Planning review report ‘a job well done’, say housebuilders

Tammy Adams
Tammy Adams

Scotland’s construction firms have said they have much to encourage them in their efforts to address the country’s chronic undersupply of housing following a review into Scotland’s planning system.

A report of the independent panel tasked with carrying out a “game-changing review” of Scotland’s planning system, which was published last week, made five recommendations to improve the delivery of more high quality homes.

With the panel (which comprised Crawford Beveridge, Petra Biberbach and John Hamilton) having heard oral evidence from some 100 parties and considered over 400 written evidence submissions and almost 500 online forum comments, the fact that a clear summary of what has been said and a directional set of recommendations published is, in itself, a job well done according to industry body Homes for Scotland (HFS).

Tammy Adams, the organisation’s head of planning, said: “I have considered the recommendations against those proposed in our written evidence - and many of those asks now have big ticks besides them. Obvious ones include the clear recognition of the need to address planning at the strategic level – moving away from simply having another layer of development plans towards a much stronger focus on delivery and infrastructure planning. Some Strategic Development Plans seem quite ‘bottom-up’ and this has seemed to restrict the ability of planners operating at this level to make difficult decisions and push local planning authorities in new, more fruitful directions.

“This introduces the need for a decision on where the home building targets for city regions should sit and we are very pleased to see the panel recommending that this should happen at the national level which would result in fewer disagreements over numbers slowing down the preparation and implementation of development plans.”

Although HFS still has to conduct a detailed analysis of the report, Adams also already found many other of the panel’s recommendations worthy of highlighting, including the suggestion that once a site is allocated in a development plan it should have clear and reliable status – equivalent to a granting of planning permission in principal – adding: “Along with other measures aimed at de-cluttering the planning system, this would allow local authority officials and politicians to focus their squeezed resources on the real priorities and avoid having to debate and establish the principle of development on each single site multiple times.”

There are, however, some points on which she strikes a more cautious note, such as the recommendation that planning fees should be increased ‘substantially’, but not ring-fenced. On this, she believes that home builders and other customers of the planning system will want strong reassurance on the level of service they will get and pay for before rallying behind further fee rises.

HFS will also be looking closely at any detailed arrangements for implementing the suggested changes to the plan-making process on which she says: “We strongly support the principle of ensuring plans are fit for purpose at a much earlier stage but, if the back-stop of local plan examinations is to be removed, we will want to know how home builders and other stakeholders can be certain their evidence, suggestions and concerns are going be given proper consideration, and acted upon, from the outset. The changes set out will rely on both genuine collaboration and give and take much earlier in the process. Our initial feeling is that some form of later check may still be required, although we hope it would need to be called into play less often.

“Through discussion with our members, we will be setting out our detailed thoughts in due course in order to support the positive momentum and help ensure the recommendations are taken forward into a package of new legislation, policy and guidance that achieves the intended results, including the delivery of more high-quality homes.”

Colin Hamilton, Associate with Scottish law firm Gillespie Macandrew, said: “There are three key themes emerging from the review – an ‘infrastructure first’ approach, better, more robust plans and a streamlined system – designed to provide greater certainty for developers and communities around where development will occur and what it will cost.

“The counterpart is that developers are likely to have increased overall costs, and planning authorities will be expected to deliver better community engagement and faster performance.”

He added: “There is no doubt that many recommendations would have significant implications for the Scottish planning system and the review group accept that many of these proposals will require further consultation.

“The report is now with the Scottish Government to consider its response. Given the background to the establishment of the review group it is difficult not to conclude that the recommendations will be substantially supported- though Planning Authorities who were not directly represented on the group are likely to find some recommendations more acceptable than others.

“However there have been various consultations on issues which affect or impact upon the planning system. In relation to many of these the actual affect has depended upon the detail and perhaps as a result their direct impact has been muted. The same could be the position in relation to this review-to use a hackneyed phrase ‘the devil is in the detail’ or possibly the effect or impact is in the detail. While therefore the recommendations are likely to find support with the government there is much work to be done to make them effective.”

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