The Minister for Communities, Malcolm Chisolm, has described the Planning etc. (Scotland) Bill as "a once in a lifetime opportunity for reform that would be both more efficient and inclusive". The obvious question therefore is: Has the new legislation realised that opportunity?
The Bill proposes major changes to the planning application (or "development management" as it is to be known in the future) process by introducing three tiers of possible development: national developments, major developments and local developments.
National developments will be of national strategic importance, major developments will include the largest planning applications, and local developments will include all developments from minor developments through to major developments. Regulations are to be issued outlining the types of developments that will fall into each tier. The Bill anticipates that planning permission for most minor household developments will no longer be required.
Dispensing with the requirement for minor developments to obtain planning permission will have benefits for both the planning authority, by reducing the time they spend considering household planning applications, and for owners of residential property, by removing the requirement to submit a planning application and therefore expedite the development process.
The resulting re-allocation of man-power resources within planning authorities is intended to speed up the application process for the national, major and local developments and give a welcome reduction to the period within which a decision on a planning application will be taken: a common source of complaint among developers. Developers may additionally discover a cost-saving within this system as planning applications are determined with greater speed allowing development projects to be run with greater efficiency.
The supporting guidance accompanying the Bill suggests that the new three tier regime will not change the existing direct cost implications for national development and local development applicants. However, costs are expected to increase for planning applications relating to major developments.
Currently the maximum planning application fee for a development is £13,000. Under the new regime it is anticipated that this figure may triple. The potential increase will be a significant pre-development expense for developers, in particular for those developers who ultimately have their planning application refused. However, the sugar coating on this policy is that, despite the potential increase in costs, there will be a reduction in processing time for planning applications. Planning authorities will aim to reduce major development planning application process time from two years to six months and it is likely that developers will be able to agree the timescales for determination at the outset of the application process.
Importantly, the removal of what is effectively an eighteen month delay for the developers should at best provide opportunities to save money in other areas, for example interest on any up front development loans, and at worst allow the development itself to progress with greater speed. Major developments will however be required to go through a significant period of pre-submission consultation to ensure local people are aware of the issues and have an opportunity to comment.
The Bill provides that major development planning applications will continue to be decided by Councillors whereas local developments will be decided by planning officers. The route of appeal for local developments refused at the application stage will no longer be to Scottish Ministers, but instead to Councillors. Planning officers are in essence employees of Councillors therefore this procedure raises human rights issues regarding the right to a fair hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal. Litigation is to be expected.
The new approach to planning applications is an acknowledgement by parliament that the current system is all too often a cumbersome beast that does little to reduce delay or involve the public early enough. Developers eager to move their projects forward with greater speed will welcome the efficiency the new system promises. However, the Bill places a new onus on efficiency with planning authorities. It will be up to them to embrace the challenge if the Minister for Communities' vision is to be achieved.
Moray Thomson is an associate specialising in planning and environment with law firm Shepherd and Wedderburn. 0141-566 7269