Proposed changes to the planning system will hand power to developers eager to accrue eye-watering bonuses, says Professor Cliff Hague, chair of the Cockburn Association and a Royal Town Planning Institute past president.
How and why has 70 years of planning benefited Scotland? With a Bill to reform the planning system now before Holyrood, this question is timely. Planning is not just about contesting your neighbour’s conservatory; it has long-term impacts on our towns and countryside, conservation of natural resources and well-loved places, the way we live our lives and our children’s future. That is why changes to our planning system should be given careful scrutiny inside and outside parliament.
If there had been no planning system, Scotland’s iconic landscape would have looked very different. There would have been ranch houses around the banks of Loch Lomond, mega billboards lining roadsides in the Trossachs, shopping malls (some now derelict) dotted along the M8, and any number of coastal sites ravaged by onshore oil-related development during the 1970s frenzy.
Edinburgh doubled in area in the 20 years between the wars. The bungalows, that had reached Fairmilehead, the Maybury and Portobello, would have marched ever onwards and outwards, replacing farms and woodlands, with executive mansions grabbing prime spots on the Pentland Hills to command views over the city and across the Forth. Unable to serve this low-density spread, bus services would have been poorer, to the detriment of the mobility of children and older people, for example.
The new towns would not have existed. As traditional industries like oil shale went into terminal decline, places like Livingston and East Kilbride helped restructure Scotland’s economy. We would be poorer without them. Disinvestment from the urban cores and inner cities could have left parts of Clydeside looking like inner Detroit. What developer would invest in remediation of a former industrial site if there was the nice easy option of a green field not far away?
Similarly, Edinburgh’s Old Town would have continued its pre-war trajectory towards rack and ruin, while the New Town would have been degraded by speculative investors jostling to dominate the skyline with their offices and hotels.
Planning is not just a matter of aesthetics – it can steer investment to vacant and derelict sites before agricultural land is forever sacrificed, conserving greenspaces and finding new uses for older buildings such as in Glasgow’s Merchant City. If this “holds back economic growth”, then it holds back the wrong kind of “growth”, to give priority to social inclusion, environmental protection, climate change mitigation, place identity and food security.
Planning worked as a public service, created to serve the public good. It didn’t get everything right: in the 1960s in particular, it needed corrective voices provided by civic society through the Cockburn Association or the New Glasgow Society. Yet the ethos and moral compass that inspired the best of Scottish planning has withered as the system has become more centralised, more attuned to the demands of developers, and so more removed from being a vital part of local democracy.
As research commissioned by the Scottish Government revealed in 2017, there is now a deep and fundamental lack of trust in the planning system among members of the public who have engaged with it.
The Planning Bill now before parliament was an opportunity to address this corrosion, and to design a world-class planning system for Scotland. Sadly, it shows no such ambition. Rather, it seeks primarily to make the planning system a vehicle for more and faster delivery of planning permissions for housing. Provision of houses has been contracted out to the large building companies, who work for their shareholders and pay their executives eye-watering bonuses. They build not when they get a planning permission, but when it suits their business model.
To “balance” new provisions for which developers lobbied, the Bill allows “a community body”, such as a community council, to prepare a local place plan (LPP) for “the development and use of land”. However, any LPP must “have regard to” the National Planning Framework (essentially the Scottish Government’s plan for where major developments should, or should not, go), and also the council’s Local Development Plan (which may have been amended by the Scottish Government Minister or overtaken by the National Planning Framework). In addition, the Local Development Plan must have taken account of the “local outcomes improvement plan” for the area. Typically this is a set of generalised statements agreed by the Community Planning Partnership, whose members are usually officials of the council and other public bodies such as Police Scotland.
Such public agencies themselves have morphed into speculative developers as they seek to capitalise their land and property holdings to fund their services. So as long as the “community body” wants the same things that are already set out in these multiple plans, its members can give their spare time, or raise funds to hire consultants, to produce their own LPP, provided they comply also with any requirements about its form, content and preparation prescribed by the council or Government.
Good luck with that! The Scottish Government has resisted all calls to redress the imbalance that exists in the system of planning appeals. A developer can appeal against the refusal of planning permission, and against any conditions imposed as part of a consent, even though the decision of the planning authority has to be based on policies in the development plan. The matter then passes out of the hands of the local council. Costs may be awarded against them if they lose the appeal, a sobering prospect for officials and councillors already struggling in difficult financial times. Meanwhile a “third party”, such as a civic organisation, has no right of appeal if a planning permission is granted, even if the decision runs against what is in the plan. To be accessible to all, a planning system needs to be simple, clear and predictable; anything else favours those able to afford expensive lawyers and an array of professional consultants.
Scotland needs a planning system that delivers not just development and housing numbers, but quality in new and existing environments, a sense of belonging.
Restoring public confidence would reduce stress and enhance well-being. It can be done.
Professor Cliff Hague is chair of the Cockburn Association and a past president of the Royal Town Planning Institute