To most folk, the planning system is of little interest. It is a somewhat dry and technical subject and only tends to excite people when neighbours propose an extension to their house or a new road is proposed. But planning in its modern form has been around for 70 years since the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 and has shaped much of our communities. Before that, Scots such as Patrick Geddes developed ideas on the art and science of planning.
Good planning provides great places to live, work and play. Bad planning results in poor mental and physical health, environmental degradation, loss of cultural heritage and economic harm. So, planning matters. Which is why the Planning Bill currently going through Parliament matters.
Published in December, the Scottish Government presented this Bill as a means to support the economy with ambitions to increase community engagement and delivery of plans. But planning is about much more than the economy.
Fundamentally, it is about the allocation of land and how it is used in order to, yes support the economy, but also to protect the environment, secure the right to housing, provide necessities such as food and water, to improve the mental and physical health of the people of Scotland, and to secure our obligations under international law (for example the UN Sustainable Development Goals).
That is why there is widespread support for a clear purpose of planning to be included in the Bill, to set out explicitly this broad purpose and to allow planning authorities to make plans and decisions in light not just of economic priorities.
Far more importantly, however, this Bill is an opportunity to transform planning from a position where conflict often prevails to one where vision and ambition are delivered through high quality plans that are developed with full community engagement and energy. That won’t be easy since a great deal of trust has already been lost in a system that far too many people believe is bureaucratic and complex and in which powerful monied interests hold sway.
Trust has been lost for a number of reasons including the erosion of genuine local decision-making by the ability of applicants to appeal decisions that go against them. On too many occasions, councils have rejected damaging developments that violate the local plan, that are opposed by local people and that are then overturned by ministers. No-one is going to be persuaded to engage in plan-making if all their hard work is so easily overturned.
Important provisions in the Bill allow for so-called simplified planning zones. The danger here is that these become a fast-track route to poor-quality development. Third parties are allowed to ask for these to be established and Scottish Ministers are also given extraordinarily wide powers to set these up themselves. All too often in the Bill, powers are drawn to the centre rather than remaining with councils or being pushed down to communities.
Another good example relates to changes to how the National Planning Framework is implemented. No-one doubts that we need a national level of planning priorities but the Bill proposes that this now form part of the statutory development plan despite it not being subject to any approval by the Scottish Parliament. Planning authorities would be bound by its contents. It could be used, for example by a future minority Government to allow fracking to take place against the wishes of Parliament, of the public and of councils and communities.
It’s now over a decade since the last Planning Bill was introduced to the Scottish Parliament. It too had ambitions of community engagement and upfront planning. It hasn’t delivered.
Many people have submitted evidence to Parliament saying that the Bill should be bold and ambitious. It is neither. In its current form it is a manifesto for business as usual, for the dominance of the failed speculative volume housebuilding model, for private interests over public, for conflict rather than collaboration and for centralisation rather than community empowerment.
At the Scottish Greens conference this weekend in Greenock we will be debating what needs to be done to resolve Scotland’s housing crisis. Planning is one critical ingredient but so too are powers that used to exist for local authorities to acquire land at existing use value rather than at inflated values with planning permission.
Patrick Geddes is often cited as the founder of modern planning. His works are there to be seen in the Old Town of Edinburgh. He said of planning that “its task is to find the right places for each sort of people; places where they will really flourish.” There is still time to realise Geddes’s vision but there will have to be substantial changes to the Bill to make this happen. Greens and other parties will be working together to make sure this happens.
This article first appeared in The National