Blog: Stage 2 scrutiny of the Planning Bill continues

Planning minister Kevin Stewart blogs about the Planning (Scotland) Bill and what’s next for Stage 2 consideration.

Kevin Stewart MSP

Development management in the spotlight as Stage 2 scrutiny of the Planning Bill continues.

The October recess has given us all some time to reflect on the progress of the Planning Bill at stage 2. The Scottish Government has long recognised the value of planning, and so it’s welcome that Parliament is now showing significant interest in the Bill.

The Planning Bill is just one part of a much wider ongoing programme of planning reform. It builds on the foundation of an independent review and public involvement that spanned three years. Our work will also continue well beyond the Bill, as there will also be an important role for secondary legislation, for guidance, for training and developing new practice around digital, the use of data and infrastructure planning.

We must not lose sight of why planning in Scotland needs to change. It’s important to all of our lives, no matter who we are and where we live.  While there’s no shortage of good practice in Scotland, the system can seem highly technical, complicated, unpredictable and far removed from people’s everyday lives. Like the independent panel, I want to move planners away from administering complicated and time consuming processes, so they can realise their full potential to deliver good quality development that meets the needs and aspirations of people across Scotland. 

We need to better connect the planning system to the communities and people it serves.  However, the best way to do that is to reduce and streamline procedures, rather than adding in new duties, processes and bureaucracy that will use up already stretched resources within planning authorities or come at a significant cost to the development sector. I will continue to keep the aim of streamlining the system in view as I work with others to reconcile amendments to the Bill that have come forward so far. I welcome the agreement of many MSPs who have put forward amendments to discuss and refine them further.

People have different views on how the system could be improved, but there’s broad agreement of the importance of development plans. The Government’s proposals could rationalise our current system, so that people can have their voices heard at the start of the process before proposals take shape. An early and independent ‘gatecheck’ will ensure that all interests are involved and work together, and that issues around development delivery, housing need and infrastructure are properly considered up front and planned over a more realistic time period. Other changes, including to strategic planning, would see authorities collaborating and working with other partners to help guide and deliver significant investment at a regional scale. This would also ensure that agreed priorities are properly reflected in the National Planning Framework.

I hope that as the debate moves forward over the next few weeks to focus on development management, the Committee will recognise that changes they make to one part of the system will have wider implications. Greater consensus and certainty around proposals in local development plans will support a smoother and less adversarial development management process for all interests. It is critical that development management avoids being drawn into minutiae with planners being required to react and over-regulate rather than freeing up their time so they can proactively guide and enable development. Legislative requirements for development management cannot be allowed to become so extensive that everything we do is regulated. It should be flexible enough to reflect local circumstances, not a tick box exercise that reduces skilled planners to administrators of an overly prescriptive, centrally defined set of rules and formulae. Instead, we need to reduce the burden on authorities by removing the need for consent for uncontroversial developments and as part of this we are currently scoping out how we can enhance permitted development rights, as recommended by the independent panel. 

There is potential for planners to add more value to shaping how places can change for the better; for the planning profession to be more proactive in that role rather than being confined in a regulatory silo. The introduction of a statutory Chief Planning Officer in each authority could help embed stronger influence and join up across authorities and into community planning. Planning needs to be better resourced, but communities and developers alike also expect the service to work effectively for them. There’s a clear link between resourcing and performance. The provisions in the Bill aim to strengthen powers for discretionary charging by planning authorities, and for Member training, but also for responding where service needs to improve.

I and my officials will continue to work closely with stakeholders around these issues – we all have a role in making our planning system world leading. The planning profession and users of the system all have a vital role to play in explaining how proposed amendments to the Bill will, or will not, work in practice. Part of that is helping people access straightforward information about how the system currently works and what we’re doing to make it work better. We are now refreshing our web pages on planning and architecture and I hope that you will soon find it straightforward to find more information about the planning review and related workstreams.

The level of interest in the Planning Bill has come as no surprise to me. Planning will always generate strong views and all politicians have experienced controversial cases within their constituencies. Some may have misinterpreted our careful, evidence based and highly collaborative approach to planning reform as lacking in ambition. But this is about acting responsibly so that the system works for all of us. Seemingly attractive amendments that cannot be delivered, and those that play to the specifics of local cases, should not be allowed to undermine our primary focus of a stronger system for all of Scotland.