Nine months after its appointment by Scottish Ministers, the panel for the independent review of the Scottish planning system has come to some fairly damning conclusions. The verdict seems to be that planning must try harder. A ‘fundamental rethink of the system as a whole is needed’, it says, along with simplification and further effort on culture change. Planning, it concludes, should move away from, ‘micro-management of the built environment’.
The Review Report, available here, makes 48 recommendations. Some of these are bold and go beyond just ‘technical adjustments’. On the face of it, the recommendations appear to favour increased centralisation of the planning process, less scrutiny, and more community involvement. But other recommendations emphasise the front-loading of development plan preparation and pre-application stage, co-ordination of infrastructure investment, and funding with new development.
It is still unclear whether the recommendations will result in a simpler system with more certainty for investors and enhanced community trust.
So what are some of the key recommendations?
The panel recommends that Strategic Development Plans should no longer be prepared. This is counter-balanced by a strengthened role of the National Planning Framework (NPF). Both NPF and Scottish Planning Policy (SPP) should be given the same statutory weight as the development plan.
The plan preparation process should be simplified through ‘cutting out’ the main issues report stage and removing or limiting the scope to produce supplementary guidance. Development plan examinations should also be replaced with a frontloaded ‘gatecheck’ of the plan, alongside greater early engagement.
The NPF ‘should define regional housing targets as the basis for setting housing land requirements in local development plans.’ This recommendation brings into sharp focus the NPF approval process and whether a 60-day period of parliamentary debate provides sufficient scrutiny.
Rebranding Simplified Planning Zones across Scotland is also mooted to provide an adaptable approach to zoning areas of land for development, including housing. The Panel believes this could kick start high quality housing development at a large scale.
Infrastructure First Approach
The panel recommends setting up a national infrastructure agency, with statutory powers, involving all infrastructure providers. The panel believes this would help guide an overview of the strategic business case for front-loading infrastructure.
The Government should examine options for a national or regional infrastructure levy to raise funds – drawing on the lessons learned from the Community Infrastructure Levy in England and Wales and, in the panel’s words, to capture land value uplift.
To help speed up the planning application process, the panel recommends that processing agreements should be required for all major development. While we welcome this, these should not be used to unnecessarily increase the statutory four month application determination period. The panel's emphasis on speed should not camouflage the use of processing agreements for other matters.
We also welcome the panel’s recognition of the importance of pre-application discussions with planning authorities. But there will need to be proper resourcing in place for this to work well.
The panel suggests national guidance on minimum application validation requirements but the relationship with the current validation regulations will need to be addressed. Perhaps more information with applications, rather than less, will be needed to start the LPA assessment process.
The panel recommends that allocated sites in the LDP should be afforded planning permission in principle. This will turn up the heat on development plan preparation. The duration of deemed planning permission in principle, and the submission and definition of matters reserved by condition, should be carefully considered. But we welcome the greater focus on development plan preparation.
There are no clear recommendations on improving the use of planning conditions and the ability to amend planning permissions. In our view, this is a missed opportunity which could help deliver development.
The panel says that there should be a 'substantial' increase in planning fees on major applications. Increases should be linked to improved planning authority performance, with refunds where this is not achieved. The panel does not rule out scope for charging for pre-application discussions. The panel proposes 'solution-based' mechanisms to address continuing poor performance. These would be paid for by the LPA so the threat of the penalty clause (a forced reduction in application fees) could be removed.
One of the most significant of the panel’s recommendations is that communities should be empowered to bring forward their own 'local place plans', forming part of the development plan. This has some parallels with English Neighbourhood Plans. Communities already have the opportunity to influence the future of their place under the current development plan system. If the recommendation is accepted, the preparation of such plans will need to be closely watched as they could have significant implications on the LPA’s determination of planning applications.
Scottish Ministers will now respond to the Panel’s recommendations. Legislation, policy guidance and further consultation will almost certainly follow before we see any benefits. The SNP Manifesto 2016 has pledged that in the next parliament it will bring forward a Planning Reform Bill based on the recommendations of the Review. Developers should pay close attention to these next stages and engage with the Scottish Government.
Please email either Richard Phillips or Lisa Russell if you would like any clarification on the recommendations or would like to be kept informed of further aspects of the Planning Review. WYG Planning comments to the independent review consultation can be read here.