The Scottish Government’s Programme for Government for 2015-16 announced a Review of the Scottish Planning System to identify “the scope for further reform with a focus on delivering a quicker, more accessible and efficient planning process, in particular increasing delivery of high quality housing developments.”
In mid-September, the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice and Communities, Alex Neil, announced that review would be undertaken by a three person panel chaired by Crawford Beveridge, the other members being Petra Biberbach of Planning Aid Scotland (PAS) and John Hamilton of the Scottish Property Federation. The omission of any qualified planner from the panel ruffled the feathers of the profession in Scotland.
The remit of the review is broader than initially announced, focusing on 6 key issues:
- development planning;
- housing delivery;
- planning for infrastructure;
- further improvements to development management;
- leadership, resourcing and skills; and
- community engagement.
However, the suspicion remains that the primary purpose of the review is to ease the regulatory burden on volume house builders.
Leadership and Resources
Not listed first in the panel’s remit, but of crucial importance, is the question of leadership and resources. If we are to get the best from our planning system, the Scottish Government needs to set out a vision for future development which is inspiring and empowering rather than simply sticking with the narrow and increasingly tired narrative on speedy and efficient delivery.
The challenges we face around delivering development are frequently attributed to deficiencies in the planning system, but to rely solely on that explanation is to take far too narrow a view. Technical fixes alone will not provide a solution. We need a broader revival of civic consciousness and public enterprise and that means culture change.
We have lost the civic vision which informed and inspired burgh development in previous generations and new development in our towns and cities is too often seen in narrow commercial terms. Since the financial crisis in 2008, public policy has, understandably, been strongly focused on the delivery of development as a means of promoting economic recovery. We should now be looking to move beyond that to a broader perspective on development and urban renewal, one which embraces not only its economic and commercial benefits, but also its importance in social and cultural terms. Consensus can only be built if there is a vision people can buy into. Scottish Ministers should be giving a lead by promoting a revival of civic consciousness.
There is widespread concern that cuts in public expenditure are reducing the capacity of local authorities to lead, innovate and initiate projects in the public realm and depriving planning authorities of the expertise they need to assess development proposals with implications for the historic or natural environment. The planning service is asked to deliver on a wide range of public interest agendas. It needs to be adequately resourced if we are to achieve our aspirations for new development in terms of scale, quality, social well-being and climate change targets. An increase in planning fees could certainly make a contribution towards that.
There is abundant evidence of community spirit and a desire to be active in making our towns and cities more socially and environmentally rewarding places. We see that in the demand for allotments, the proliferation of community festivals, markets and orchards, phenomena such as urban gardening, and the growing interest in community ownership of a wide range of public assets. Some elected representatives see civic activism as a threat to their authority and officialdom finds it difficult to engage with it in a positive way. Sometimes local authority responses to attempts to develop the potential of community assets can be very negative. But I suspect that resource constraints and community expectations will drive things in a more enlightened and positive direction. Planning authorities and their officials need to get better at working in partnership with communities to realise the economic, social and cultural potential of local assets. Confidence will grow with experience.
It is high time we repudiated the outdated corporate model of community planning imposed by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 2003 and replaced it with one which is genuinely focused on communities and reflects the community empowerment agenda. The efforts to improve links and communication between spatial and community planning are to be welcomed, but if we see the challenge solely in these terms we are in danger of simply making planners more complicit in a top-down and technocratic approach to community development which falls short of contemporary needs.
Flats under construction in Edinburgh
The questions about housing delivery posed by the review reflect the perspective of volume housebuilders and appear to assume the continuation of a private-sector led model which has been failing to deliver since the crash of 2008. That model cannot meet the social aspirations which animated public debate during and after the independence referendum. The public sector should play a more active and assertive role in the delivery of strategically important development and place-making, as it does widely on the Continent. It should be prepared to intervene in the land market to assemble the sites required and then provide the necessary supporting infrastructure, funding the process from the uplift in land values.
Underpinning the current review is the familiar neoliberal narrative of creative and dynamic private enterprise held back by the bureaucracy and inefficiency of the public sector. The economist Mariana Mazzucato has very effectively debunked that narrative in her book ‘The Entrepreneurial State’, and the Scottish Government has been enlightened enough to appoint her to its Council of Economic Advisers. Let us hope the current review will lead to a reinvigorated planning system empowered to play an important role in building the constructive partnership between public and private sectors which is essential to a successful social democracy.
The Scottish Government is hosting an online forum on the review of the planning system. The review panel is expected to submit its report to Scottish Ministers in March.
This article first appeared in Bella Caledonia on 30 November 2015. I gave oral evidence to the panel undertaking the Review of the Scottish Planning System on 23 February 2016.