Martin Sales: We must not let local influence derail bigger planning picture

THE new coalition UK government wants to return power to the people, as part of "Building the Big Society". What, I wonder, does this mean for town and country planning, which is widely recognised to underpin our ability to gain economic advantage and grow the economy?

In my view, unless such an aspiration limits a return of local influence to smaller-scale developments, the resulting regime is unlikely to resolve a perennial problem in the planning systems north and south of the Border: how to achieve relatively quick and, importantly from an investment perspective, predictable planning decisions without excluding interested stakeholders.

Unpalatable though the fact may seem to some, letting local interests have their say on individual applications before, during and sometimes even after a planning decision on a national project has been made is not conducive to the streamlined planning regime that each new administration strives to achieve.

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That, in part, is why a statutory right for third parties to challenge a planning decision has been resisted in the UK.

Rather, the emphasis in Scotland in recent changes to our planning system has been on front-loading it to allow for pre-application consultation and, where necessary, highly- regulated appeals for some categories of application. However laudable those changes may be, there remains scope for projects that accord with an area's development plans to be derailed by opposition focused through the council.

It is often forgotten by those who demand a say in high-profile applications that our planning system is based on the idea that land use should be planned in advance of particular applications coming forward, by zoning areas for specific uses and types of development.

That, so the theory goes, allows everyone their say well in advance of an investor bringing forward an application, which, for larger projects can be very costly. It should, but often does not, bring the level of risk down to one which an applicant can manage.

And we should not forget that if Scotland is seen to too risky for some types of project, then the investor will simply take his development and the jobs that come with it elsewhere.

The economic facts of life are often quite simple. The challenge for planning is to ensure such facts are not lost in the more complicated arguments about protection of the local environment. Both are important and conflicts must be resolved, an issue which is often ignored by entrenched views for or against a proposal.

In fact, the planning regime in Scotland is not nearly as broken as some might argue. All that is needed is for the current system to be implemented by all participants as intended. Specifically, the priority the law gives to local development plans should be better enabled and observed by those administering the system.

That means those deciding planning applications should better understand the role of the development plan in the system. It should also be the focus of those opposed to particular types of development near where they live.

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Putting in place an effective development plan is a task that, sadly, eludes too many local planning authorities, whether for want of resource or the all-too-frequent changes imposed on the planning system and those operating it.

If Scotland is to deliver the economic advantage it expects to realise from its huge potential for renewable energy, it must do so soon. The wind, waves and tides will be there in the future; investment in a global economy now trying to return to earlier levels of activity might not if the planning regime acts as a barrier to investment in projects.

That, and the over-arching imperative to reduce man's effects on climate change now, means doing whatever is necessary to ensure the government's recent changes to the planning system take effect sooner rather than later.

The legal and administrative mechanisms are largely in place. It is delivery which is needed. There must be no delay in putting effective development plans in place and ensuring that all those responsible for making planning decisions based on such plans do so fully equipped for the task.

• Martin Sales is a partner at law firm Biggart Baillie.