The Planning Crisis in Scotland

Next week the Planning Bill comes before Holyrood amid fears that it has become a shambles. Clare Symonds unpacks the Planning Bill is, and why it’s important.

Local newspapers are often dominated by community concerns about proposed developments in their areas. People it seems are not happy with an awful lot of planning decisions. Communities feel that their voices are not listened to when it comes to planning, while the developers it seems, have a hot line to the planning department.

The common response from politicians, who receive more mail in their mail bags about planning than any other topic, is that people are never happy and most who object to planning decisions are self interested NIMBY’s. However, the formation of groups such as Citizen and the rising membership of the campaign group Planning Democracy show a growing public discontent with the way Scotland is being developed and the way planning is done. There is increasing anger about the priority given to promoting development at all costs with little consideration given to environmental and social aspects of development and little done to tackle the lack of affordability for housing. Planning is expected to deliver economic growth, but doesn’t consider who is benefiting from that growth it seems.

Next week a new planning bill will be debated in Parliament, but many feel that the bill will do little to address the concerns of the public, despite the rhetoric of the politicians who insist that the new legislation will “deliver community empowerment” and address housing issues. How the new legislation affects the way planning is done is crucial at this moment in time with our climate and biodiversity at critical levels. Planning decisions are often taken that have a harmful effects on communities and the environment and it is crucial that we create a better planning system that offers protection for our planet, delivers good development and empowers people to adequately challenge poor decisions.

Throughout the planning system there is evidence that developers have the upper hand, one example is because they largely dictate what goes into development plans. Planning authorities at the start of the process put out a call for sites which asks who has land they want to develop. Planners choose the least-worst fit and put it in a development plan. The developer is then at liberty to put in applications, repeatedly, until they gain planning consent. If an applications is refused, then a developer will likely appeal the decision, after all the odds are worth a punt, they have about a 50:50 chance of winning an appeal.

Even those whose sites don’t make it into the development plan can still apply for planning permission with a fair chance of success, especially if allocated sites don’t come forward for development as expected.

Landowners and developers gain financially from the increase in land value that increases substantially, not from any effort on their part, but due to the decision to grant planning permission, effectively a public donation to the private company purse. Overall 95% of planning applications are approved in Scotland. Meanwhile the public voice has little bearing on what goes on, despite opportunities to comment on applications and plans these have little weight compared to the mechanisms available to developers to ensure their developments are eventually approved. Little wonder then that groups like Citizen and Planning Democracy are gaining public support.

Why is this system allowed to persist when it is clearly doesn’t deliver the kind of development we need and is unhealthy for the planet as well as those citizens who try to engage with it? There has been an opportunity for some real transformational change in the form of, what was headlined by Nicola Sturgeon as, a root and branch review of planning. However, the planning bill that will be debated on 18th 19th and 20th June merely continues with business as usual.

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