The Scottish Government is currently consulting on the revised draft Scottish Planning Policy (SPP), which consolidates the existing SPP and National Planning Policy Guideline (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.

Status

The consolidated version of the draft SPP does not seek to review established policy.  Rather, we are told that it represents the rationalisation of existing policy and its expression in more concise terms, with existing SPPs and NPPGs being superseded by the new consolidated document.  The consultation document provides a summary of the five key changes, which the draft SPP seeks to implement – the reasonable inference being that the guidance in the remaining planning policies remains valid in principle, if not in print. 

It is intended that this new approach will provide clarity and lead to greater certainty of intended policy outcomes.  The policy will now, for the most part, offer broad principles rather than detailed discussion of those principles.  But, contrary to the Scottish Government's aims, concision has come at the expense of clarity.

The proposed short form policy fails to provide the detail contained in existing policy documents. In the absence of detail, we are left to guess how the broad aspirations contained in the consolidated policy should be delivered in practice.  When the consolidated policy fails to provide a comparable level of detailed guidance, planning authorities and developers will inevitably revert to the current SPPs and NPPGs to guide their interpretation of the new consolidated text.  This would seem to be a reasonable approach to ensure the new policy is implemented correctly.  But there have already been examples of inquiry Reporters disregarding representations that seek to rely upon the now superseded SPP1 to aid interpretation of the new SPP. 

There is scope for confusion going forward if the relationship between the new and old polices is not clarified.  This will inevitably lead to difficulties in future as existing and ageing policies, which will not be updated, continue to be relied upon as aids to interpretation of the emerging consolidated policy document.

Quality of outcomes

The aim of the Scottish Government has been to produce a consolidated SPP which removes ambiguity and to deliver greater focus on the quality of outcomes of the planning process.

But as with all such matters, the devil must be in the detail.  A broad brush approach may allow developers greater innovation, but it will also allow planning authorities to interpret policy in an inconsistent manner, potentially leading to the application of 32 different policy requirements across each of Scotland's planning authorities. With a lack of detailed guidance on the interpretation of broad policy statements, the Directorate for Planning and Environmental Appeals (DPEA) may effectively lead development of policy at appeal stage. 

There is balance to be struck between creating policy documents which contain sufficient detail to represent an authoritative and practical tool in development management, while acknowledging that policy guidance is not intended to be overly prescriptive in its terms.  This is capable of being achieved through the current system, with stakeholders able to provide comments on how well that balance has been achieved in relation to each draft SPP.  The most effective illustrations of the success of the current approach have been the positive reception of SPP3 and SPP6 by the housebuilding and renewables industries following detailed consultation.

Change for change's sake

The consolidation of planning policy seems to represent change for change's sake.  The existing model for the delivery of planning policy remains fit for purpose and the policy content is, in most cases, enhanced by the detail that it contains. 

I welcome any reforms which lead to a more efficient and transparent process to enable effective development management - particularly at the current time, when the planning system is key to the development that will help to lead us out of recession.   It is clear that national planning policy must be well drafted, both in form and content, if the potential of the planning system to drive economic recovery is to be realised.  We must engage positively with the new planning system to ensure its success.  But it won't be long until we are dusting off our SPPs to make sense of the Scottish Government's new policy.

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