The Scottish Government has been consulting on what it calls an ‘infrastructure first approach’ for the planning system. It makes sense for new homes, offices and shops to be built where there is spare capacity in the transport system, to make the best use of existing infrastructure.
However, too often decisions are fudged and development proceeds where infrastructure is already stretched and no new transport investment is made. The taxpayer is left to pick up the bill to keep the country moving.
Will the proposed new system be fairer and more efficient? An infrastructure levy is proposed. The plans claim to have learned lessons from the unpopular community infrastructure levy in England and Wales. However, the consultation proposals do not say what lessons have been learned or how the new levy will be different. In England, the community infrastructure levy has not always been invested in projects that recognise the needs of new development.
The new consultation paper honestly states: “Plans must lead to development on the ground. In practice this has proved challenging”. The reality is that, for all the resources invested in the planning system, development has often not matched aspirations.
Over the last 20 years, the greatest profits from land development have tended to be made by developers who have successfully minimised their transport investment, rather than those which contributed fairly. Planning authority expectations of developers, and developer expectations of planning authorities, must change.
Too often resources for transport and development are not directly linked. For example, all trains on the new Borders railway stop at Shawfair in Midlothian – but expected development has not yet materialised. In contrast, development consents at Blindwells in East Lothian and Winchburgh in West Lothian allow for rail halts to be provided, but in the absence of new stations housebuilding proceeds anyway.
Achieving a more functional planning system depends on improved skills. CILT offers training and support for professionals across the industry but too often we see key decisions being made by people with little knowledge, skills or training in transport and logistics. Scotland’s transport systems are declining in performance year on year with longer journey times and higher travel costs, largely because new development is not covering its full costs.
Decisions about investment in the bus network, parking at new developments, and street design, are often left to inexperienced staff who lack influence and skills to secure partnership agreements on mutually beneficial solutions. New types of partnership are needed to lock in commitments from all parties so the Scottish Government’s support is welcomed.
Although the proposed partnership may appear more complex, the logic of the proposals makes sense; to strip out time spent preparing strategic plans and invest staff time in partnership working instead. However, this requires a change in mindset for many, so CILT seeks to offer professional support.
Better practice depends on Scottish businesses promoting development getting behind transport programmes as something they want to invest in. A fairer, more collaborative future will depend on sharing profitable growth in public transport patronage, and sharing the costs if higher spending on infrastructure is needed. The transport policy aims of government over the last 20 years have not been delivered in practice, partly because investment has been poorly aligned with policy. The new proposals have a helpful level of urgency, noting their role in delivering more affordable homes during this parliament. To speed things up, a national infrastructure and development delivery group is proposed. It is suggested that this new group could prioritise infrastructure spending, broker solutions, contribute to detailed proposals for an infrastructure levy, and consider how developer contributions could work. For this group to succeed it will need real authority. However, there is no detail about how local councillors can be persuaded to transfer these critical planning powers to the new group.
The latest planning proposals are a step in the right direction but the pace of change seems glacial. The timescale offered by Scottish Government for modernising the transport strategy envisages that a new strategy will be in place by 2019. Much more needs to be done, and quickly, to offer greater clarity, manage uncertainty and to nurture partnership delivery between land use and transport.
Derek Halden, CILT Scottish Committee