‘Planning minister” Alex Neil’s recent announcement on forthcoming reforms has been noted with interest across the development industry, but it is hard to get excited about the prospect of further planning reform – particularly in light of the latest decision in the capital.
Neil’s announcement made reference to a “streamlining” of development planning and housing delivery, and on the face of it those are welcome words, especially to builders who just want to get on with the business of building badly needed homes. However, reforms, being drafted by politicians, have a tendency to promise all things to all people.
The fact is that planning is far from simple. Decisions are a balance of a number of conflicting issues, with only one guarantee: that at least one of the parties is going to end up disappointed. And more often than not all parties end up frustrated with the process in one way or another.
Ultimately our planning system is one in which decisions on significant and important applications are largely made by politicians. Communities, despite having a greater than ever nominal involvement in planning processes, often feel powerless. The public tends not to understand that the weight of public opinion is not the crux of the matter in the minds of the professional planners who advise politicians. Fortunately for communities, their power at the ballot box can count in their favour, as public opinion trumps all at election time.
In recent times Scottish ministers have given the development industry the impression that they were willing to take bold decisions and address the issue of the housing shortfall we face. Planning appeals, previously largely determined by the Scottish Government Reporter’s unit, were “recalled” in late 2014 by the cabinet secretary for social justice, communities and pensioners’ rights, Neil, for his own determination on the basis that the delivery of housing is a matter of national importance. Or so we thought.
One of the recalled planning appeals, at Cammo in north-west Edinburgh, was, no doubt to the joy of the many objectors, dismissed by Neil last month despite the Reporter recommending that the appeal be allowed. A cynic would say party politics were at play in this decision, although it may be a mere coincidence that the newly elected SNP MP and the party’s local councillors were vocal opponents of the Cammo development.
As the cynics have long suspected, it turns out that the delivery of housing is a matter of national importance – as long as it can be done without upsetting too many voters. Politicians continue to champion the local development plan (LDP) though it is already years behind schedule.
Meanwhile affordable housing lists grow, as does the long queue of people waiting to get on the housing ladder.
At the same time, Cammo is perhaps a hollow victory for the objectors, as by February next year we should know the outcome of the LDP examination and if the Reporter concurs with his professional colleagues at the council and Holyrood’s directorate for planning and environmental appeals, then there will be houses on the Cammo site within the next few years. The development plan made Cammo one of the preferred sites for housing and Edinburgh Council is unable to depart from the LDP recommendations in all but a very few circumstances.
Not being a cynic, I have no doubt the Holyrood elections in May next year will play no role in this process – after all, housing is a matter of national importance.
• Andrew McNab is associate director, planning, with Colliers International.