Warning over English bid to cut red tape on developers

Tony Aitken: 'planning system needs more than a bit of tinkering'. Picture: Contributed
Tony Aitken: 'planning system needs more than a bit of tinkering'. Picture: Contributed
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A PLAN to ease red tape on property developers in England will accelerate moves towards a two-speed planning system north and south of the Border, a property agent has warned.

The Westminster government has put in place planning policy which embraces a “presumption in favour of sustainable development”, while in Scotland planning ministers have merely been “tinkering” with the planning system, said Tony Aitken, head of planning at property agency Colliers International.

Aitken is concerned that property developers in England can take advantage of a three-year scheme to relax planning restrictions on changing offices to residential use under the coalition government’s National Planning Policy Framework.

Aitken hailed the change in planning laws as a boost for developers as well as house buyers in an era when residential building has fallen to record levels.

He said developers south of the Border would target older office buildings that could be refurbished for domestic use, and which are often near public transport hubs and amenities.

Aitken said: “In Scotland, by comparison, we haven’t had any such far-sighted plans. What we have had is a review of the planning system and a bit of tinkering by Derek Mackay, the planning minister. England seems to be going about it in a more imaginative way than we are. There is nothing that different happening here.”

Andrew Mickel, chairman of Scottish housebuilder MacTaggart & Mickel, said: “We are still on our knees, with housing starts at the lowest level for something like 70 years. We just feel the English government is more willing to use levers such as office-to-residential to get things expedited.

“We are keen to try and work with Scottish Government to make a difference but it does need that political drive. My concern is that if England’s planning system ends up in the fast lane people will have a concern about making investment decisions north of the Border.”

The Scottish Chambers of Commerce said implementing the English measure in Scotland would “significantly ease the process” of converting commercial premises into residential use.

Garry Clark, head of policy and public affairs, said: “Too often the planning system is too rigid to adapt to rapidly changing economic and social conditions. “England is one step ahead of us and it is time Scottish planning policy was similarly adapted to help our town centres.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Scottish Government is committed to improving the performance of the planning system and is already delivering an extensive programme of changes to streamline and simplify it. Whilst we do not have plans to bring forward similar amendments, we continue to explore opportunities that might support economic recovery.

“To help rejuvenate our high streets we are introducing measures such as our Fresh Start scheme to bring empty properties back into use and our Town Centre 
Review is tackling some of the long-standing issues by working with local councils, with £2 million allocated in the latest Scottish budget for town centre regeneration.”