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The annual Scottish Planning & Environmental Law Conference took place on 29th September 2016 in Edinburgh. In this summary article, SURF’s Jacqueline Stables provides a short report on how some of the Planning Review’s recommendations might be taken forward, as proposed during the conference.

► About The Conference

The aim of the conference was to explore valuable viewpoints on the Independent Review of the Scottish Planning System, from a variety of speakers representing different sectors, as well as a wide ranging panel discussion. Presenting organisations included the Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI), Homes for Scotland, the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) and Heads of Planning Scotland (HOPS).

► A Delivery and Outcome Focused Planning System

Through its recommendations for a complete overhaul of Local Development Plans (LDPs), the Planning Review proposes a shift towards a much more delivery focused planning system. Support for this position was voiced throughout the conference. As John McNairney, the Scottish Government’s Chief Planner, highlighted, there may not be many who want to lose the Development Plan but there is a need to strengthen the viability of development.

In view of this, there was general agreement that the planning system should be bolder. For several of the speakers, this means showing ambition and leadership to reposition planning in the corporate agenda within Local Authorities and to create a strategic focus on place. To take this forward, planning should act to bring together all stakeholders involved in development. This would allow stronger collaboration with sectors which operate on different timescales, including regeneration and transport.

As proposed by Steve Rodgers of HOPS, it is these types of culture changes that could be the true ‘game changers’ for planning and the delivery of development, as opposed to policy and legislative change. Indeed, there were questions over whether we require an entirely new Planning Bill, when our existing framework legislation and policy documents should allow sufficient flexibility and adaptability.

► Co-ordinated Infrastructure Decision Making

The delivery of infrastructure is currently hindered by uncoordinated and fragmented decision-making. To tackle this, the Planning Review recommends the creation of a national body to coordinate infrastructure locally and regionally. The speakers were broadly in agreement with this proposal. However, there was a suggestion that such a body should consider private sector and social interests, as well as public matters, to avert any political bias in the selection of investment projects.

With implications for infrastructure decisions, the Review also recommends removing Strategic Development Plans (SDPs) and repurposing Strategic Development Plan Authorities (SDPAs) to coordinate infrastructure regionally. The speakers were in support of this, emphasising that there is still a need for city region governance, as it still has potential to deliver. Greater Manchester was cited as a successful example for regional development where the planning authority has adopted a more coordinated, delivery focused approach. The Planning Review did not propose devolving any powers to Local Authorities over major infrastructure decision-making, although some speakers suggested that this would make a significant difference to meet local needs.

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► Delivering Infrastructure First

The Review promotes an infrastructure first approach – in other words, where infrastructure is provided upfront in preparation for upcoming development. Although this was strongly supported, there was some debate over funding for this infrastructure. From the discussion, it seemed as though a Scottish Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) would not be popular. In England, there was a very long implementation period for the CIL and many felt that there is still no clear indication of its effectiveness. It was also reported that Section 75 is insufficient, particularly in providing infrastructure to serve large areas. However, it was emphasised that alternative funding options could be considered, such as co-investment mechanisms or integrating public budgets.

► Delivering High Quality Housing

The need and demand for housing in Scotland has widely been recognised as a national challenge. However, Tammy Adams (Homes for Scotland) suggested that this is not being fully addressed through local planning.

Local Development Plans (LDPs) play a key role in tackling the housing crisis since they are required to detail ‘effective land’ identified for housing. However, under the current definition of ‘effective land’, Adams suggested that Local Authorities make insufficient land allocations. Consequently, plans are not able to provide the certainty preferred by housing developers. Additionally, it was suggested that the current planning system remains relatively inflexible as Local Authorities are reluctant to alter housing allocations once published in the LDP.

To tackle these issues, it was proposed that effective land must be more fully defined, with emphasis on its marketability. This is broadly in line with the Planning Review’s recommendation. Where allocated land fails to be taken up by developers for housing, Adams suggested that Local Authorities should review the plans and consider allocating alternative sites. In practice, this could mean meeting housing targets through allocating a mix of brown and green field sites.

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Photo Credit: Idox Information Service

► Participatory Decision Making

The Planning Review recommended a much stronger stance for future engagement in planning, with proposals to incorporate community ‘place plans’ into Local Development Plans (LDPs). In support of this viewpoint, Professor Rebecca Lunn (University of Strathclyde) strongly emphasised that poor public involvement can lead to crisis-led policy making and ultimately, poor decisions. Lunn proposed that the public must be fully informed with high-quality, independent evidence to collectively help planning authorities reach a verdict.

On the other hand, it was proposed that participation is appropriate only in some situations. Moreover, there were questions over how public views could be included in LDPs, without encouraging NIMBYism or conversely, consultation fatigue.

► Facilitating the digital economy 

With the increasing prominence of the digital economy, planning must play a key role to help drive this sector. However, the speakers highlighted that there is still a lack of clarity as to how this might operate in practice. One suggested that the Use Classes Order should be reviewed, especially due to the anticipated changes in the type and amount of office space required. In addition, even in this digital context, there may still be a strong emphasis of providing Town Centre office space, as it was cited that this is preferable to business owners.

The accessibility of digital technology could represent a huge opportunity for equal access to information and decision-making. For planning, as Craig McLaren (RTPI) suggested, there are a variety of ways this could be used within the profession and also for public engagement, referencing the first fully interactive digital LDP in South Ayrshire.

The May 2016 Independent Review of the Scottish Planning System, ‘Empowering People to Deliver Great Places’ by Crawford Beveridge, Petra Biberbach and John Hamilton, is available on the Scottish Government website.

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