The sheer volume of paper being produced by the Scottish Government’s planning division should reassure even the most ardent cynic that the long anticipated shake-up of the planning system is now under way.
The current consultations on regulations under the Planning (Scotland) Act 2006 represent a unique opportunity for the planning and development industries. The level of interest, dialogue and debate illustrates the importance of the legislative framework to the success of the system.
In particular, planning policy on housing is now under increased scrutiny. Last autumn’s Firm Foundations discussion document set an ambitious target for delivery of 35,000 homes a year. These radical proposals will place demand on house builders and local authorities alike, particularly on delivery of housing land.
While the recently updated national planning framework does not go so far as to set regional targets, the Scottish Government will seek to encourage planning authorities to discharge their duties in the delivery of housing land by co-operating at regional level to meet the need for housing across the country.
Reflecting the aspirations set out in Firm Foundations, draft SPP3 (Planning, 11 January, p3) highlights the need for quicker releases of larger areas of land for residential development. Its stated objective is to refocus the role of planning in housing delivery from calculations of housing requirements and land availability to building a more diverse range of quality housing that serves economic, social and environmental aspirations.
The draft provides guidance on strategic housing need and market assessment to be adopted by all local authorities. PAN38 will be replaced with guidance on housing land audits. Greater emphasis will be placed on accessible locations.
Release of greenfield land will be supported by policy if it would result in a more sustainable development pattern than reliance on brownfield sites. A benchmark of 25 per cent affordable housing will be set, providing greater certainty for developers and planning authorities.
The house building industry’s initial response has been positive, though some argue that the reforms do not go far enough. Scotland has experienced ten years of unbroken economic growth. This has been marked by a stronger desire for home ownership and increased demand in the buy-to-let markets.
Yet the planning system in Scotland struggles to maintain sufficient land supply during peak market demand. The new five-year land supply requirement will be based on a more robust assessment of housing need, but there are still concerns about whether it will deliver development on the ground rather than mere plan allocations.
While draft regulations under the 2006 act may enhance strategic plan examinations, they could weaken the opportunity to test local development frameworks through the equivalent of a local plan inquiry (LPI). The consultation paper says any party submitting a representation on a local plan will "have no right and should not expect" to submit any further material once initial submission is made.
The likelihood is that developers will lodge extensive material at that stage. Yet the ability to make representations often relies on a detailed understanding of the way councils approach the plan and associated studies. Most likely, housing land allocations will be made solely through written representations, where there is no opportunity to engage and respond to arguments.
House builders spend substantial sums on securing sites and testing their suitability for development. Having undertaken such expenditure, they will have exercised their judgement on a site’s suitability against current and emerging development plan policy. They want to put their case for appropriate consideration by an independent party.
No-one expected the present system of LPIs to continue in their current form. However, house builders fear that future arrangements will provide a wholly inadequate process for resolving significant planning conflicts. Residents and local amenity groups may also feel their ability to influence the process has been significantly downgraded.
Hearings or similar procedures would maintain accessibility to the decision-making process. Such forums allow views to be heard and constructive discussion. In a plan-led system, there can be no logic in affording less scrutiny to development plans than to major applications. If the building industry loses confidence in the process, the reforms could act as a disincentive to investment.
Colin Innes is a partner specialising in planning at UK law firm Shepherd and Wedderburn