Bill Jamieson: The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’s talking shop

Planning decisions provoke violent and unpredictable responses. Photograph: Kobal/Rex
Planning decisions provoke violent and unpredictable responses. Photograph: Kobal/Rex
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MCLEISH’S mission to make the planning system inclusive and collaborative threatens to render it more labyrinthine than ever, writes Bill Jamieson

Hello all! It is my pleasure to introduce Mr Hyde of 32 ComeAndGo Mansions – a fresh recruit to Henry McLeish’s exciting new Scottish Alliance for People and Places!

Mr Hyde has long been a vocal critic of Scotland’s planning system. He says it is a time-wasting maze, riddled with interfering busybodies and over-zealous, anti-enterprise regulators – folk with clipboards and pointy noses.

This critique may be because his plans for a five bedroom mansion in the National Park have been knocked back. While admittedly ambitious and ranging to four floors in height, the application, he insists, is sympathetic to the local vernacular. It will create jobs and be covered with solar panels in accordance with Holyrood’s renewable energy commitments. He is particularly enraged at a community play park application next door and that the planning authority has insisted on a concrete disabled access ramp disfiguring his neo-Georgian frontage.

Hey, hello again! It’s my pleasure to introduce Dr Jekyll. He also lives at 32 ComeAndGo Mansions. He bears a striking resemblance to Mr Hyde except in the evenings when the latter sprouts facial hair. Dr Jekyll has been newly co-opted on to McLeish’s Alliance – though is strangely absent when Mr Hyde is in attendance.

Dr Jekyll has long been a critic of Scotland’s planning system. He believes it’s in the grip of maniacal property developers, useless inspectors and at the mercy of greedy corporations riding roughshod over the concerns of conservationists and local community groups. The system, he says, is besieged by Grand Designs millionaires only concerned to have their vulgar, over-sized mansions drooled over by Channel Four’s Kevin McCloud.

Some have alleged that Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde may be one and the same person, depending on whether it is he, or his neighbours, seeking planning permission.

Good luck to the new Alliance for People and Places. It couldn’t wish for a more inclusive chair than former first minister and Global Scots co-author McLeish. He has brought together ten organisations working across the “planning and placemaking sectors” to urge the Scottish Government to “deliver a more inclusive, collaborative and innovative planning system” when the Planning Bill is introduced to Holyrood later this year.

Founding members are the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla), the Institution of Civil Engineers, Planning Aid for Scotland, Paths for All, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the RSA, the Royal Town Planning Institute, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, the Scottish Mediation Network and Scotland’s Towns Partnership.

And if this wasn’t a sufficient cacophony of conflicting voices, present at the launch were Kevin Stewart, minister for local government and housing; and MSPs Graham Simpson (Conservative), Monica Lennon (Labour) and Andy Wightman (Green).

McLeish says he wants to “present an ambitious vision for a refreshed and revitalised planning system in Scotland that delivers” – we’re aye delivering – “through collaboration and dialogue”. The expertise, he ends in ringing tones, can make “transformational cultural change a reality”.

Collaboration? Transformational culture change? Nothing better captures the yellyhooing lobbies deeply embedded in Scottish planning and the feuding, grulshy bairns of Patrick Geddes. They have long laid siege to a planning system charged with reconciling so many diverse, if not diametrically opposed, views. What can Henry’s Grand Alliance – truly a gowk’s errand – add that is not already well represented?

Scotland’s planning system is Byzantine. To gain an idea of how it works, the Scottish Government has provided a helpful “short guide” on its website. Also available in nine languages, it runs to more than 2,800 words with bullet points, pyramid timelines and diagrams. It can’t, the authors confess, “cover every question”. What a relief.

The guide reads: “The planning system should help build a growing economy, but at the same time protect our environment for future generations and make sure that communities can enjoy a better quality of life.” This surely suggests that the ambitions of the Scottish Alliance are already catered for, without the need to add yet another body to an already exploding galaxy of colliding stars.

Each council area in Scotland is covered by a local development plan setting out where most new developments are proposed and the policies that will guide decision-making. In many areas there will also be a strategic development plan dealing with region-wide issues.

Councils are already required to talk to communities and local businesses and make a main issues report, preparatory to a proposed plan open to public comment and subject also, where necessary, to an examination ordained by Scottish ministers.

All applications must contain a description of plans and location; a certificate showing the site owners and any agricultural tenants, and whether they have been notified. If the proposal is for a major development a pre-application community consultation will be required together with a design and access statement. Some proposals may also need an Environmental Impact Assessment or Appropriate Assessment. Finally, there are exhaustive protocols in place for appeals and objections.

Despite all this, approved developments can still leave us gasping at how on earth permission was granted. “Strategic plans” are at the mercy of constant change and never more than now when the digital economy is breaking down preconceived zones for business and residential use.

And little wonder Scotland’s builders are finding it harder than ever to make a start on new sites and homes.

The time taken on planning decisions for a major housing application was recently calculated at 48.5 weeks, more than three times the statutory period of 16 weeks – and 40 per cent below pre-recession levels.

But now we are to hear more – much more – from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and their vocal lobbies, campaigners and supporters. It adds yet another voice and platform to those already available, with the attendant danger of further slowing an already lengthy planning process. But some can give the impression that it cannot be lengthy enough.

Another aerated, pith and birr talking shop is one thing. Delivery of “collaborative, transformational culture change” will, I fear, prove quite another.