Why industry lobbyists are celebrating Scotland’s new planning bill – Cliff Hague

Campaigners hold a football game between developers and locals in bid for a 'level playing field' (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
Campaigners hold a football game between developers and locals in bid for a 'level playing field' (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
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Scotland’s new Planning Bill is a far cry from the radical hopes of some, leaving developers relieved but not enthusiastic and community groups still not trusting a system that seems designed to facilitate rather than guide new construction projects, writes Cliff Hague.

The passing of the Planning Bill was largely ignored by Scotland’s media. This is a pity because the deals done in Holyrood will affect communities and development across Scotland for years to come, as well as throwing light on our politics.

In the spring, the Minister responsible for the Bill, Kevin Stewart MSP, had a headache. After being heavily amended in stage two of the parliamentary process, his Bill was, in his own folksy words, “in a guddle”.

Developers feared they had created a Frankenstein’s monster: a Bill intended to “unlock” land and sites for housing development and cut costs by “streamlining” the planning system, had instead reached the point where it was even threatening their command of the appeals system, where refusals of planning permission can be overturned.

The Royal Town Planning Institute was also frightened by the numerous amendments that would impose new obligations on their members, who have been left in the much diminished teams in planning authorities.

Government lawyers were fretting that cavalier amendments, playing to concerns of community activists scunnered by unwanted developments being imposed despite their opposition, could create, if not turmoil, then at least disconcerting uncertainty.

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It was the Scottish Conservatives who came to the rescue, and why not? The party has traditionally enjoyed a symbiotic relation with the property sector. The original Bill itself was no stridently Nationalist measure; rather it was nurtured by the Union. It drew inspiration not from how the Scandinavians do planning, but rather aped measures introduced in Westminster over the past decade.

The Minister had also made it clear that Scotland must be “open for business” and he sought to use his devolved powers to ensure that development here was no more onerous for investors than is the case in England.

Thus in the Holyrood debate, the Minister and Conservative Graham Simpson MSP did a double act. Backed by their fellow SNP and Conservative MSPs, they restored much of the original intent of the Bill, easily outvoting the Greens, Labour and the Lib Dems.

At an event hosted by Anderson Strathearn last week, people from the development industry expressed sincere appreciation for the successful lobbying by the Scottish Property Federation. Another sector whose lobbying fell on receptive ears was the commercial arm of the short-term holiday lets industry, Airbnb and similar businesses.

They had been worried that the Bill might make it explicit that converting a residence to a mini-hotel would require planning permission. In the end, a Conservative amendment was carried which will give planning authorities only the power to declare areas within which such changes would indeed require planning permission.

Scottish Ministers are to consult, then provide guidance on this, so it looks unlikely that the escalating loss of affordable housing to investment companies will be stemmed any time soon.

So what was originally promoted as a “root and branch” reform of the Scottish planning system has turned out to be nothing so dramatic. A number of new duties have been placed on planning authorities. To the relief of many, this included a requirement to have in the Local Development Plan a statement on policy and proposals for provision of public conveniences. There is a certain symmetry between this and the accompanying requirement to include policies and proposals on provision of water refill stations.

The most fundamental change to the structure of the planning system, once the Act gets Royal Assent, will be the creation of Local Place Plans (LPPs). A “community body” may prepare such a plan for the “development or use of land”, and it can “identify land or buildings that the community body considers to be of particular significance to the local area”. The LPP must “have regard to” the planning authority’s development plan for the land, so if that development plan proposes that a local playing field should be developed for housing then the LPP might seek to influence the lay-out of the housing or retention of trees, but would not be expected to say the land should be kept as a playing field.

As with much of the Bill, the Scottish Government now has a free hand to define through secondary legislation just how LPPs will work. One unresolved matter is how the preparation of an LPP will be funded. Councils are skint and don’t want to pay the bill, or divert their few remaining planners to the new task. If the raised expectations of community councils and other ”community bodies” are not to be dashed, it seems likely that the Minister will have to find some money, possibly channelled through PAS, an organisation that uses professional volunteers to support the participation of groups in the planning process.

PAS has long campaigned for, and practiced, greater outreach. Its advocacy for the rights of gypsies and travellers, and for children and young people, now has been successful. The approved Bill includes a duty for planning authorities to report on what they have done to meet accommodation needs of gypsies and travellers. Planning authorities must also report on how they have consulted these communities, as well as with disabled people and young people.

Children and the under-25s will now have a statutory right to be consulted in the preparation of local development plans. The Equality Act 2010 already requires all pubic bodies to “advance equality of opportunity between people who share a relevant protected characteristic and those who do not”, so arguably planning authorities should be engaging already with such groups. Now they have a clear mandate to do so.

Three-and-a-half years in the making, the Bill has left developers relieved rather than enthusiastic; but it also seems unlikely to rebuild public trust in a planning system seen as facilitating, rather than steering, development.

Cliff Hague is chair of the Cockburn Association and a patron of the PAS charity