Modernisation of the Scottish planning system has been on the political agenda for as long as I can remember.  Arguments about the deficiencies of the current system are well rehearsed.  It is, after all, de rigueur to complain about the complexities and inefficiencies of what can often be a time-consuming and costly process.  We have discussed the need for planning reform for so long that the repeated rhetoric of modernisation is under threat of losing its impact.  But the time for simple criticism of the existing planning system has passed.  There is now a real opportunity in Scotland to get involved in shaping the new planning framework. Those engaged in the planning system have a responsibility to actively participate in the modernisation agenda as it gathers momentum and, at long last, starts to get interesting.

In 2005, the Labour Executive set out its vision for reform in the Planning White Paper and identified an urgent need for the modernisation agenda to deliver a Scottish planning system which is fit for purpose, efficient, inclusive and sustainable.   These key themes have been re-affirmed with encouraging continuity by the new SNP administration.  Promises of modernisation have survived the recent changes in Scotland's political landscape. The urgency described in the White Paper has been reflected in the parliamentary efficiency in bringing the long anticipated legislation into force.  Implementation of the 2006 Act continues on schedule.  What we now need is for that same attention and urgency to be reflected in the planning and development industry's response to the consultations on implementing regulations, which are scheduled to kick off this month.  

Some sections of the new Act have already taken effect, including provisions in relation to public availability of information on determination of applications, tree preservation orders and Business Improvement Districts.  Consultation on the new Strategic Development Planning Authority (SPDAs) areas has now closed.   Those areas falling outwith the four main city regions detailed in the draft SDPA Regulations will in future adopt a single tier development plan structure.  The White Paper promised a radical change to the planning system and we are starting to see that promise fulfilled.  But some of the most significant details are yet to come.

The Scottish Government will issue a raft of consultative draft regulations implementing the 2006 Act during the period from November 2007 to February 2009.  This is probably a once in a decade opportunity to participate in shaping the planning system.  Crucially, the opportunity to examine the content of the regulations is not the preserve of the lawyers and politicians.  The most meaningful consultation responses will come from planning professionals (both in the public and private sector) and the development industry itself.  My own experience is that during the preparation of the planning legislation the civil servants maintained an open mind and representations genuinely changed the legislative proposals.  The government will be genuinely interested in responses from individuals, professionals and representative bodies.  Representations can make a difference. 

Providing a meaningful response to consultations on the implementing regulations will require a commitment. There is a cost associated with time reviewing the draft proposals and discussing their potential impact in practice.  We all struggle to manage competing demands on our time and many may be suffering from consultation fatigue.  It is quite probable that submitting representations to the latest round of Scottish Government proposals is not viewed as a priority.  However this is quite possibly the best, and last, chance which we will have to comment on the future of Scotland's planning system.

So what opportunities are there?  The first draft regulations will be published before the end of the year and comments invited on a range of issues.  Those likely to stimulate serious debate include changes to the GDPO which will replace outline planning permission with planning permission 'in principle', introduce changes to the application process such as shifting the responsibility of neighbour notification from applicants to local authorities, and tighten up rules on validation procedures.  Views will be sought on pre–application consultation requirements and regulation of enforcement powers.  More detail will be provided on the significant reform of appeal procedures, including new rules prohibiting the introduction of additional supporting information at appeal.  The 2006 Act brings genuine change to the planning regime in Scotland.   Only through participation in consultation will the views of those directly involved in the system be reflected in the new rules. 

The Scottish planning system is getting its long overdue shake-up.  The responsibility now lies with everyone to participate in the reform process to ensure that, when the dust settles, the new Scottish planning system delivers the change that is required.

Coin Innes is a partner specialising in planning at UK law firm Shepherd and Wedderburn
0131-473 5104

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