The Scottish Government has today published its response to Empowering Planning to Deliver Great Places, the report by the independent Panel of its game changing review of the Scottish planning system.  The intention of the review was to ensure that planning played a more positive and effective role in creating high quality places by streamlining and improving the system whilst involving local communities in decision making.  The Government’s response indicates that it agrees with the Panel that change is required to make that happen.

Whilst recognising that change takes time and requires input from all those involved in the system, the Government has committed to implementing 10 keys actions arising from the Panel’s recommendations as a priority.

Those are:

  1. help local authorities to strengthen their skills and capacity for housing delivery in the short term through a range of measures including financial assistance where appropriate (Recommendations 13 and 16).
  2. finalise the draft advice on planning for housing and infrastructure delivery, including a clear definition of effective housing land which will be consistently applied within the current system. (Recommendation 13).
  3. work with Heads of Planning Scotland to identify how permitted development rights could be extended (Recommendation 31).
  4. work with Heads of Planning Scotland and COSLA to explore potential to establish shared services (Recommendation 41).
  5. take forward pilot Simplified Planning Zones for housing. (Recommendation 14).
  6. consult on enhanced fees to ensure that planning authorities are better resourced (Recommendations 37 and 38).
  7. work with the high level group on performance to look for alternative methods of improving performance (Recommendation 39).
  8. continue their commitment to authorities to not implement the penalty clause until further work on performance improvement has been considered (Recommendation 39).
  9. confirm that, in line with the panel’s recommendation, they do not intend to introduce a third party or equal right of appeal.   They will instead focus on more effective methods of engaging people, including the use of innovative techniques such as 3D visualisation, at an earlier stage in the planning process (Recommendation 46).
  10. work with Heads of Planning Scotland to finalise national guidance on minimum requirements for validation (Recommendation 29).

At the same time the Government is to withdraw its current recall of housing appeals and reduce its input on development plans to allow it focus resources on these early actions.

In the medium term (over summer/autumn 2016) the Government’s response means that we can look forward to further involvement in the development of more detailed proposals for all of the Panel’s other recommendations.

As part of that process the Government has recognised the need to explore the practicalities of their implementation and their interdependencies.  It has proposed a further series of actions to do that, including establishing working groups to focus on each of the six key themes addressed by the review (development planning; housing; infrastructure; development management; leadership, resources and skills; and community engagement).

The Government’s commitment to maintaining the momentum of the review is commendable and it is difficult to disagree with the actions proposed.  However, very few of the priority actions are likely to have any immediate impact, requiring collaboration with Heads of Planning Scotland and consultation with others to determine how they will work in practice, as well as the commitment of parties outwith planning to implement them.

The proposal to establish individual working groups is positive in terms of involving a range of interests. At the same time, it appears to contradict the need to identify interdependencies between recommendations. Hopefully the commitment to liaising across Ministerial portfolios and with stakeholders will ensure any inconsistencies and potential unintended consequences are identified and addressed before becoming embedded in legislation.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the more difficult issues that could make a fundamental difference, some of which lie beyond the system itself, such as how infrastructure is delivered, have not been addressed in any detail in the Government’s response. The publication of a White Paper later in the year should however, put some meat on the bones of these and other issues. It is important in doing that that the Government focuses on how planning can help deliver, rather than merely on planning processes, after all it is only through delivery that we can achieve the outcomes to which we all aspire.