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Construction - A Case Of Paralysis By Analysis?

There is an old adage that goes something like this: proper planning prevents poor performance. Although the actual saying is a touch cruder, the point holds.

However, there is another, opposing and briefer adage: paralysis by analysis. The Scottish and, indeed, the UK planning systems seem to be caught between these two poles and both the Westminster and Holyrood governments are scratching their heads trying to find a solution to a problem that appears intractable.

Without a solution, however, that expedites planning approvals while providing a fair balance between opposing interests, housebuilding and other major construction projects seem doomed to suffer endless frustration over planning applications.

Elaine Farquharson-Black, a partner and head of planning at the law firm Burness Paull, points out that planning touches everyone’s life in one shape or form, be it for home extensions or because the neighbours are dead set on building some impossible structure right next door to you.

“Planning authorities are always trying to see what is best for the long-term interests of their particular communities and regions,” she says.

“It is all about balancing competing interests, trying to enable economic growth, while at the same time protecting the countryside for future generations.

“None of this is easy and the more the English and Scottish governments seek to ensure that communities get a fair say about projects that impact their locality, the lengthier and more complex the planning process gets,” she notes.

The two governments are also, in their own way, caught up in the same dilemma.

Politicians of all stripes, for example, know that the UK in general, and Scotland in particular, are not building sufficient numbers of new homes and it is common for ministers to say how much they are in favour of encouraging new home starts.

However, none of them wants their mail bags to be full of letters from irate citizens protesting about developments that encroach on greenfield land near them.

Both Scotland and England are going through planning reforms. The Scottish planning minister Alex Neil, Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Rights, has announced a review of the planning system to be undertaken by an independent panel chaired by Crawford Beveridge.

“The government is taking representations on this right now and there is general acceptance that as it now stands, the planning process takes too long and needs to be improved,” she says.

Planning delays hurt developers in a variety of ways. Farquharson-Black points out that the dangers of a protracted planning system have been graphically highlighted during the recent downturn in the economy in Aberdeen.

The city had been chronically short of new Grade-A office buildings capable of serving as headquarters for multi-nationals attracted to the region’s oil and gas sector.

However, with the price of oil falling by a half, a number of applications made during the boom time when there was demand for space, have finally been approved only for the applicants to find themselves in a totally different economic landscape.

The million or so square feet shortfall in Aberdeen Grade-A office space has switched around to way over a million square feet of surplus office space. Much the same can be said for planning for new hotels in Aberdeen.

Matters have not been improved, she points out, by the fact in 2009 the planning system was changed to compel developers of major projects to carry out pre-planning application consultations with local communities.

While that caters admirably for the community’s need to have fair representation, it adds a three-month delay, and considerable expense, to the developer’s timetable.

“When you factor in the work done prior to the public consultation and the period which the Planning Authority takes to determine the application once it is submitted, it is not unusual for the planning process to take 12 months.

“If a legal agreement is required before the consent is issued, that can sometimes add another year,” she notes.

So how is it possible to shorten the planning process while at the same time catering to the interests of all of those concerned?

Farquharson-Black says that one of the things currently under consideration is the streamlining of consents.

“When you engage in a major development there are other consents that are required in addition to planning, such as road construction consents, building warrants, discharge consents and perhaps listed building consents.

“Running the consenting processes together or removing consents which duplicate the same information could be looked at,” she says.

Another area for consideration is the disjunction between  development plans which look at where local developments could be sited, and the day to day economic realities of determining planning applications.

Development plans take years to put together and are almost outdated from the day they are approved.

“Although the plans require to be updated every five years,  this is not quick enough to adapt to changing economic realities.

“This too could be looked at, perhaps through interim or supplementary guidance,”
she concludes.

This article was published in The Herald on Monday 23 November 2015. to vie the article click here.

26 November 15