Aedán Smith: Sorting planning system key to all problems

Independent panel report must be addressed now argues Aedán Smith

These are worrying times for those of us concerned about the health of Scotland’s natural environment but perhaps, during uncertain times, making a longer-term plan could help us find solutions. Environmental challenges like climate change and biodiversity loss often seem too difficult or painful to deal with in the short term, particularly when other issues seem more pressing, but in the long term we know they need to be tackled. Setting a long term spatial vision and putting it at the forefront of government policy-making could help us tackle these issues.

It may have received little publicity (and been completely overshadowed by more recent events) but on 31 May an independent panel published their recommendations for reform of the Scottish planning system. The panel was formed by ministers in September 2015 and tasked with carrying out a “game changing review of Scotland’s planning system”. Planning is familiar to most of us as a regulator of development, and many of the panel’s 48 recommendations focus on procedural changes to the way development is controlled.

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However, planning can be much more than that. At its best, planning can work with communities of place and interest to provide a common long-term vision for what our places should look like in future if we are to improve quality of life. And critically, it can also provide the regulatory framework to ensure that we get there. Frustratingly though, despite this massively influential role in how we will live our lives in future, planning is often seen as a minor function by local and central government. It was therefore very welcome that the review panel recognised the need for planning to take on a higher profile, assuming a central leadership role in Scottish Government and local government, and with enhanced funding.

Another key recommendation is for an enhanced role for the National Planning Framework which, the panel suggests, should be more integrated with wider government strategies such as the National Transport Strategy and the Infrastructure Investment Plan. This is also very welcome. Scotland has had a National Planning Framework since 2004. It is a Scottish Government document intended to provide a vision for what sort of place Scotland will be in 20-30 years’ time.

The Scottish Government has now made an initial response to the panel’s recommendations, which is broadly supportive. However, on the role of planning in wider government policy making at least, Scottish Environment LINK members would urge them to go further than the panel advise and create a long-term spatial vision and put it at the heart of government policy-making. The current National Planning Framework already goes some way to providing this vision, for the built environment at least. It has always been clear, though, that ministers consider their Economic Strategy as Scotland’s overarching policy document. A robust economic strategy is, of course, essential but how can sensible economic objectives be set without first considering what we want to achieve in the long term, whether there is the space to achieve them or whether environmental limits may be exceeded? This type of policy-making, dominated by economic growth aspirations, is common practice but it is also at the root of many of our environmental problems.

We need to create a vision for the sort of place we want Scotland to be, based on a realistic assessment of the capacity of our environment, and the Economic Strategy should then identify the economic tools required to achieve that vision.

The current National Planning Framework is described by ministers as “the spatial expression of the government Economic Strategy” but this hierarchy is wrong. The government Economic Strategy needs to be the economic expression of the National Planning Framework, which in turn expresses our spatial vision for Scotland in the future, and economic policies need to be recognised as a means to an end, not an end in themselves, before we can really make progress towards making Scotland a better place.

Scottish Environment LINK members urge the Scottish Government to review options for how a holistic spatial vision for Scotland can inform government policy and help us realise ambitions for a sustainable future.

This discussion will help inform discussions ahead of the proposed Planning Bill announced in the SNP manifesto.

• Aedán Smith is convenor of LINK Planning Group, head of planning for RSPB Scotland and is a chartered town planner. The views expressed here are his own.