Blog: Collaboration over conflict – the only way for a modern Scottish planning system

Housing minister Kevin Stewart blogs about rights of appeal in planning, ahead of Stage 2 of the Planning Bill today.

As stage 2 of the Planning Bill continues, the Local Government and Communities Committee will soon be looking at rights of appeal in planning. This is about whether any person should have a right to have the decision reviewed, in the same way that the applicant can.

Kevin Stewart MSP

This might sound simple, but it is not.

Proposals to change rights of appeal in planning are not new; nor are the arguments for and against. There were calls for a third party right of appeal – now sometimes called an equal right of appeal – during the last Planning Bill back in 2006. There had been a detailed consultation prior to that, and Parliament decided against it.

When talking about equal rights, we need to remember that the planning system was devised to have elected bodies – local authorities and Ministers, and the officials who work for them – balance the broad public interest against the private interests of applicants. The right for applicants to appeal has been, and remains, a vital element of that balance in the planning system; and it has proven its value in ensuring much-needed development of homes, facilities and other places our society values can proceed. Appeals are decided by Government reporters working independently. Their professional decisions look afresh at all the circumstances of each case.

I can see why people might be attracted to the idea of adding a new round of appeals for objectors. But we need to be careful not to conflate what is essentially an extra procedural step with some means to stop unpopular planning decisions.

The community view in planning is often portrayed as being the opinions of those who, for whatever reason, object to new development in their neighbourhoods. But there are plenty of people within our communities who want development to happen; in places where homes and jobs are badly needed. Places right across Scotland.

As we might expect, the construction sector is strongly opposed to an equal right of appeal. They take investment risks and have much to gain or lose from planning. They are also best placed to highlight the scale of impact on the construction sector and investment in Scotland. But many planning professionals also oppose it. Planners are trained to be objective, using rational judgement and evidence to inform decisions about development and use of land that are in the long term public interest.

The case for an ‘equal’ right of appeal is often made around ‘big business’ with substantial resources being too strong for communities to resist. But people, businesses and organisations of all sizes apply for planning permission every day, and they all would be directly affected by the delays that a further appeal against an approval would introduce. Impacts that put essential investment in Scotland’s communities at risk.

Many of us benefit every day from past development, in almost everything we do. I want planning to lead the delivery of quality development and good placemaking that makes a positive contribution to society for many years to come, so that our future generations can also benefit. That’s what our package of planning reforms is all about.

I am aware of scepticism among some about early engagement in development planning. I am convinced though that this is the key to achieving positive change in the planning system. This early stage of planning is where there is a real and meaningful opportunity for constructive collaboration, and for capturing people’s aspirations about the future of their places.

The Planning Bill, including amendments that the Committee has already agreed, will strengthen community engagement at all stages in the process. This means a stronger focus on engagement in working up national planning policies and local development plans; including with older people and disabled people, with children and young people, with Gypsy/Travellers and with access panels. New statutory guidance on effective community engagement will be produced. And there will be stronger development plan schemes and enhanced local pre-application consultation about major development proposals.

Perhaps most significantly, people will be able to prepare plans for their own places. The Bill will ensure that these are taken seriously by planning authorities, who will encourage and support communities in preparing their plans, maintain a register of them and take them into account in their local development plans.

Planners, and planning authorities, have a tough job to do – but it is a vital job. Planning is charged with ensuring the development our communities need can be made to happen, and that sometimes means making difficult decisions. The coming changes to the planning system will do much more than ever before to ensure that people get involved in decisions about the future of their places; to be, and feel, properly empowered to influence the development plans and decisions. People can be much more confident that those views will have been listened to.

The Committee is about to consider amendments to the Planning Bill which could add conflict between some local people, developers and local authorities. Instead, I hope that the Parliament will work with me to ensure that the opportunity we all have to work together in the long-term public interest will not be lost.