Out-of-date local plans need not be a problem, writes Craig Whelton
AS Colonel John ‘Hannibal’ Smith, used to say in the classic TV show the A Team: “I love it when a plan comes together”.
Like Hannibal Smith, the Scottish planning system also loves it when a plan comes together – it is a central tenant of our planning system in this country that it operates what is referred to as a “plan led” system. This principle, enshrined in statute, requires that all planning applications should be determined in accordance with the development plan unless there are other material reasons to come to a different decision.
Scotland operates a two tier plan approach, with Strategic Development Plans setting out a long term vision for development in the four city regions (Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee) and individual local plans setting out more detailed policy and specific site allocations for each of Scotland’s 32 local authority areas.
Local authorities are required to have a development plan in place at all times, and are expected to update their plans so that they are never more than five years old. However, it must be said that this is easier said than done. The identification of land for development in a local plan can have significant and long term implications for landowners, developers and the local community, and before they can adopt a new development plan, local authorities are required to undertake an extensive consultation process.
This consultation process takes time, and requires a significant commitment of resource by the local authority, and those who are trying to promote or prevent development. Following consultation, a planning Reporter, appointed by the Scottish Ministers, will undertake a public examination into the plan, and will, if necessary, recommend modifications.
Given all that is involved, it is no surprise that one of the most common gripes with the planning system is that development plans are too often out of date, and take too long to be updated.
A recent illustration of the difficulties in producing local plans is the City of Edinburgh Council’s attempts to produce an up to date Local Development Plan (LDP).
Last month, the council signed off the final draft of its LDP, submitting it to Scottish Ministers for examination – a little over two years after the first draft of the development plan was issued for consultation.
Land identified in the draft LDP for development (particularly in West Edinburgh) has met with fierce local opposition, and council members sent their draft plan to Ministers with less than a ringing endorsement – with one member describing it as “mince”.
The council does not expect the new LDP to be adopted until April 2016. In the meantime, Edinburgh’s current local plan is already more than five years old, and its relevance to the decision making process is waning. This is particularly the case with housing development, where the council accepts that the current local plan does not identify enough land to meet the recognised housing need of the area.
The need and demand for new housing does not wait for the local plan process – nor can it or should it.
The Scottish Government’s principal planning policy document (Scottish Planning Policy, or SPP) sets out how planning applications should be considered where Local Plans are not up to date. The SPP provides clear policy support for sustainable development. A number of recent planning appeal decisions illustrate how this policy should be applied to allow proposals that meet the sustainable development criteria to proceed.
Whilst up to date development plans are a key part of the planning system, it is essential that delays in the preparation of plans are not allowed act as a brake on new development.
• Craig Whelton is a partner in Burness Paull’s planning team in Edinburgh, www.burnesspaull.com