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Rising from the rubble

27 Feb 2009

With little fiscal authority the Scottish Government looks rather impotent in the face of the credit crunch. However it does have control of planning policy. In terms of kick-starting construction, are these powers particularly potent?

With little fiscal authority the Scottish Government looks rather impotent in the face of the credit crunch. However it does have control of planning policy. In terms of kick-starting construction, are these powers particularly potent?

Anton FurstÕs memorable set designs for Tim BurtonÕs gothic 1980s Batman movie showed how far a decent imagination could run with an idea, if it was unfettered by the constraints of planning legislation. ÒI thought weÕd go back to the turn of the century; and imagine what New York might have become had there been no planning permission, and no concern about the quality of life for people in the city,Ó he said. And Gotham City was born. Cinematically at least.

Conjuring up a dystopian social nightmare is certainly not the way to kickstart construction out of the dark hole of the very real present day recession, but the germ of the idea is sound. Construction in Scotland could surely be stimulated by cutting through the planning red tape that smothers potential projects before they ever get off the ground.Ê

The argument of those who agree can be summed up this: ÒWhile nobody is suggesting that we sweep away all regulation, there must be a case for suspending some rules for a short period of time to kick-start the market.

ÒAnd there is not even a danger we will get a splurge of bad development. Only a few have the cash to build, so we must be able to use a temporary moratorium, to encourage them to build sooner rather than later. And the interesting thing is this is within the gift of the Scottish Parliament.Ó

The effect on construction if, for instance, aspects of planning legislation were suspended for a year might be surprising, possibly giving construction the imaginative and financial shot in the arm it desperately needs, and let projects that are currently gathering rust and dust get moving properly.

Who knows for sure just how many large scale construction projects currently withering on the vine could be swiftly wrought into reality if some of the administrative and bureaucratic hoops the developers had to leap through could be temporarily put aside? Could Anton FurstÕs philosophy not be put into practice here, now in 2009, except with the positive aims of making parts of Scotland look less like Gotham City, rather than more so?

Perhaps it would stimulate latent projects if Listed Building consent was suspended. Or Historic ScotlandÕs multifarious restrictions were eased? The Roads and Highways department make full use of their exemption from planning law, and put up roundabouts, streetlamps and kerbs with gay abandon, although perhaps they are not the model to aspire to. Just imagine what might flourish if that freedom were granted to develop brownfields across urban environments.

In reality, no sensible builder or architect with any pride in their reputation would abuse the loosening of the regulations which would, in all probability, open the door to a stimulated economy. The chilling effect Home Reports introduced to the residential property market in December, and the expected benefits of removing VAT on home extensions show how a minor adjustment can have a dramatic effect.

But, Neil Baxter, Secretary of the RIAS is someone who disagrees.
ÒThe economic downturn might be considered as aÊperiod of opportunity to spend more rather than less time on reflecting how to create the very best for Scotland and of course the architectural profession is ideally placed to take the lead in designing the new Scotland.

ÒHowever a dilution of planning controls would be a very risky strategy. The danger with any easing of planning controls or Listed Building regulations is that you end up eroding the quality of our built environment. There is no question that the reduced workloads currently experienced by planning authorities should speed things up and allow them to process applications more rapidly and the simplified procedures proposed by the Scottish Government will undoubtedly help. However, simplified procedures should never be confused with the notion of filing down the teeth of the planning legislation.Ó

RIAS itself is among the organisations who have been calling on the Government to reduce VAT on empty homes and for repair and maintenance. The body is also part of a coalition which is calling on the Government to reduce VAT to 5%. The new Planning (Scotland) Act at least seems to offer hope that some of the lengthy delays currently experienced before developments can proceed may be eradicated. But perhaps it should go a whole lot further. RIAS is one of the organisation who are broadly behind the aims of the act, but would like to see it loosen up the planning regime still further.

ÒIn terms of the new Planning Act, we are broadly supportive and we are particularly keen to see early engagement promoted. This applies not only toÊthe community, but to all parties involved in the process including government agencies, planning authorities, developers and statutory consultees, all of whom need to communicate from the outset,Ó the organisation told Prospect.
ÒWhen an application goes before a planning committee, it must have all the necessary information and consents that are required so there is not this Ôto-and-froÕ scenario we so often see that creates delay.ÓÊ

Architect and RIAS president Arnie Dunn agrees that the planning system can be convoluted, but also warns against considering suspension of the regulations in the name of expediency.

ÒWhen you have as structural engineer involved, and a mechanical engineer and a proper qualified architect, youÕre generally not going to have a lot of problems with the regulations, which are not necessarily the hold up to a lot of projects. If you are well enough organised, it can all go through quite swiftly.

ÒOther than the work and effort that is put in and the warrant lodging fee, I donÕt know that youÕd be saving a lot if you relaxed the building regulations.Ó

The key benefit of having a rigorous set of planning controls, he argues, is that it discourages speculative development which risks being insensitive to the environment. Anything which unleashes short term speculative construction is to be discouraged, he believes.

ÒIn terms of planning, that gets into politics and speculation, and we are suffering as a result of speculation. That spins down to people who have taken projects on as a business idea, or as reliance for a pension, rather than being a property to live in. That has caused some problems,Ó he says.

ÒIf you relax all the planning regulations, you will get massive development that could cause problems in other areas. All you have to do is look at other countries that havenÕt had the benefit of the planning system that we have had since the 1940s. Just to let all that go for a couple of years because we are in a trough is really shortsighted.

ÒLook at the strip developments you get along main roads in America. Their green belt is asunder and their city centre development in smaller towns and cities is poor as a result of that. They donÕt really have somewhere that you would want to go and visit in a lot of these places. We have some really nice things that are protected because of the planning laws.
 
ÒThat sector would be the worst for sprawl and uncontrolled development. We have had times when we have had planning law restrictions in certain areas for job creation, where it is all economically under control and the speculation aspect is taken out of it. That would be very sensible. It has been done before and succeeded, although it has also failed in the past. The whole Ravenscraig thing didnÕt end up working that well, but these are the kind of things that can be tried.

ÒThere are loads of people sitting on masses of green belt land. Because of speculation, if you relaxed the planning regulations, we would lose so much of the urban environment because it would sprawl out. Once you allow that green belt to go just because of one blip and expect it will be covered in flats and people will go and buy them, youÕve lost it. And there would be consequences for other towns. It is a slightly different thing for employment-generating projects in Brownfield settings perhaps. That might be a way forward for relaxing regulations.Ó

The quick and easy green light given to the roads department is something Arnie believes should be curtailed rather than extended, as even on a small scale, uncontrolled development has more demerits than attributes.

ÒThe road engineer is one of the things that is causing the homogenisation of our cities and towns. We could do with a bit of a rest from that. I donÕt see why someone can just put a telegraph pole up in my street and hang wires from it. The roads department can at the moment. They should abide by the rules like everyone else does. It wrecks it, and I wouldnÕt think that would be a brilliant thing.

Colin Smith, Associate Director, RICS disputes the thesis that restrictive planning is a bar to development at all. In his view, the biggest hindrance to a thriving construction trade can be traced directly to the banks that continue to keep their shutters down, and fail to release adequate financing into the system.

ÒThe overarching difficulty that the industry faces is liquidity of finance and availability of financ┼Ż for development, and thereafter the availability of finance for an end user, be it residential or commercial,Ó he says.

ÒThe mechanisms and initiatives to improve the availability of finance to business are the key area. In terms of the planning systems and the processes you have to go through, there are limitations to what can be done. The fundamental matter is that there is a lack of availability of finance. That is the single biggest difficulty to the construction and development industry. Banks need to lend again at realistic levels. Demand is there. The availability of finance is the key constraint.Ó

RICS say there is Òno doubtÓ that the Scottish Government is committed to a planning system which not only delivers, but is transparent, fair and crucially, easily understood by all sides, and have pledged their support if this can be achieved. In practice, they hope the new Act will provide Òa more inclusive and efficient planning system, will help to improve community engagement and support the Scottish economy in a more sustainable wayÓ. If this can indeed be achieved in practice, easing the planning restrictions in the short term may not be necessary at all.

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