Comment: Planning system review one brick in the wall

Picture: John Devlin.
Picture: John Devlin.
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HOUSING ‘crisis’ can be addressed, writes June Gilles

Last December, the chief executive of the Scottish housebuilders’ trade body Homes for Scotland said there was “no end in sight for the country’s housing crisis”, quoting new statistics showing a continued drop in new build properties.

This month, his successor Nicola Barclay stressed the importance of having a planning system which facilitates development and helps step up the production of much-needed homes. This comes amid a ‘game-changing’ review of the planning system, launched last autumn by the Scottish Government, aimed at creating a more accessible, efficient system to raise investor confidence and lead to more housebuilding across Scotland.

Following nearly 400 written submissions from across the building sector and wider community, the independent panel appointed to undertake the review issued a paper identifying the six key themes identified by the Scottish Government as needing to be addressed.

These include development planning, which involves the preparation of strategic and local proposals to set out the long-term vision for development across the country; housing delivery; infrastructure planning, including building of roads and schools to support new developments; leadership, resourcing and skills; community engagement; and further improvements to development management, which covers the planning application process.

This review has been criticised, fairly in my opinion, for being too narrowly focused on possible new processes and frameworks and ignoring some fundamental issues raised in many submissions, such as a call for radical changes to the development plan system, improvements to community engagement and a proposed increase in planning fees which would be ring-fenced to fund faster, more efficient processing of applications. After the criticism, the review was extended through an open online discussion forum which closes at noon today (29 February). If you are reading this before noon, you can still raise any concerns by going to: https://ideas.scotland.gov.uk/independent-review-of-planning

The review panel is then scheduled to publish its report in early May. Scottish ministers have said that they will respond to its recommendations with a programme of targeted improvements to the system.

This process will likely be protracted and frustrating if it is to be a success. If there are to be genuine ‘game-changing’ improvements, as the minister responsible, Alex Neil, has promised, a new Planning Act will probably be needed. This will take years to bring into effect – to give some perspective, large parts of the 2006 Scottish Planning Act did not come into effect until the latter half of 2009.

A large number of planning-related problems which currently delay and complicate housing delivery can, however, be addressed without any need for new legislation.

In recognition of this, Scottish Government’s chief planner John McNairney is working to improve the operation of the existing system to help, among other things, speed up the delivery of new homes. As part of this, he is writing regular open letters to all heads of planning providing guidance on a range of issues.

On a more practical level, a significant cause of delay in starting housing development is the disjointed approach of councils to granting the separate construction consents required for road works already approved. The chief planner has also written to heads of planning on this issue to encourage better alignment of the planning and road construction consenting processes.

This guidance from the chief planner will be essential to get house-building on the increase in Scotland. Crucially, planning authorities need to follow this advice if Scotland is to increase the delivery of new homes under the existing system, while we wait for delivery of the Scottish Government’s promised improvements.

• June Gilles is a partner at commercial law firm ­Davidson Chalmers