Cliff Hague: Why not aim for a '˜world-class' planning system?

The Scottish Government's latest review of the planning system is going to end in tears. A Bill is to be presented at Holyrood towards the end of the year, but analysis of recent consultations shows that developers and communities diametrically disagree on the central issues. The fact that the Government is explicitly seeking to improve public trust in the planning system is telling in itself, an implicit acknowledgement that a system originally designed to operate in the public interest is now perceived by many to serve primarily the development industry.

The housing market has failed to deliver the homes that Scotland needs

Grenfell Tower has set this shift in a wider picture. In England, the de-regulators have chipped away at the planning system for three decades or more. Austerity has skimmed local planning authorities of staff and skills, sapping their capacity to lead development. Yet when the SNP majority government decided last year to reform the Scottish planning system, where did it look for inspiration and ideas? To Scandinavia? To the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations? To the International Guidelines on Territorial and Urban Planning? No, it clung to the comfort blanket of Whitehall, replicating in its proposals key facets of legislation from England.

The main driver of the Government’s intention to rewrite our planning laws is the failure of housing markets to deliver the homes Scotland needs. Thus it is proposed to centralise decisions on the scale of housing to be provided in different regions. Bruised from standing between developers and civic groups in scraps over assessing housing land needs, and drained of staff, it is not surprising that planning authorities are happy to pass the matter over to the Scottish Government. But house building depends on multiple factors – investors’ inclinations, consumer confidence, supplies of labour and materials, for example – not just on getting a planning permission to add to existing land banks. It is optimistic to imagine that the proposed change will fix the shortfall.

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Privatisation of utilities has made it difficult for planning authorities to integrate the infrastructure that should lead development. Therefore, while abolishing regional-scale development plans, the government is proposing regional partnerships to foster co-ordination. There is research evidence that for partnerships to deliver there needs to be tangible benefits to the various partners. Whether different companies, agencies and councils will integrate their investments at regional scale through a partnership without a plan is an open question.

Over the last decade awareness has grown globally about how important it is to effectively plan our cities and regions. It matters for the economy, the environment and climate change, but also for social inclusion and cohesion. Linked to this is an impetus to build planning systems around human rights. If the Scottish Government had participated in these discussions, instead of having its ear bent by the housebuilding industry and its gaze fixed on England, the review of the Scottish planning system might have taken a different trajectory. Developers routinely claim their schemes are “world class”: why is Scotland not aspiring to have a world -lass system for planning and delivering development?

Cliff Hague is an Emeritus Professor of Planning and Spatial Development at Heriot-Watt University