Paul Houghton, our Director in Scotland, has just finished a two day placement at the Scottish Government in Edinburgh. As well as meeting many of the staff in the Department of the Built Environment, Paul was also able to sit down with Scotland’s Chief Planner, Jim Mackinnon, for a chat. Paul’s reflections on the two days are below.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect from this placement. I had initially thought I would be moving around the Scottish Government’s offices at Victoria Quay, but in the end people came to us rather than the other way around. It was also interesting that the other seven attendees formed a cross section of the planning world from community groups, agencies, local government, students, a solicitor and me as the token planning consultant and voice of the development sector.
Overall, the impression I gained was that after a manic couple of years radically changing the planning system in Scotland, we are now entering a period of reflection and review and a general winding down of activity, with the Scottish election looming in May 2011.
What was most interesting to hear was that the current minority SNP administration made it clear to the Chief Planner, when they took office, that they wanted as much decision-making as possible devolved to the local authorities and as light a touch as possible as to how they implemented the new development planning and management regime. As one example of this, there was a genuine pride amongst civil servants, and the Chief Planner, that the number of referred applications had plummeted since Circular 3/2009, which reduced referral to just three specific instances from the previous 17 categories, and this had meant that only 55 applications has been referred in the last year and only three of these called-in. Even then we were told that Scottish Ministers were loathe to overturn a local authority’s support for a proposal, particularly where it was considered to support sustainable economic development. There was also genuine pride in reducing 400 pages of planning policy to just 50 (the Consolidated Scottish Planning Policy) and that the administration was very much hands-off offering help where needed rather than publishing volumes of prescriptive guidance that local authorities had to follow. Are we saying to England that we’ve already done localism!
It was also clear that we have had all the consultations we should expect from this administration whilst few new statutory instruments are likely to now emerge prior to Parliament rising at the end of March 2011. It, therefore, looks like the tricky issue of what to do with planning fees will not be resolved before the election and so will be an issue for the next administration to face along with resourcing the planning system at a time of dwindling budgets.
Overall, a very useful and insightful couple of days, even though cost cutting now means that you have to pay for your own drinks, coffee and lunch!”
(NB: Circular 3/2009 has just three categories of planning application that should be referred to the Scottish Government: Category 1: development in which planning authorities have an interest and a significant departure from the authority's own development plan, Category 2: objection by Government agency and Category 3: opencast coal and related minerals)