The Scottish Government is currently consulting on the revised draft SPP, which consolidates the existing SPP and NPPG series into a single statement of national planning policy. The first part of the SPP was published at the end of 2008, setting out the principles and aspirations of the planning system. The current consultation relates to the more substantive elements of the policy.

Improved clarity and concision

We are told in the introduction to the consultative draft paper that the objective of preparing a single, consolidated document comprising all planning policy applicable in Scotland is not to review established policy. Rather, the consolidation exercise is intended to provide greater clarity and concision in the manner in which policy is expressed, with the ultimate aim of providing greater certainty of intended policy outcomes. Existing SPPs and NPPGs will be superseded by the finalised consolidated policy document.

Aspirations and principles

The approach which has been taken has been to strip the detailed policy back to basics. The consolidated document, for the most part, offers broad aspirations and principles rather than detailed guidance on how those principles are to be delivered in practice.

As the existing SPPs and NPPGs and the detail which they contain is to be superseded, local authorities will have greater discretion over how the broad aspirations contained in the consolidated policy should be delivered. While the detail provided in the PAN series will be retained, the status of that detailed advice will not be enhanced.

There are obvious concerns that the potential inconsistency of interpretation of the requirements of the consolidated policy throughout Scotland will lead to a lack of certainty for local authorities and developers alike. In reality, we may just be shifting the debate on the content of planning policy to a different forum, with the Directorate for Planning and Environment becoming the body which will determine the correct interpretation of planning policy at the appeals stage.

Is this change for change's sake?

The aim of the Scottish Government is to produce a consolidated SPP which removes any ambiguity around the content of the policy which currently arises through different interpretation of the manner in which a policy has been drafted, or the conflicting guidance contained in different policy documents and to deliver greater focus on the quality of outcomes of a planning process.

It is difficult to gauge how successful the draft consolidated SPP will be in effecting that change, since the problem which it seeks to address is not at all clear. The consolidation of planning policy seems to represent change for change's sake.

The revamp of the well thumbed SPPs and NPPGs which have been used since the 1970s, is like tearing the pages from a favourite novel and asking readers to appreciate the complexities and subtleties of the story by reading the summary on the back cover.

The existing model for delivery of planning policy remains fit for purpose and the policy content is, in the most case, enhanced by the detail which it contains. Indeed, the existing series of planning policies contains detail which has been developed at the request of, and in consultation with stakeholders who have, through experience, found the detail to be both helpful and necessary. In excising the detail of policy guidance in favour or a summary version, we are (to continue the book analogy) in danger of losing the plot.

Engage with government

It goes without saying that all parties with an interest in the planning process must engage positively with the package of reforms which are being promoted by the Scottish Government. Efficiency, concision and clarity are attributes to be welcomed. However, it remains to be seen whether the consolidation of planning policy and deletion of detailed guidance will increase efficiency or, conversely, introduce uncertainty and invite the debates over legal interpretation which it is intended to remove.

In our experience, as with previous consultations associated with the modernisation agenda, the Scottish Government is receptive to proactive engagement on the content of the draft policy and will engage in constructive dialogue on whether the revised policy will meet local authority or industry demands. Once again, the onus is on those with an interest in the planning system to take the opportunity to influence the content of the policy, to see if we really can achieve a shift from process to quality outcomes. The consultation runs until 24 June 2009

To read more about the proposals for a Consolidated Scottish Planning Policy, click here.

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