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Best Laid Plans

14 Jan 2010

3 August 2009 was a big day for the Scottish planning profession. It marked the start of a new system for handling planning applications across Scotland a change that is likely to impinge on any architect or built environment professional who works north of the border.&nbsp; <br/>

3 August 2009 was a big day for the Scottish planning profession. It marked the start of a new system for handling planning applications across Scotland a change that is likely to impinge on any architect or built environment professional who works north of the border. 

What are the main changes?
The changes that took place on 3 August are part of wider planning reforms that are being introduced by the Scottish Government. Earlier in the year, the Government overhauled the two tier "development plan" system of Structure Plan and Local Plans. This 30 year old system is being replaced by Strategic Development Plans (in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee) and Local Development Plans (throughout Scotland). But more than just the names are changing Ð local authorities are being pushed to prepare their plans faster and more frequently.

3 August saw the introduction of a series of new regulations relating to "development management" Ð previously referred to as "development control", and renamed in an apparent attempt to make it sound more benign. The main changes relate to how planning applications, appeals and enforcement are handled. I'll explain those in more detail later in this article.

There is another dimension to the Government's reforms Ð culture change. Many people regard this as the most fundamental element of the planning reforms. It is about changing the behaviour of everyone involved in planning Ð local authorities, the planning profession, consultees, architects, developers, local communities and anybody else who comes into contact with planning. The basic point is that legislation alone cannot make planning better. What is needed is a more "can do" culture throughout the public, private and voluntary sectors. We should all behave responsibly and maturely, and be more understanding and respectful of each other's roles in the planning system. 

Personally, I believe culture change is fundamental particularly in the private and public sectors. But I don't think it will be straightforward. Changing people's habits is never easy. Nor do I believe that sufficient effort is being made for culture change really to take root as widely and deeply as it needs to.

What's the point?
All this talk of change begs the question how exactly does the Government intend to make planning "better"? What is the point of these reforms?

There are two basic aims. Firstly, to make the planning system more efficient and "fit for purpose" Ð so that planning helps sustainable economic growth, rather than hinders it. And secondly, to make planning more inclusive, with the aim of enabling local people to be more involved in decision making about their communities. Since the change of government in 2007, there are subtle signs that the efficiency agenda is being given more emphasis.

Are the same changes happening in England and Wales?
The story south of the border has been a little different... When new planning legislation was discussed for England and Wales in the early 2000s, culminating in a new planning act in 2004, there was concern that Scotland was being left behind. England's bold new system was up and running: Scotland was still trying to get out of the starting blocks.

But almost as soon as the new English planning laws hit the statute book in 2004, discontent spread about the complexity of the new Local Development Frameworks and Regional Spatial Strategies, the sheer weight of bureaucracy of the new system, lack of local control over decision-making, the difficulty of communities having a voiceÉ and many other concerns. These problems didn't go away.

Suddenly, Scotland's cautious approach didn't look quite so bad. Many Scottish planners sighed in relief that Holyrood hadn't rushed to copy the English. Instead, we took the time to learn from south of the border and keep our reforms a little simpler.
Irony of ironies, the English system has now been revamped because significant parts have proved unworkable. A new planning act was passed in 2008 Ð just four years after the previous legislation, scarcely allowing the ink to dry in legal terms. 

Nobody is saying the Scottish system is perfect Ð there are bound to be teething problems, and some of the changes have been controversial. But it doesn't look as if the new Scottish system has as much built-in obsolescence as the English system.
The changes in detail

So much for the broad sweep of what planning reform is meant to be about. What of the detail?
I will focus on the new development management regulations which came into force on 3 August 2009. What follows are the bare essentials. My purpose is to give you an outline of the new system without losing you in the detail.

The new system contains a number of basic ingredients. Much of the change focuses around the development hierarchy. This is a completely new concept in Scotland. For the first time, development proposals are divided into National, Major and Local developments. 

National developments are defined in the National Planning Framework. There are a dozen or so Ð including a high speed rail link to London, the Replacement Forth Crossing and the 2014 Commonwealth Games facilities.

Major developments are anything else which is over certain thresholds laid down in law. These developments will be fairly substantial Ð for example, over 2 hectares or 50 housing units, 10,000 square metres of industrial floorspace, or 5,000 square metres of retail floorspace. For these Major developments, an entirely new requirement for "Pre-Application Consultation" is being brought in. You will have to hold at least one public event before a Major application is submitted. Critically, you are required by law to formally notify the planning authority 12 weeks before the application is submitted. Take note, project managers!

Local developments Ð which will be the majority of planning applications Ð will largely be determined by planning officers. One of the most controversial elements of the new legislation is that refusals of Local applications will no longer have the right of appeal to a government Reporter. Instead, unsuccessful applicants can ask for a "review" of the planning officer's decision by their Local Review Body composed of a small group of local Councillors. This is really an appeal by another name. The controversy centres on the independence of these Local Review Bodies. Will they really act as an independent review body? Or will they be tempted simply to rubber-stamp their planning officer's decision?

A general point about planning appeals and "reviews" is that proposals can no longer be changed once the appeal has been submitted, nor can further information be put forward once the appeal has been lodged. This means that you have to prepare your case upfront, when the application is submitted to the planning authority. It's also worth bearing in mind that you will only have three months to submit an appeal, not six months as before.

There are plenty of other changes too. Enforcement has been given a thorough shake-up; appeals procedures have changed; a nationwide "eplanning" programme has gone live for the submission of planning applications online; from next year, more small developments like house extensions will be exempt from applying for planning permission Ð and many other things too. Check out if you want to find out more.

Don't forget that the backdrop to all these changes is efficiency, inclusiveness and culture change. The changes to development planning Ð faster and more frequent Strategic Development Plans and Local Development Plans Ð are an important part of the government's strategy for that. All built environment professionals, not just planners, will be expected to pay more attention to these development plans and get more involved in their preparation.

Now you know why 3 August 2009 was a big day for the Scottish planning profession Ð as well as architects and other built environment professionals. Whether the scope of change on 3 August means that it should be considered as a big day for planners is another question entirely. Why? Because I can't help but think that the cautious nature of the changes Ð particularly the apparent lack of appetite for the Scottish Government to really lead on the all-important culture change, upon which the real success of the reforms depends Ð indicates just how much we, the planning profession, have become defined by the reactive activities of legislation and bureaucracy. 

What about the creative and empowering side of planning, working collaboratively to make better places for future generations?  But that's another story.

Nick Wright runs Nick Wright Planning, an independent consultancy specialising in community engagement, planning and regeneration. He is also a Director of Planning Aid for Scotland and a founder member of Participation in Planning, a network of planners working in community engagement and mediation. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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