Blog: Planning regulations in Scotland need to be stirred, not shaken

Richard Slipper
Richard Slipper

Richard Slipper of GVA on why Scotland’s new planning system should blend the best of the old with the new.

Few who have experiences of the process would argue that there has been a chronic underinvestment in the planning system in Scotland in recent years.

And that’s why plans to increase planning fees in Scotland by the equivalent of over 500% should be welcomed with a note of caution.

Following an independent review, the Scottish Government has unveiled comprehensive plans to radically overhaul the planning system in a bid to modernise it. The planning fees increase is the most eye-catching of those changes.

Currently, maximum fees are set at £20,050 for detailed applications and £10,028 for ‘in principle’ applications. These could rise to £125,000 and £62,500 respectively under the new system.

The only way that kind of fee rise would be acceptable is if a direct benefit was seen, with the money being ploughed into properly resourcing the planning system at local authority level to vastly improve efficiency and speed up the process. Measures to ring-fence the cash for that purpose should be guaranteed within any new legislation.

All proposed changes in the Places, People and Planning Whitepaper are designed to modernise the system, making it more efficient and transparent to all involved.

The proposed new planning system is also intended to strengthen national leadership through a National Planning Framework (NPF), which identifies national and regional ‘aspirations’ for housing delivery and established priorities for planning at a regional level. More specific national guidance on planning would be ideal, but it remains to be seen whether ‘aspirations’ alone would be enough to deliver the housing supply Scotland desperately needs in the face of the vastly different approaches taken by differing local authorities in their regions.

The NPF would be underpinned by Local Development Plans (LDP) and Local Place Plans (LPP). The place plans, if implemented properly, should drive community engagement and encourage more interaction with the process at a local level.

LDPs work in five year cycles at present, but this would be increased to ten under the new system. With such a long cycle the main issue is what would be the triggers for a review, and would the power to call for such a review rest locally or nationally? Tensions between national and local planners have been identified as a major issue within the current system, and this represents a potential flashpoint between the distinct groups.

Anything that gets communities involved in planning in their own area should be welcomed, but the system must ensure LPPs are a tool to support change and not a roadblock which frustrates development that is being encouraged at national level.

Another change could see more appeal decisions taken by councillors sitting on a local review body. The issue this raises is whether such an initiative would be properly resourced or supported by cash-strapped councils. Some also wonder whether elected members will have the technical skill or professional understanding to make such decisions. Similarly, we need to know what steps will be taken to ensure those involved at an LPP level have enough knowledge and expertise to make well- informed choices.

At present, viability assessments are not required for planning proposals. However, the new system would require these for ‘major’ scale housing proposals to demonstrate deliverability. Such assessments should allow for better planning decisions to be taken at an earlier stage, and are to be welcomed. Specialist viability studies on challenged sites represent a key opportunity where planners and surveyors can and should collaborate.

Whilst these new proposals are debated it is imperative that the system is allowed to run as smoothly as possible in its current form.

Scotland has too many examples of strategic and economic projects on hold or withdrawn due to planning drift. It can only be hoped that any resulting legislation blends the best of the old with the new – and creates the perfect recipe for growth that unlocks the seemingly perpetual housing crisis in Scotland.

  • Richard Slipper is senior director of planning development and regeneration at GVA
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