Bill Jamieson: Fast track paved with good intentions

Edinburgh is considering plans to make George Street more friendly to pedestrians. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Edinburgh is considering plans to make George Street more friendly to pedestrians. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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How can we improve our planning system? Why can it take so long for broadly acceptable and beneficial projects to go through – yet controversial developments seem to have a high-speed steam-roller flattening all opposition?

Planning has forever been a battleground between powerful forces: the pressure for economic development and growth, whether in housing, transport infrastructure or commercial expansion, and calls for conservation and heritage protection, with ever greater community involvement, consultation and accountability making for a distraught troika.

These forces need not be mutually exclusive. But our planning system is boxed in and constantly besieged on these fronts. Developers, with pressure on resources and budgets, rail against a system that they often find overly bureaucratic, time-consuming, fussily obsessed with “vernacular” style and environmental minutiae.

The combined effect, they say, can be to stifle creativity and innovation.

At the same time, local communities feel put upon by inappropriate developments and projects destructive of local habitat or aesthetics.

Meanwhile, the remit of planners grows ever wider and more prescriptive. Is it really necessary for Mrs Goggins’ back porch to require planning permission? Is every decaying tree a vital habitat for a rare species of Romanian bat?

As if all this were not sufficient cause for contention, developers and architects have lost count of the number of times they have been assured by local authorities of improvements that would simplify the system only to find the application process more complicated than ever. Reams of forms have to be completed to meet this regulation or that planning protocol.

And despite the promises of a streamlined process, the system still seems to grind slowly. In July last year, nearly 1,900 applications were more than a year old, and one reached back some 32 years.

But what should we expect, when cuts in planning budgets have extended to some 20 per cent in five years? Often a planning application can be stuck in the pile because of a shortage of staff – the officer assigned to it is off sick and their deputy signed off on maternity leave for the next six months.

This is the background to the Scottish Government’s independent review of the planning system published last week. It was set up last year to conduct “a game-changing review”. Its high-powered authors included Crawford Beveridge, chairman of the Scottish Government’s council of economic advisers, John Hamilton, a former chairman of the Scottish Property Federation, and Petra Biberbach, chief executive of Planning Aid for Scotland.

They say a “fundamental rethink of the system as a whole is needed” and itemise no fewer than 48 recommendations which they believe would strengthen the system. Planners and councils in particular need to be “bolder” in tackling future challenges and there is a need for a “culture change” to move planning away from “micro-management of the built environment” to “focus instead on delivering great places now, and for future generations”.

Well, good luck with all that. Most of the individual recommendations are uncontentious and indeed laudable – for example, greater use of IT and the internet to improve efficiency and speed up the system.

On “big picture” reform, the report calls for a national infrastructure agency or working group with statutory powers; for a “development delivery infrastructure fund”, and for local authorities and their partners to become much bolder in their approach to infrastructure investment.

Controversial Section 75 planning obligations (requiring commitment to ancillary development) should be retained but their use should be minimised and the process streamlined.

The quality and effectiveness of pre-application discussions with planning authorities and consultation by developers – an innovation that has been broadly welcomed by applicants – should be significantly improved.

Less welcome for developers is a proposal that planning fees on major applications should be increased substantially, “so that the service moves towards full cost recovery.” Many will cavil at this without big reform of a cumbersome, labour intensive process.

And then there is a clutch of proposals to improve community access and accountability. “Communities should be empowered to bring forward their own local place plans, and these should form part of the development plan”; community councils should be given a statutory right to be consulted on the development plan; a “working group” should be established to identify barriers to greater involvement in planning, taking account of measures contained in the Community Empowerment Act and the Land Reform Act; and a new statutory right for young people to be consulted on the development plan should be introduced.

The problem with the report overall is that it fires in different and conflicting directions: seeking to improve speed and efficiency while simultaneously introducing new requirements and consultation protocols for new development. All very laudable – but the end result could be a slower and more exhaustive planning process.

As it is, a veil of ambiguity persists on the goal of “sustainable development” – I have yet to come across an agreed definition of what it actually means. Greater “community engagement” could render the process more vulnerable to combative and unrepresentative pressure group activism. And I have long been wary of grandiose plans for 10 and 20-year regional strategic development: the pace of economic change can render these meaningless within a few years. Not long ago the cry was for more office space. Now the explosion in digital technology has meant companies require less space.

The expert panel has brought incisive research and drawn together many good recommendations. What we have here is a honeypot of good intentions for a boxed-in and gummed-up planning system. But the danger is an end result of ever deeper treacle.