The places we live, work and play in are fundamental to our health and happiness – and it is the Scottish planning system that has the single biggest influence on how these places are developed. The National Trust for Scotland recently carried out research on how well the planning system is working for Scotland, and the results are concerning.
The majority of Scots felt that they had no influence on the planning decisions affecting their local area. Less than half of Scots thought the current planning system was doing a good job of protecting our historic or natural heritage. Our research shows there is much that the planning bill needs to put right.
Set up in 1931 to help conserve Scotland’s places of natural beauty and historic interest, The National Trust for Scotland works with others to safeguard our heritage, to provide access and to encourage its enjoyment. As a member of the Scottish Environment LINK network, we have come together with like- minded environmental organisations to champion our environment; we will work closely with them in contributing to the forthcoming planning bill.
Our survey covered a representative sample of more than a 1,000 Scottish citizens, allowing us to compare perceptions of the planning system by age and gender, by income, and by region. We found there was a consistent pattern of people feeling disconnected from the decisions that affected them. Worryingly, 60 per cent of people surveyed felt they had no influence on planning decisions affecting their local area. This needs to change. In order for communities to thrive – to invest in their local facilities, to feel a sense of place, to enjoy their local environment – they must feel they have power to influence how their local area is developing.
We asked respondents how well they thought the historic features and character of their local area had been protected or improved by the planning system. We found that only 41 per cent thought the current system was working well, or very well, with 28 per cent considering that it was doing poorly or very poorly. Twenty-five percent had mixed views, suggesting some simple changes could convert more citizens to a positive view.
We found a similar response when we asked respondents how well they thought their local greenspace and natural heritage had been protected or enhanced by the planning system. Here only 47 per cent thought that their local greenspace had been well or very well protected, compared with 26 per cent who thought it had been poorly or very poorly treated – and again there were mixed views.
Our respondents recognised that the planning system needs to deliver a range of benefits. In preparing for a future planning bill, the Scottish Government issued a consultation document in early 2017. This referenced “housing” some 75 times, but “greenspace” occurred only three times, and “natural heritage” only once, and the “historic environment” not at all. Yet when we asked survey participants what their priorities for development were, we got a very different picture. Outdoor areas and greenspace were the leading priority, at 49 per cent of respondents, with housing second at 47 per cent, and closely followed by public facilities and shops at 46 per cent. Improved transport was also important for 40 per cent of respondents. These findings show that the planning bill cannot be narrowly focused on housing, and must consider all the assets that are needed for a good quality of life.
Respondents were also very concerned about the balance of power within the planning system. Strikingly, 90 per cent of those surveyed thought that local communities should have a right of appeal on planning decisions, similar to that enjoyed by developers. This perceived imbalance could be addressed in a number of ways – by giving communities a stronger voice, limiting the developer right of appeal, or by making the local development plan more binding on possible developments – but the current balance of power clearly rankles with Scots.
The planning system we currently have is clearly not satisfying the public, or the needs of our heritage. We want to see an updated planning system that creates attractive places, and that works to protect our built and natural environment. There is a huge opportunity here for the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament to get people back into planning and ensure their voice is heard – and acted upon.
Diarmid Hearns is head of policy with the National Trust for Scotland, a Scottish Environment LINK member organisation