Blog: Planning and Infrastructure: a little less conversation, a little more action

Planning partner Sarah Baillie contrasts the lack of ambition within Scotland’s Planning Bill to the bold, inspirational, collaborative and game-changing Connecting Glasgow Report issued recently by Glasgow City Council.

Sarah Baillie

Since 2014, conversations in the development and property sector have centred around the Scottish Government’s vision of creating a game changing world class planning system. Many of us hoped that the new planning bill, introduced a year ago into the Scottish Parliament, would ultimately reflect this and the aim of enhancing efficiency and improving delivery. It was envisaged that a stronger, high-performing framework would be created to contribute to inclusive growth by enabling housing and infrastructure delivery as well as supporting quality of life by promoting quality of place and empowering communities.

Unfortunately, a year on, the only reason why the Bill may go down as game changing is due to its potential to grind the entire system to a dramatic halt. It has just completed its Stage 2 process with 300 plus amendments presented by MSPs, with 230 of them accepted. They were scrutinised and considered alongside the rest of the Bill in a number of hours over only seven committee meetings. Figures published by RTPI Scotland last week are concerning as they show that the latest draft of the Bill will add 63 new, unnecessary and unfunded duties to local planning authorities with a further 25 on the Scottish Government. This is in addition to the other demands that the Bill will place upon already constrained planning departments.  

World Town Planning Day also occurred during Stage 2, a day celebrating the accomplishments of planners, their contributions to communities and an opportunity to look at planning from a global perspective. Yet, along with the Minister, most property and planning professionals and bodies in Scotland were likely rejoicing at the rejection of an amendment to allow an “equal” right of appeal for third parties that had been voted down the previous day. You cannot blame them, it would have resulted in uncertainty and entrenched confrontation between and amongst developers, competing business and communities. Its inclusion would and will be counter-productive to inclusive economic growth and delivering development as well as undermining democracy and placing further demands on planning departments. Any celebration may be relatively short-lived, as in all likelihood it will be raised again at Stage 3, as the committee has made it abundantly clear that community concerns must be addressed in the final bill. And so they should but the right of appeal is not the solution to facilitating their collaborative engagement.

As for a world class system, there is certainly a growing list of the world’s problems MSPs are expecting planners to have a statutory duty to resolve, ranging from public toilet provision to water refill points. It is perhaps worth reminding our honourable MSPs, that this Bill is about improving efficiency and making the system less not more complicated. The Bill is, after all, there to set a legislative framework and process for the delivery of planning practice, policy and ultimately development - not to debate and set policy within it. This may be down to the lack of vision within the Bill or its silence on process, as so often is the case with primary legislation, and so an unnecessary void is being filled with bluster from MSPs. 

Take infrastructure as an example, we’ve been talking about its provision being a major challenge to delivering development, especially housing, for a generation. It was one of four key themes of the planning review where the real significant change was to come through an “infrastructure first approach” with a much better integration between planning authorities and infrastructure providers. However, all the Bill does is introduce powers for an infrastructure levy but disappointingly leaves the details as to how this will operate in practice to be consulted on later. Additionally, it frustratingly fails to address the question as to how physical infrastructure provision, whether in the form of transport networks, utilities or facilities to allow communities to thrive will be delivered. However, this has not been debated and it is clearly an opportunity missed to tackle an issue head-on that every government has thus far side-stepped. It also likely resulted in an amendment in relation to Land Value Capture which consequences need to be fully consulted upon and assessed before it should stand. The lack of debate, detailed scrutiny and “equal” form on consultation and engagement as to infrastructure delivery remains a valid concern to the development industry and those targeted with meeting and delivering much needed housing.

As the Bill enters its final stage, MSPs need to seriously consider what amendments are actually necessary in the national interest but most importantly should cast aside political divides and be looking to Susan Aitken, Leader of Glasgow City Council for inspiration. The Councillor established the independent Glasgow Connectivity Commission, who recently produced their first report “Connecting Glasgow; Creating an Inclusive, Thriving and Liveable City”. The commission was invited by her not to “shirk from making tough recommendations”. It is a refreshing and collaborative mix of independent experts across both the public and private sector who appreciate and recognise the intrinsic role effective planning and infrastructure plays in delivering much wider transformational benefits for local communities, city regions and the country. It makes a number of recommendations, aligned to connectivity and transport investment influencing the dear green place’s quality of life, its urban fabric and the type of economic activity it supports. It calls for a national focus on Scotland’s principal engine for productivity growth ­– it is now Glasgow’s turn for infrastructure investment.

The report is everything the Bill currently isn’t. It is a visionary narrative that is bold, imaginative, rejuvenating, inspirational, innovative, collaborative and game changing. Fit for a world class city and country. It is more aligned to the planning bill’s purpose than the planning bill is. As senior representatives from government and commerce meet, to focus on Glasgow’s economy at the State of the City Economy Conference, the report is bound to be a conversation on everyone’s lips. Actions speak louder than words but if there is political will to adopt its aspirations as an action plan it will let Glasgow, and Scotland, flourish.

Like Connecting Glasgow, the review of the planning system also started with an independent panel of experts. Democratic engagement has to be actively encouraged, but political gamesmanship and populism should not cast aside pragmatism, expert opinion and efficient scrutiny of legislation. MSPs need to seriously consider the Bill as it stands as there is a real risk it will become entirely self-defeating.  If some amendments do go ahead legal questions may in fact be raised over the Bill’s competency.

Its passage to date is perhaps an ironic reflection of planning practice - hostile engagement, political point scoring and irrational decision making place within a limited time frame resulting in dissatisfied stakeholders and inaction on the ground. So during its final stage of parliamentary consideration, politicians are urged to listen to the wise words of the great King himself as all this aggravation isn’t satisfying. Please have a little more bite and a little less bark, a little less fight and a little more spark and take action to ensure that the Planning Bill satisfies its purpose and not just themselves. 

  • Sarah Baillie is a planning Partner with international business law firm Addleshaw Goddard LLP and is based in their Glasgow office.  She is one of the few Law Society of Scotland accredited planning law specialists but is uniquely also dual qualified as a chartered town planner retaining membership of the Royal Town Planning Institute.

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