Clare Symonds: The public is scunnered with our undemocratic planning system

Spare a thought for the people of Auchenscunnerit. The village is quickly expanding as big firms develop new housing on its outskirts. Locals are not opposed to new housing; many hope their children might be able to live nearby. But they're worried: the new development means roads are busier, school places and doctors appointments are harder to find and the fabric of their community feels as if it is unravelling. Some have heard horror stories about the quality of the new houses and, despite the influx of new residents, local shops are still shutting because everyone drives to the new retail park 15 miles away. House prices keep rising, out of reach for young families.

Some protest, some campaign, and some engage with the planning system, but many are eventually ground down by the process, says Clare Symonds.

A few residents have patiently responded to consultations about ‘strategic development plans’, ‘local development plans’ and even ‘supplementary guidance’. Some people have resorted to protest over threatened woodland and access paths. But more are just feeling worn out by it all. The planners don’t seem to listen. And the developers keep coming back.

Auchenscunnerit is fictitious, but countless places like this exist up and down the country. Our organisation, Planning Democracy, has met with people from across our land, grappling with Scotland’s planning system. They frequently report exhaustion and disillusionment. Some are beyond hopeless, but amidst the ashes of apathy the embers of localism and community action still burn: real people working with – and, yes, often wrestling against – the planning system to influence the future of places they care deeply about.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

The politics are real too: citizens are vilified as NIMBYs; developers and landowners denounced as putting profits before people; councillors accused of conflicts of interest; planning officials typecast as heartless bureaucrats. No-one in this commonplace, modern day tale of Scottish planning development survives unscathed. There must be a better way of doing things.

The Scottish Government seems to agree and are now trying to reform the planning system, again. Our organisation believes amidst the turmoil of Brexit and constitutional flux, this will be one of the most important legislative moments in Scotland’s Parliamentary diary. It will set the tone for how we plan our future. Unfortunately, the review is currently premised mainly on ‘streamlining’ to make sure planning regulations don’t get in the way of developers. We believe this is short-sighted and overlooks the positive power of stronger, more democratic participation.

The Government proposals are short on detail too: we urgently need to find a way for public authorities to better capture the increases in land value that come from granting planning permission (when farmland becomes housing land, its value soars). Our European neighbours like Germany recognise this value as publicly generated and a large portion is captured to pay for high-quality public infrastructure. In Scotland, by contrast, landowners and developers keep the lion’s share.

Fundamentally, trust in the planning process must be re-built. We have campaigned to expose the barriers faced by people trying to influence a highly-professionalised planning system. We welcomed government commissioned research into those barriers and yet the results - supposedly part of the reform process - have yet to surface, a week after the public consultation informing a forthcoming Planning Bill has closed. So much for open feedback.

Calls to consider more fundamental reforms have consistently fallen on deaf ears. Most strikingly, the Government has sought to close down debate about equalising rights of appeal even though community groups across the country have expressed support for it. At present, applicants for planning permission can appeal against refusal of permission to develop, but the public enjoy no such rights. Sensibly qualified, we believe an Equal Right of Appeal would go some way towards levelling the playing field, and ensure that more development happens in line with the aspirations set out in plans.

We need to rethink the role and purpose of planning and strengthen democratic control over land use change and development. Until we do, we are all Auchenscunnerit.

Clare Symonds is chair of Planning Democracy, an organisation dedicated to campaigning for a fairer planning system in Scotland.