The Report from the Independent Panel (‘Empowering planning to deliver great places’) has been generally welcomed by the Scottish Government.

They agree in principle with many of the recommendations (interesting that it’s ‘many’ rather than ‘most’, but there is a danger of reading too much into these sorts of nuances). There is no mention of any recommendations being rejected.

A clear marker is put down that the focus will now be on how improvements can be delivered. There is no intention to re-open the debate on what should be done, in particular, on third party/equal right of appeal.

Next steps

It will be a busy summer and autumn, with next steps including:

  • 10 key actions will be taken forward as a priority
  • Working with key stakeholders in summer/autumn 2016 to develop detailed proposals
  • A White Paper in Autumn/Winter 2016
  • A Planning Bill in 2017

Immediate actions

The Scottish Government’s 10 key actions generally involve practical measures that can be taken. Developing detailed proposals and preparing the White Paper presumably have similar priority, even if these are not specifically listed as immediate actions. The 10 key actions 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.

This is welcome, but vague. The relevant recommendations mention understanding development viability and expertise in development economics, as well as the progression of a programme of innovative housing delivery.

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.

This is acknowledgment of the Panel’s finding of an urgent need to establish a clearer definition of effective housing land (Recommendation 13). The draft advice was published for consultation in March, and received a substantial amount of criticism.

3. Work with Heads of Planning Scotland to identify how permitted development rights could be extended.

Recommendation 31 noted significant scope for removing uncontroversial minor developments from the system and incentivising low carbon living and digital infrastructure. Lessons can be learned from the substantial changes in England in recent years, especially from permitted changes of use. However, previous experience is that it will take a few years before any new permitted development rights are introduced.

4. Work with Heads of Planning Scotland and COSLA to explore potential to establish shared services.

Shared services has been a discussion point for local authorities for many years. Is there an appetite amongst Heads of Planning to make something happen, and will that be supported by the local authority Chief Executives and councillors?

5. Take forward pilot Simplified Planning Zones for housing.

Pilots are a useful way to gain experience and encourage others. This is only a partial implementation of Recommendation 14, which was not restricted to housing, and proposed rebranding the SPZ concept and evolving it into a more flexible zoning mechanism.

6. Consult on enhanced fees to ensure that planning authorities are better resourced.

Many developers are open to higher application fees, but as Recommendation 37 notes, linked with improved performance by planning authorities.

7. Work with the high level group on performance to look for alternative methods of improving performance.

Welcome but vague. External “intervention” will always be controversial so we can anticipate some resistance in this area.

8. Continue our commitment to authorities to not implement the penalty clause until further work on performance improvement has been considered.

Not an action as such, but planning authorities will be reassured that discussions on performance improvement can continue without the threat of the penalty clause being invoked.

9. Confirm that, in line with the panel’s recommendation, we do not intend to introduce a third party or equal right of appeal. We 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.

This picks up the panel’s theme of early engagement (Recommendation 43), to promote collaboration rather than conflict.

10. Work with Heads of Planning Scotland to finalise national guidance on minimum requirements for validation.

Uncertainties about validation requirements can cause delays, generally minor, but frustrating for applicants keen to make progress.

Other immediate actions

Alex Neil introduced a system of recalling housing appeals, so that the decision was made by the Scottish Ministers, not the DPEA reporters.

This recall system has been withdrawn. This is very welcome, as the recalls added two to three months to the process, and the Ministers’ intervention made no difference to the outcome. The only exception was the Cammo site, in which the Ministers refused permission, contrary to the reporter’s recommendation, so the recall actually worsened the housing land supply position.

Detailed proposals

The Scottish Government will work with key stakeholders over summer/autumn 2016 to develop more detailed proposals, exploring practicalities of implementation and interdependencies.

This includes appointing an IT task force. As the Panel noted, it is important to start coordinated investment in technology to ensure the planning system is responsive to future advances (Recommendation 10). Planning portals are not user-friendly, even for planning professionals who know what they are looking for.

White Paper/Planning Bill

A White Paper is to be produced in autumn/winter 2016. It will seek views on the proposals to be included in a Planning Bill to be brought forward in 2017.

At this early stage the Scottish Government only give a very general indication of the likely scope of the White Paper, which broadly duplicates the six outcomes identified by the Panel, with the addition of achieving a digitally transformed planning system.

Comment

This is when the hard work starts for the Scottish Government and the key stakeholders. The timescales are challenging, especially for preparing detailed proposals for the White Paper. There will be difficult decisions about prioritisation of resource/effort.

There are already reasonably detailed proposals from the Panel for changes to development planning; hopefully the White Paper will also address the development management system.

It will be interesting to see whether the Panel’s recommendations relating to infrastructure, such as the creation of a national or regional infrastructure levy, are included in the White Paper, or will require longer for consideration.