Stephen Tucker: Planning is more than a vote winner

Stephen Tucker: Planning is more than a vote winner

Stephen Tucker

In an exclusive feature for Scottish Housing News, Stephen Tucker, Glasgow-based partner at planning and design consultancy Barton Willmore, outlines his strong opposition to the Scottish Government’s consultation on removing the presumption in favour of sustainable development.

Over the summer, the Scottish Government launched a consultation on plans to remove the presumption in favour of sustainable development from the nation’s planning policy. This is a step back for hopes of a pro-delivery, pro-housing planning framework, and a decision that smacks of politicians looking for short-term vote winning policies above those that will benefit the people of Scotland in the long term. Barton Willmore has submitted a formal response to the consultation, but the question that many of us have been asking ourselves is what exactly did we expect from the government? Most politicians are neither interested nor motivated to improve our planning system beyond anything that guarantees more constituency votes.

One only needs to look at the experience in England, which saw the spectacular rise and fall of planning by appeal in recent history, to acknowledge that central and local governments, inspectors and reporters, however independent, have a habit of coming together to support local community views that they hope will bring ticks on ballot papers.

The need for long-term vision

This reform is not what the Scottish Government set out to do ten years ago. It set out to create a plan-led system (broadly on the Bavarian Model) which prized vision, long term thinking and imagination over straight zonal policies. Sadly, that ship has never fully set sail. This is partly because the respective systems and development industries are fundamentally different; and partly because the resources and skills within planning authorities have always been stretched. However, it is also because plans in that Bavarian system are not as political as the development plan processes that we have in this country. Instead they are respected as independent, long-term, technical exercises driven by regional and national targets on economic growth, sustainable travel and the creation of new places.

The government knows this, and built in a series of checks and balances that would support the transition towards a plan-led system. Yet we are now considering significantly remodelling the presumption in favour of sustainable development. Ironically, this is probably one of the most accessible parts of the planning system to the layperson.

The fundamental issue facing Scottish planning remains the same as it was pre-2006. We lack the understanding of the social and economic value of housing. Objectors, community groups and even MSPs may disagree with private housebuilders’ financial models, but they have suggested no realistic alternative to it. While in the background the planning process is becoming ever more politicised. All the political parties are entirely happy to use planning as a vote winner – and even to use the refusal of planning consent as a vote winner.

Building a new system

For me the argument for keeping ‘the presumption’ is already lost. The government has no intention of consulting genuinely on its removal. This was a move designed entirely to appease local party members and those community groups and community councils that are significantly anti-development. So let’s be pragmatic, accept the battle is lost but that the war wages on. Let us jump ahead of the process and begin the debate now on what key steps are needed to genuinely achieve a functioning plan-led system with regard to housing.

Firstly, a clear target number of new homes should be set out within the National Planning Framework, broken down by private, affordable and housing for older people, and it should be set out by region. Secondly, rather than checks and balances at the back end, we should further incentivise the industry by creating a zero carbon bonus for genuinely innovative developments that aim to be zero carbon, even if they are contrary to other policies i.e. greenbelt.

Only a few years ago Firm Foundations identified the need to build 35,000 homes a year in Scotland. Using the government’s suggested methodology, Homes for Scotland have calculated that somewhere in the region of 17,000 homes is the number that would emerge under the current plan. But this debate is a distraction. We clearly need to balance economic recovery with the needs of local communities, yet our talents and resources should be focussed on long term growth and building desirable zero-carbon places for everyone in our society. The current consultation does not do this.

Diversification not politicisation

We planners, both public and private, need to push for greater independence from local politics in the operation of a plan-led system – or at least we must challenge the short-term views of politicians. Saying no to development can seem like the right decision for the here and now, but we also have a duty to future generations, and to those not already comfortable enough to weather the brewing economic storm. The people who will suffer from under-provision are those trying to get on the ladder – who need secure, quality housing for themselves and their families at a reasonable price.

It is not a reduction in delivery numbers that we should be seeking, but a diversification of product and a focus on place. We should be much clearer about the types of homes we need built. We need more affordable homes in good areas, we need more homes for older people, flexible builds to rent properties and zero carbon developments.

The builders and land companies will follow the profit. The less they are allowed to build, the more they will focus their energy on high value areas and withdraw from everything else. This will have a knock on to housing delivery, to the economy, and to construction sector jobs – all at a time where squeezed supply is pushing prices up.

Politicians have not recognised the value of planning. The best small country in the world will need the best planning system in the world, and politics is ruining ours. Our collective effort across both public and private sector needs to go into working jointly to combat the impact of politics in planning, not encouraging it.

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