A radical modernisation: making planning integrative and accountable.

The review presents an opportunity to create a radical updating of a system that, in its fundamentals, was forged in the southern England of the 1940s. However, there is a risk that the opportunity will be lost if the review is  just a re-run of the “planning is holding back housing delivery” saga. Of course housing delivery is important, but constantly viewing the shortfalls through the lens of neo-classical economics, with a bureaucratic state frustrating the entrepreneurial zeal of developers and the aspirations of their customers, is naive, sloppy thinking. The planning system is only one of the many institutions that influence outcomes in terms of housing provision.

Instead we need to recognise three key systemic challenges:

  1. Despite the easy rhetoric, the potential of the statutory planning practice to deliver the essential spatial dimension of “sustainable economic growth” has not been fully realised.
  2. Planning has been pushed into its own “silo”.
  3. The  system does not command the trust of the Scotland’s citizens.

The problems are not unique to planning nor are they resolvable by actions that focus exclusively on the planning system. However, a bold approach to modernising planning, complementary to land reform and community empowerment initiatives, could be a catalyst for a wider invigoration of civic Scotland, while also helping brand Scotland globally as an innovative and inclusive place.

Towards Integrated Development Planning

There are some real strengths in the current Scottish planning system, notably the work on the successive National Planning Frameworks, and the re-creation of a regional scale of plans after the misguided, ideologically driven scrapping of the regional scale of planning in the 1990s. We need to build on these strengths. In particular we need plans that can really integrate investment decisions, whether by major private sector infrastructure providers, the residual public sector agencies and authorities, or third sector developers such as development trusts or new forms of local action under the legislation on community empowerment and on land reform.

The Wheatley Report (1969) saw planning as the key function in local government, as land was fundamental to delivery of all other functions. The drive to sell off publicly owned assets and to prevent councils from being housing developers, significantly dislocated planning practice from the assumptions of public-led development on which the system was built in the 1940s. The regulatory rump, with legally prescribed limits, became marginal. It was largely ignored in community planning, and seen as nothing more than a burden on business, navigable only by lucid lawyers and consultants. Hence the current planning review.

The core challenge then is how to design a planning system that can play a meaningful integrative role in a situation where the deliverers of development are diverse and plural, and their actions are less than the sum of the parts. At the same time, the trust of the public must be regained. As the experience of the past 30 years shows, reliance on the regulatory power of planning and a centralised system falls short. Development plans can send messages to potential developers, but those developers can turn a deaf ear to them, either by not investing or by pursuing development aims through (repeated if necessary) planning appeals. Meanwhile, the basis of policy in any plan has been shaped at Scottish Government level through Scottish planning policy and the forerunner, the National Planning Policy Guidelines. These vehicles have been fundamentally topic-based rather than integrative.        

An outline proposition

  • Slim national planning policy to issues that are genuinely national, i.e. required to deliver the NPF.
  • Let councils decide co-operation areas for regional scale planning frameworks that will marry NPF and regional uniqueness / smart specialisation.
  • Produce regional frameworks through a collaborative process embracing the potential opened by Land Reform and Community Empowerment.
  • The regional frameworks would be non-statutory but in each case with an agreed timetable for adoption, and their form would be determined by the participating stakeholders, not prescribed from Victoria Quay.
  • The regional frameworks would be adopted by such stakeholders as chose to sign up to them. They would then become the basis for delivery contracts between stakeholders – e.g. Scottish Government, its agencies, and local authorities; infrastructure providers, housebuilders, local education authorities and community councils; etc. as might be seen as necessary to deliver the desired development in quantity and quality as appropriate.
  • The contracts could include, for example, the timetable and format for preparation of statutory land use plans / “action plans”, devolution or aspects of planning regulation to a sub-local authority level.

In summary, the prescription is to embed Scottish planning with the kind of qualities that are recognised as fundamental to success today – innovation, co-production, incentives, the building of trust and tacit understanding, alternative dispute resolution, working across traditional institutional or geographical boundaries.

It also seeks a way to work with, but not depend exclusively depend upon the hollowed out local authorities , which are the most geographically remote scale of local government in Europe.

The process should be supported by Scottish Government by a strong push towards use of “smart” technologies, e.g. production of GIIS software to facilitate modelling of territorial impacts of developments, climate change impact assessment etc.  Similarly, the transition will require some pump-priming of capacity-building, which could be delivered to the various players, with roles for third sector providers and for cross-subsidy on the basis of ability to pay.

The proposal seeks to bridge the gap between the potential of a plan / planning framework to negotiate and align the interests of multiple stakeholders, and the actual decisions on investment that each makes on its own criteria. Framework + contract = collective + buy-in + increased certainty for all.          

Why the contribution is important

The planning system has to operate in a situation very different form that in which is was set up in 1947.In its present form it lacks the powers to deliver the spatial integration that is essential for successful development. The system is also over-centralised, and has contributed to the weakening of local authorities and local democracy.  

So the challenge is how to devolve power to and from our local authorities, while recognising the importance of functional regions /sub-regions that might not conform with council boundaries, AND to support initiatives in community empowerment and land reform to build a strong bottom-up capacity to shape places.

There are some international examples that might provide insights. These could include the Integrated Development Plans in South Africa (by no means perfect but worth looking at); Norway's bottom-up approach to local government reform / municipal amalgamations; the Regional Development Plans in Denmark; and Australia's Building Better Cities programme and subsequent National Urban Policy. We should also note the International Guidelines on Urban and Territorial Planning recently produced by UN-Habitat.

by CliffHague on February 24, 2016 at 06:12PM

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  • Posted by KemnayCommunityCouncil February 28, 2016 at 17:29

    I write on behalf of the Garioch Area Community Council Forum, which consists of representatives of the nine community councils in the Garioch Area of Aberdeenshire.

    Planning enforcement has been a concern of many individual Community Councils in recent times, as well as at the Forum. Whilst we recognise that enforcement action is taken in the public interest, the Garioch Community Councils note that on at least two occasions over the last year Aberdeenshire Council’s attempts to undertake enforcement measures have been ineffective. As a result, members of the public – our constituents - have experienced considerable stress and loss of quality of life, as well as losing their faith in the planning system.

    Our concern is that the powers available to council officers are constrained by Scottish Government guidance and by the legislation in place at present. There is an inadequate level of protection for the public. In effect these constraints allow developers or businesses to flout enforcement measures. I have written also to the Chief Executive of Aberdeenshire Council to express our views on this matter.

    My purpose in writing to you is not only to raise this concern, but also to seek your comments on this important issue for our communities. The Garioch Area Community Council Forum requests that Scottish Government Planning Enforcement policies are fully reviewed so that they may be as robust and proactive as possible. The current measures do not inspire public confidence in the Planning Enforcement system. As community councillors, we have witnessed the intolerable impact this has had on some communities.

    Dr Sheila A Simpson FRCP
    Chair Kemnay Community Council
    Chair, Garioch Area Community Council Forum
  • Posted by JohnColledge February 28, 2016 at 17:33

    A quote from above, 'The system does not command the trust of the Scotland’s citizens.'

    When senior members of staff in a local authority Planning Dept cannot clarify what developers are applying for, what their Planning Committee has approved, disagree between themselves, their Planning Committee, the SPSO and the developers over what that is and what the planning system actually is, it can come as no surprise that the people of Scotland have no faith in the system.

    What is particularly worrying is, the SPSO, Planning Committee members and a growing number of MSPs have been aware of this situation for a number of years and have done nothing to address these failings. This is despite their obligations to serve the people of Scotland and/or to comply with their respective codes of Conduct.
  • Posted by Jack_Thorn February 28, 2016 at 20:02

    I agree with many of the ideas suggested by CliffHague. I would add that lack of confidence in the planning system arises in part due to the ineffectiveness of the examination process which, in my experience, seldom results in development plans being modified even if they are based on "facts" and assumptions that are demonstrably false.
    One part of the solution may be to re-introduce public hearings for all matters (currently at the discretion of the Reporter) and to require Reporters to insist that proposed policies be based on evidence rather than expediency.
  • Posted by Monkstone February 29, 2016 at 11:45

    I strongly agree with kemnay community council ,exactly how I feel about the planning system totally deflated with the whole process of Enforcement .
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