Bill Jamieson: Red tape still strangling builders

ACROSS the political spectrum in Scotland there is broad agreement on the need for more housing. Completions, while on a rising trend compared with a year ago, are still lamentably below the levels of ten years ago.

Burgess: welcomes recent rise in starts. Picture: Contributed
Burgess: welcomes recent rise in starts. Picture: Contributed

In the year to the end of September housing completions showed a six per cent rise to 15,436 on a year earlier. But this is 40 per cent below the peak in 2004-05.

Finance, of course, has been a big constraint, both for private and public sector development. But the planning process still remains a big hurdle – and this despite earnest government endeavours to streamline the process.

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Scottish Government figures out last week showed that the average time taken to process major housing developments is at its slowest yet.

They revealed an average decision time of almost 50 weeks for the 20 decisions made on major housing developments during the third quarter of last year. This is more than three times the 16-week statutory period for determination.

“We share Communities Secretary Alex Neil’s concerns that some major housing applications are taking far too long,” said Homes for Scotland’s head of planning strategy, Blair Melville. “Whilst these figures represent a stark picture of decline within a critical area of investment, we remain committed to working with the Scottish Government to support the delivery of much needed new homes and are encouraged by recent meetings with officials in which areas of concern such as definition and interpretation of effective land supply, infrastructure constraints and planning delays have been recognised, and the urgency with which action is required noted.

“These statistics shine a light on the work which is still required in order to encourage and facilitate development, whilst the use of planning processing agreements may provide a useful tool to individual councils as a means of accelerating overall timescales.”

The figures reveal wide variation on the speed at which major housing developments are processed across Scotland. For example, in East Lothian with three major housing developments under consideration in the third quarter of last year, the average processing time is 14.6 weeks. In Glasgow it is just over 13 weeks.

But in Aberdeenshire it is 102 weeks, in West Lothian 125 weeks and in South Lanarkshire 156 weeks. Tutankhamun would despair at being in this queue for his tomb: better to move it to North Lanarkshire where the planning process is less than 16 weeks.

There is nothing simple about the planning process. Hold-ups can arise for all manner of legitimate reasons – not just sluggish or incompetent council bureaucracy

Planning has to take into consideration an extensive and complex range of factors ranging through topography, transport infrastructure, population flows, schools, hospitals, amenity provision such as shops, environmental impacts – and financial wherewithal.

Applications can sink or swim on local authority funding support and securing partnership agreement with developers on items that can range from roundabouts to sports centres.

Few dispute the desirability – even necessity – of such amenities. But they have to be funded, and in a way that does not end up pricing the new houses out of the market.

Then there is the widespread public recoil from greenfield development; such applications trigger intense scrutiny. There are projects that impinge on natural heritage – even coal bings can now be designated as industrial monuments.

Political party manifestos make ringing declarations of intent to drive up housing starts. But these declarations not only greatly oversimplify the problems but also fail to acknowledge the reluctance of many voters already housed to accept the consequences for their own communities.

So why not make use of brownfield land? Across Scotland overall there are more than 3,900 derelict and unused urban land sites covering some 11,000 hectares. East Lothian has 74, South Lanarkshire 256, Glasgow 837. But even where development may be considered suitable, problems can abound, ranging from soil pollution and clean-up to transport access.

These are the multiple reasons why private house building is still lamentably below previous levels. In the third quarter of last year there were just over 2,700 private home completions, up on the total a year previously of 2,666 but way below the 6,000-plus in the third quarter of 2004.

There is also the broader macro-economic impact to consider. At its peak the house building industry in Scotland directly and indirectly contributed £5 billion to the Scottish economy. And the net value of new building and repairs, maintenance and improvements combined was reckoned at more than £11.6 billion; equivalent to some 4.5 per cent of Scottish GDP.

Progress is welcome – but slow. For the year to end September overall there were 11,828 private sector-led starts, while the number of social sector homes started also rose by five per cent to 3,593. Housing minister Margaret Burgess says the figures showing a rise on the immediate previous year were to be welcomed as they provided further encouragement for the house building industry.

But that encouragement too often turns sour when local authority planning procedures seem to lack the urgency and the sense of shared mission that our housing situation now demands. «