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Jim Mackinnon on the new Planning Bill

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4 Jun 2008

Planning Will the new Planning Bill really lead to a shift in the quality of the built environment? It’s too early to tell, but Jim MacKinnon, the civil servant leading the reform process is canny, ambitious and optimistic

Jim MacKinnon heads up the new Directorate for the Built Environment, which now embraces planning, building standards and the Architecture Policy Unit. MacKinnon trained first as a geographer at Edinburgh and then studied planning on a part-time basis at Strathclyde. He has been the chief planner since 2000. In 2003 the incoming Labour administration made a commitment to reform planning, demanding that the system be ‘more inclusive’. The outcome was a planning white paper in June 2005, which received Royal Ascent in December 2006. The government is currently consulting on secondary legislation to deliver the objectives set out in the bill.

The Planning Bill extends the scope of the system to include marine fish farming, sets out a national framework and local development plans, and creates a hierarchical system in which applications are national, major or minor. Planners will focus on major projects and small local projects are permitted as long as they comply with guidelines. Planning appeals will be dealt with on a more local basis and enforcement will be more aggressive. Alongside the legislation, Mackinnon is embarking on something of a cultural revolution; a Planning Development Programme is trying to address issues of skill shortages and the Executive planners are working to transform the National Planning Framework from being a largely ignored but well-meaning tome into a live debate about the future of the country which engages the public imagination.

Prospect talked to MacKinnon about the Planning Bill and the impact that it is likely to have on architects, planners and the quality of the built environment. You get the distinct impression that MacKinnon likes the complexion of the new government and that he is enjoying delivering planning reform for political leaders who are more interested in outcomes than process.

Q. If you were a historian reflecting on the bill in 60 years time, how do you think you might characterize it? I do think the Planning Bill is the most significant change in the planning system for sixty years. There have been adjustments made to the 1947 planning act in the past, but this bill looked at the five main elements of the planning system; the scope, or what it controls; a system of forward planning; a system of development management or control; a system of appeals and enforcement.

The Town and Country Planning Act was seen as one of the weapons of the new welfare against poverty and you see these BBC films, with these wonderful Alvar Liddell commentaries saying we will build houses for the poor people and they will all be terribly ‘herppy’ healthy and have a jolly good time.

I suppose you should look at the new bill in the context of Devolution. This does mark a significant shift in the planning system compared with what you see in England and Wales and Ireland. The new bill reflected not just devolution as a political process, but the particular state of Scottish politics, where there was a coalition, where they had two issues to address – efficiency and inclusion. For many people inclusion was the more important. What the planning act did was reshape processes, but the real test is the outcomes, what you see on the ground. We tried to keep the design agenda and place-making agenda alive and I think that is the big challenge that we face.

In Scotland our planning system is quite flexible. If you look at the planning systems in Continental Europe what you see is planning systems that say the building lien will be here, the building heights will be here, this is the balance of land use. I would like us to move towards that system where we can get big decisions through development plan and focus through a variety of supplementary tools to get individual development right. There is a case for saying no earlier, if a proposal is fundamentally flawed. Developers are looking for certainty as opposed to uncertainty and delay.

Q. I suppose this process began with Sam Galbraith’s speech in 2000, in which he asked where are the conservation areas of tomorrow? I remember that well – Sam was appointed not long after me. I was keen to get design on the agenda. I remember drafting the speech and posing the question and that was the phrase that resonated with people. I think there are issues about maintaining and enhancing the quality of conservation areas, but there are also bigger issues about getting new development in the right place and of the right quality. We’ve been asked why is it that a system that is quite slow, quite clunky, which is very inclusive is not delivering quality on a consistent basis? It’s the old argument – a camel is a horse designed by committee. Hopefully we can get a focus on outcomes, which is very much the focus of the current administration as opposed to too much emphasis on process and input.

The First Minster’s Sustainable Communities Initiative can bring these issues into sharper focus. There is growing interest in the issue of the quality of places. There are aspirations to build more houses, but it can’t just be houses anywhere and more and more suburban estates. It’s about creating some quality places in Scotland. I think there are some interesting things happening, for example at Tornagrain where you’ve got aspirations to create a new settlement which is based on the small town tradition, but also tries to build in some of the current thinking around home zones and traffic management and sustainable design and construction.

Q. It’s interesting that you mention Tornagrain – it seems to provide quite a conservative agenda? Scotland has a very proud urban tradition reflected for example in the 18th century planned towns and in Edinburgh’s New Town and I think we have not done that terribly successfully over the past 50 years. The 1920s and 30s interwar housing were nice and popular places. What we have not been able to do, on any significant scale, is to recreate that. I think this is a about a sense of place and a sense of identity. In an increasingly globalised world people are looking for differentiation. It’s not about slavish adherence to the past but there are certain things, like pitched roof and small windows that tend to work. I’m not saying you can’t have mono-pitched or large areas of glass, I’m just saying that they need to be properly designed and in some contexts they don’t work.

Q. The New Urbanist agenda has a demanding social component and promotes a lifestyle and that is not necessarily appropriate for the way we live today? I do take the view that places shape us – that your environment has a huge impact on your attitudes and behaviour and other things. I don’t view things as a pure environmental determinist, but there is an issue about design leading to responsible social and environmental behaviour. If you design opportunities for walking and cycling then hopefully you can help people live their life in that way. That is something we have not done terribly well with new development, we’ve tended to put these things in as an afterthought.

I was in Copenhagen a few years ago – in Orestad – and their approach to development was let’s get the circulation, transport, the walking and the cycling right first, then they talked about open space. The regional shopping centre came last. In our culture is increasingly common to say lets get the shopping centre and that can then lead to other things. I’m not making any social or moral judgments on this, but I do think that we should design in a way that reflects our distinctive identity and in a way that encourages behaviour that is sustainable and I mean that economically, socially and environmentally. There’s a perception that urban design is something for the Chattering Classes. Everyone is entitled to a quality environment. I get really angry when I travel between Edinburgh and Glasgow by car, to see housing built so close to the M8 – it’s unacceptable that we should be expecting people to grow up in that environment.

Q. Do we live in an anti-development culture? I think we now have a much more vocal public. I am old enough to remember things like the Skeffington Report (1969), when things were done to communities and they had no involvement, no right to have their voice heard. My argument is the more opportunities we have for public involvement in planning the better. The planning system tries to ensure that communities are involved early. There is a very significant change in the Planning Bill in that we removed the term consultation and replaced it with participation. I think this was quite an important signal that this was a participative process.

I think developers have to step up to the table and say – are we producing as good quality development as we should? Some of the issues are around the quality of what is being produced rather than around development per se. It’s about involving people early, trying to get agreement on the future shape of their community and sticking to it. It’s about being much more generous around land allocations, getting away from doing stuff around arithmetic when you are talking about places.

Q. Some architects and developers are sceptical as to whether councils have the resources and skills to deliver the planning reforms. If you say we need more resources it does actually help change behaviour. I don’t mean that as a criticism of local authorities, I think we all have to behave and act differently. The government is already putting in the guts of £10 million into e-planning and to enable the planning system, not just as an ICT exercise, but to change management.

A fellow planner recently told me he got a 22-page report on an individual house in the countryside. That’s not planning – it’s report writing. What we have tried to do is to get the small scale stuff out of the system, but also planners need to be responsible. That means moving away from plans that are so comprehensive that they are incomprehensible. The development plan is not a general policy wonk or treatise, it’s there to guide the developer to places. I am thinking if the government need to employ people with urban design experience to promote this agenda even evangelize about it. We also need to look at how we can get more people with urban design skills; it may not just be about planners, it may be about architects, who probably have a better sense of place, how they can learn more about the planning system. I think we have talked too much about process and procedure and not enough about what we are trying to achieve at the strategic, national and local level.

Q. Planners are often caricatured as bureaucratic.There was quite an interesting comment by COSLA the other day about the wind farm debate. They said actually that the planning issues get obscured because people are so concerned about the legal issues. I think planning, more so than any other public service, operates in this quasi-judicial environment. So it is not necessarily about coming to a sensible decision, there are various rules and regulations, domestic and European, that have to be observed and maybe people will take it to court. There are very few court cases in planning, but there is always that Sword of Damocles hanging over you. There’s a whole nexus of issues around that.

Q. What has happened with the Planning Development Programme? So we have funded a whole range of skills and knowledge development. We are looking at ways in which we can address what I would see as fairly widespread deficiency in place-making skills in the public sector in Scotland. If people can’t, at its crudest, read plans, it does actually make it quite difficult to deliver better places. We have also looked at some generic issues such as leadership. In many local authorities in Scotland, planning has slipped from what I would call a second tier post to a third and sometimes fourth. I would like to see the planning view respected, with a seat at the top table, so that spatial and land use dimension is recognized and also that planning is seen on the critical path for delivery.

Q. Should local authorities take planning more seriously? We have to establish trust and confidence among politicians and they have to support the resource for planning service. There are a number of new members that have come in that are excited about planning, they have to be local champions and make sure the salaries are at the right level. I think that is important, but I don’t think it’s for government to specify.

Q. What do you think about design gurus? It depends on the individual and whether it is seen as something that is ephemeral or enduring. I am not myself keen on faddism, but I think there are issues around raising the profile of design. Sometimes there can be difficulties as to what role these individuals play in the decision making process. In Bavaria they assemble panels of well-respected architects to advise on design solutions and maybe we should be starting to think more about that. The design of quality places is not necessarily about a talking head but should be seen as something much more mainstream.

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