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Desperate Dan

As a planner, one of the things I was interested to find out following the announcement of Nicola Sturgeon’s team of Ministers is where the built environment features in the new Ministerial portfolios.  The answer is not as clear as it might be.  Most noticeably, there is now no Minister with the word “Planning” in their title.  Aspects of the built environment, place-making and strategic planning remain scattered across a number of portfolios.  Planning, building standards, business improvement districts, town centres, housing and community planning sit within Alex Neil’s Social Justice and Communities portfolio, while architecture and the heritage aspects of the built environment sit with the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Fiona Hyslop. Cities fall within Keith Brown’s Infrastructure and Investment portfolio.  Sustainable development is the responsibility for the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Richard Lochhead.  But how does it all hang together?

A recognition of the importance of place has been a key feature of Scottish policy-making in relation to the built environment.  It is prominent in “Our Place in Time”, the strategy for our historic environment which underpins the merger of Historic Scotland and the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland.  Place and place-making are given considerable emphasis in the new Scottish Planning Policy and the third National Planning Framework (NPF3) published earlier this year.  Creating successful, sustainable places delivers major benefits for the economy, health and wellbeing and the environment.

In Scotland we are fortunate that planning is seen as part of the solution to the economic, social and environmental challenges we face, rather than part of the problem.  Our built environment disciplines possess a wealth of expertise in place-making and we have maintained a strong strategic planning capability at national and city region levels.  As Planning Minister, Derek Mackay gave clear leadership, with an emphasis on improving planning authority performance.  Planning is in better shape and better heart than it is South of the Border.  On the other hand, Scotland’s cities agenda seems to have lost momentum and lacks the strategic perspective which underpinned it in the days when Scottish Enterprise took an interest in the spatial dimension of economic development.

In going forward, the new Ministerial team will need to counter the impression that planning is being progressively subordinated.  It will be important for them to show that they have not lost sight of the importance of place in realising economic and social potential and the roles which planning, design and creative conservation can play in building a better Scotland.  They will need to continue to foster a view of architecture which places emphasis on place-making rather than iconic buildings.  Perhaps there a need to identify a Ministerial champion who will maintain an overview of the built environment and show leadership in taking forward the place-making agenda?

Accentuating the positive, brigading planning under Community Empowerment might offer the prospect of moving it closer to the community-focused activity which pioneers like Patrick Geddes envisaged.  It also offers the opportunity to develop an approach to community planning which is genuinely centred on communities and not simply an exercise in corporate liaison.  Realising the potential of people and places should be seen as one of the key objectives of land reform.