Kevin Stewart: We have a rare opportunity to shape the future of planning in Scotland

Kevin Stewart wants planners to be able to be more proactive. Picture: Jon Savage
Kevin Stewart wants planners to be able to be more proactive. Picture: Jon Savage
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Planning is sometimes characterised as a dry, technical pursuit with planners debating complex regulations and policy intentions in their own mysterious language and jargon.

Yet nothing could be further from the truth. People and planners really care about their places and every day, for good or bad, planning inspires debate within communities. There are few areas of central and local government that have such propensity to mobilise communities and to stimulate debate about how their places might change.

This autumn, the Planning (Scotland) Bill is moving into a period of detailed scrutiny by the Scottish Parliament. We have a rare and valuable opportunity to shape the future of planning in Scotland. Just as planning is designed to guide development and the use of land in the long term public interest, the decisions we make about planning now will have far reaching consequences – for our communities, for our future prosperity and for the places we value.

The Bill is part of a wider programme of change that needs to work for everyone. That is why the Scottish Government’s approach to Stage 2 of the Planning Bill will continue to focus on a number of key priorities.

People, Place and Economy are at the heart of the planning system. Our planning service needs to support the economy and deliver on the Government’s aspirations for inclusive growth. It needs to be open for business, protect our special places and deliver the good quality development our communities need for living life.

Planners need to be able to actively engage with people about the future of their places; to lead and also to listen. Some people complain that trust in planning has declined, with people losing faith where decisions are made that don’t appear to reflect their point of view. None of us has a veto on development but all of us need to know our voices have been heard. However, I am clear that the solution does not lie in adding further process and further conflict onto the end of the planning system, along with increased delay, more mistrust and a loss of confidence among those who are willing to invest in the future of our communities.

Instead, we should be aiming to have a much more positive and earlier conversation to influence the quality of development and places we need and deserve.

The skills, experience and value of the planning profession in Scotland are significant assets which must be recognised, developed and put to better use. Planners are not bureaucrats, but they too often get caught up in labyrinthine procedures and lengthy debates on technical matters. We must use this precious resource wisely and free up planners so that they can focus on proactive planning and delivering development, rather than slavishly following procedures.

Too often planners are not part of strategic, long term discussions, and in many cases the seniority and influence of heads of local authority planning services has declined. There is a risk that planning will be further reduced to a tick box exercise that lacks local credibility if the Planning Bill removes all scope for judgment in favour of a fixed set of rules that is embedded in legislation. Rather development plans must look to the future, consider the big picture and inspire people.

I am already calling on Scotland’s planning professionals to change the way they work, so that they can focus on their leadership in delivering good quality development and making a real difference to people and places. Their unique skills and ability to speak up, fearlessly and objectively, for the long term public interest should be recognised and respected.

Right now politicians – myself included – also have a responsibility to ensure that the Planning Bill results in an improved planning system, so that it is stronger and more empowered to make a difference, not weakened and overcommitted to process. After all, we can all agree that our economy, our environment, and communities need and deserve a stronger, more effective planning system.

Kevin Stewart is Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning