Scotland’s leading planner responds to SCN’s ‘Scotland’s broken planning system’ series and reveals extent of ‘demographic time-bomb’ facing planning departments

Scotland's leading planner responds to SCN's 'Scotland's broken planning system' series and reveals extent of 'demographic time-bomb' facing planning departments

Ian Aikman

Scottish Construction Now is pleased to publish in full a response to our readers’ survey and planning series by Ian Aikman, chair of Heads of Planning Scotland.

As chair of Heads of Planning Scotland (HOPS), I felt compelled to write to you after reading your recent editorial in Scottish Construction Now. I hope you will afford me the courtesy of a right to reply.

I appreciate that you were reflecting on the responses from your readers’ survey but the tone and rather emotive language used in the article is at best unhelpful and in places is particularly distasteful. I could also reflect on the many frustrations and concerns expressed to me by planners around the country about construction industry practices and the quality of submissions received but that would not be constructive nor assist in improving working relationships. Instead, I would prefer that we all focus our efforts on how to work better together moving forward, in what are incredibly challenging times for us all.

The key to that is open, honest and positive dialogue. In this regard, HOPS has reached out to a range of stakeholders and is engaging with various professional bodies such as Homes for Scotland, Scottish Property Federation, ALACHO, etc and I am happy to extend the offer of dialogue to other organisations within your readership. There is also discussion on the planning system happening at the High Level Group chaired by the planning minister, Joe Fitzpatrick MSP, at which there is representation from the wider development industry through the Applicants Stakeholder Group.

You will also be aware that Craig McLaren has recently been appointed Planning Improvement Champion and I am sure that he will be looking to engage with all sectors to discuss current issues and promote best practice from all. I am aware through participation in these discussions that there is a willingness from parties to work positively, collaboratively and in the spirit of collective endeavour. This is encouraging and more likely to deliver solutions than us engaging in a collective “mudslinging” exercise.

You acknowledge that planning departments are understaffed and under-resourced. However, I am not sure that you fully appreciate the significant pressures there has been on council budgets in recent years and that planning departments around Scotland have suffered substantial loss of planning staff, many of them very experienced officers, and this has undoubtedly impacted on services and how they are operated. This budget pressure and loss of staff continues. The funding and investment in planning departments is a key focus for HOPS in our discussions with the Scottish Government and COSLA and I am sure that your readers will support our position that their fees should be invested directly in planning services to help improve performance.

It is also critically important, due to this loss of experienced staff and the demographic timebomb the profession is facing, that we have sufficient numbers of new planners coming into the profession. HOPs is working with RTPI Scotland, the Scottish Government and People in Planning on the Future Planners Programme to promote a range of options to deliver the 700+ new planners it is estimated will be needed over the next 10-15 years. However, it will take time to deliver the new planners we need, and Planning Departments will have to manage this shortage in the meantime.

NPF4 is now part of the development plan and whilst you and your readers may have reservations about aspects of it, this is now the policy reality within which we must operate. It is incumbent on us collectively to work to together to deliver its aspirations. HOPS through our various sub-committees is working through the legislation and guidance and is sharing good practice between authorities. This is to help ensure understanding of the implications of the new policy drivers and to promote the adoption of sensible, pragmatic and proportionate application of the new policies when considering planning applications and in the development of the new Local Development Plans.

There is also a training programme being developed through the Improvement Service, Scottish Government and HOPS to ensure that planning officers have the necessary skills and knowledge to operate the new planning system. It is fair to say that this is still a transitional period and all of us are still coming to terms with the implications of these changes.

I strongly disagree with the key premise of your article. I see a lot of dedicated and professional planners around the country working incredibly hard in difficult circumstances to make the planning system work. As described already, HOPS is also playing its part in that process. It is in all our interests to engage in a discussion that is critically constructive and solution-based. I have always found that engaging in this manner is more likely to build trust, understanding and lead to better outcomes.

I trust that you will take this response in the manner in which it is intended, as an offer of positive engagement and a willingness to discuss challenges and issues. We will work with the construction industry to improve how the system operates (for all involved) but also, importantly, how we deliver the right outputs to realise the sustainable, liveable and productive places set out in NPF4.

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