Comment: Planning Bill is major threat to the system it seeks to improve

New building work is needed in order to accommodate a growing population. Picture: Rui Vieira/PA Wire
New building work is needed in order to accommodate a growing population. Picture: Rui Vieira/PA Wire
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Scotland’s long anticipated Planning Bill was supposed to be a solution to the delays that have dogged the system and are a major factor hampering economic growth north of the Border. However, there is now a serious risk that the legislation will be diluted to the extent that it actually makes matters significantly worse.

The country is in desperate need of both new housing, and high quality business premises. A major part of the problem is a ponderous and under-resourced planning system, which is now regularly taking twice as long as it should to deliver decisions on important developments. Not assisting the situation is the lack of willingness from elected representatives to accept new development within their constituencies.

The legislation aimed at tackling the planning crisis that was presented to Holyrood recently was already chronically short on real changes. Crucially, it offered no new funding to the much-maligned planning departments that have been struggling to cope with the burden of all the red tape they must already navigate. Unfortunately, following that first reading we have seen further amendments proposed that would be disastrous to the Scottish economy, and to Scotland’s competitiveness as a place to do business in comparison to the separate planning regime south of the Border.

The biggest danger that has emerged is the suggestion – made by a group of community and environmental groups and supported by some MSPs – that a third-party right of appeal be introduced to the planning process. Far from speeding things up, this suggestion would clearly slow proceedings down significantly, and further stretch scarce resources. What’s more, the cost implication would make many Scottish developments less viable and tempt developers to look elsewhere. Lest we forget, within the UK at least, firms still have a choice as to where they locate operations.

The argument behind the need for this right of appeal is ostensibly that the current system of pre-application consultations doesn’t work. This is inaccurate as developers invest significant time and resources engaging with communities: since the introduction of the Planning Etc (Scotland) Act, the development industry has welcomed the need to do so. It appears, then, that the initial suggestion is the thin end of the wedge: what the groups lobbying MSPs on behalf of “communities” actually want is effectively a veto on development.

That veto would always be used: almost every proposed development will have a perceived impact somewhere, whether or not it severely disrupts the lives of residents or is merely a slight inconvenience. If one was to believe community groups, new developments are almost always going to result in utter chaos for the road network, infrastructure and irrevocable damage to the environment. What many objectors fail to grasp is the very roof that they live under was, once, most probably the subject of a planning application and most likely impacted the lives of residents and communities before them.

Our current housing stock and places of business did not miraculously just appear one day. Developers carefully assess the impact of their developments to ensure infrastructure is provided to accommodate its effect. This is no more so evident than in housebuilding whereby developers need certainty over local education capacity in order to sell homes.

So far, the SNP government has admirably stuck to its guns, backing the independent panel’s views that stronger engagement at the outset of the planning process will be much more constructive than adding adversarial appeals at the end.

As the Planning Bill moves on to Stage 2, when MSPs will be able to table amendments, the country’s economic future sits on a precarious knife edge: on the one hand, there is still a chance that the Bill can be improved by making it less adversarial and better tailored to the undoubted need to facilitate desirable development; on the other, there is a real danger of a race to the bottom developing as the people’s representatives compete to be as anti-development as possible in a misguided attempt to appeal to “the people”.

There have always been vocal minorities prepared to protest loudly against developments on the grounds that they impinge on existing land uses – be those natural or human-related. Only years later, as the shortage of good housing and modern business premises weighs on lifestyles and the economy, will the populists realise the folly of this apparently popular position. Those making the sensible argument that although not every development is suitable or worthwhile, a good deal of new building is certainly needed in order to accommodate our growing population, economy and ambitions, have tended to speak more quietly. They must now make themselves heard.

- Andrew McNab, associate director, planning, with Colliers International in Scotland