Kevin Stewart MSP: Putting people and places at the heart of future planning

As the Planning (Scotland) Bill reaches the final phase of the Parliamentary process, local government, housing and planning minister, Kevin Stewart MSP, outlines the reasons behind his Stage 3 amendments.

Kevin Stewart MSP: Putting people and places at the heart of future planning

Kevin Stewart MSP

Scotland needs a planning system that will help to deliver inclusive and sustainable economic growth. While there appears to be consensus that the Planning Bill is a great opportunity to improve the current system, the debate has brought to light many different, and often conflicting, views on how planning can and should work in the future.

At Stage 2, I cautioned against making the system more complex. Despite this, an extraordinary number of, albeit well-meaning, Stage 2 amendments from across the political spectrum added new duties and priorities for planning that will together make the system much more time consuming, costly and potentially unworkable. To be frank, following Stage 2 the Planning Bill has become a guddle.

I think we can all agree that planning needs to be streamlined so that planners can focus less on procedures and more on people and places. As we approach the final stage in the Parliament’s scrutiny of the Bill, we have a last opportunity, and indeed a responsibility, to work together to address the added confusion and complexity arising from Stage 2 amendments and get the Planning Bill back on track.

The first set of amendments that I have laid for debate at Stage 3 relate to Part 1 of the Bill, covering provisions for development planning which sets out the framework for local decisions. Development planning is the cornerstone of the Scottish planning system. We need fit-for-purpose development plans that are better able to respond to wider economic, social and environmental challenges – now and in the future.

Despite the many amendments made at Stage 2, there appears to be a shared recognition that the National Planning Framework is a real strength of planning in Scotland. We can all agree that it should be prepared in a more collaborative way, it should bring together spatial and policy priorities, be properly aligned with wider policies and strategies, and be approved by the Scottish Parliament.

At Stage 2, I sought to avoid over-prescribing the procedures and policies for NPF, as they will no doubt change over time. However, I have listened to the views and ideas of my fellow MSPs put forward at Stage 2 and subsequently. My amendments at Stage 3 incorporate most, if not all, of the priorities that were added at Stage 2, but replace duplication and complexity with a more logical, open, cost-effective and proportionate set of provisions, which I am confident will result in a stronger and more inclusive National Planning Framework for Scotland.

The Bill sought to remove strategic development plans so they could be replaced by more flexible, partnership working at a regional scale. At Stage 2, the Local Government and Communities Committee called for further evidence and debate on this. I recognise the importance of strategic planning but I firmly believe that we can improve on current arrangements. We need to move away from continually producing plans every five years to ensure that strategic, long term planning has more influence on important decisions about future development and infrastructure investment.

I have listened carefully to views on what might work best at this scale, and my Stage 3 amendments set out a fuller duty for preparing regional spatial strategies that would be more relevant and responsive than current arrangements and better placed to act as a bridge between national and local scale planning. I believe this strikes a good balance – it will secure a strong future for strategic planning but will significantly reduce time-consuming procedures.

Crucially, local authorities across Scotland will be able to decide what works best for their area and the new strategies will be based on a 10 year cycle to ensure a better fit with the rest of the system. I am grateful to those in the profession who worked with my officials to design these amendments, and I am confident that there will be good support for them at Stage 3.

The Bill’s provisions for local development plans were particularly complex following Stage 2. There appears to be no end to the policies and priorities that my fellow MSPs want to see addressed in these plans. Whilst the unprecedented level of prescription that has been added is concerning, I am also encouraged that there is agreement that planning is relevant to all of us and can do more to improve our quality of life and our places.

My Stage 3 amendments bring together the many different policy areas to set the tone and the content of local development plans in a more coherent way.  Some of these policies, such as public conveniences and housing for older people and disabled people, may be more specific than would normally be expected in the primary legislation but I recognise that they are clearly of importance to this Parliament and the people it represents. In line with our original aims of removing duties that are costly and do not add value, I am seeking to remove additional reporting requirements, so that plans are not encumbered with lengthy explanations that duplicate existing assessments and become more costly and time consuming to prepare.

Finally, recognising the views of the Committee at Stage 2, I am proposing another amendment to further decentralise development planning. Where there are significant deficiencies in a local development plan, some would argue that Reporters or Ministers should intervene to change those plans. This is particularly the case with housing: if a local development plan starts its life without enough housing land it can be significantly weakened.

However, I am clear that planning authorities should address these matters themselves. Where a local development plan comes forward to Examination without enough land for housing, or with any other significant deficiency, the amendment would allow the independent Reporter to require the plan to be amended by the authority immediately following its adoption. I believe this will ultimately help to create a more plan-led and locally driven approach to delivering the homes and other development we need, in full consultation with developers and local communities.

Read the full list of amendments on the Scottish Parliament website.

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