A spokesperson added: “The applicants right of appeal to Scottish Ministers relating to certain decisions made by the local planning authority is an important part of the planning system.

“Most planning appeals are decided by an independent reporter who is required, by law, to make the decision on the planning merits of the case, taking full account of submissions made by all parties involved, including members of the local community.

“The final decision on the vast majority of development proposals is made by the relevant local planning authority.”